Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Thor, a comic book adventure, is kid-friendly? You speak madness! Just how 'dark and gritty' do we want our fantasy pictures, anyway?

There was talk last week of Paramount moving its all-media press screenings for Thor in several cities to a this Saturday at 10am. The reason was pretty simple: in research and arguably in practice (the film has been open in Australia for nearly two weeks), the big-budget comic book adventure film was playing pretty well to surprisingly young audiences. I don't know if this came to pass anywhere (I'm seeing the film on Tuesday the 3rd), but it brings to mind an interesting observation. There was a certain amount of surprise when it was revealed in one review or another just how kid-friendly the larger-than-life action picture turned out to be. I confess that I've been hard on the film based on the footage we had thus far seen, and it frankly never occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, this 31-year old father of one (with another on the way) might not be the intended audience for Kenneth Branagh's Thor.

It's no secret that the various comic book/action figure epics are marketed towards a dual audience. It's a constant double-play, aiming at audiences young and old, as well as general moviegoer versus hardcore fan. And since Bryan Singer revived the genre eleven years ago by taking the world of X-Men very very seriously, the modus operandi for big-budget fantasy films has been to go as dark, violent, and 'real' as you can justify. The irony of course is that the proceeding decade has been dominated by young-adult or outright grownup fanboys, still stung by the aftertaste of Joel Schumacher's Batman & Robin, demanding that their big-budget comic book adaptations and action figure-based action films be pitched to their level. Thus we get a Fantastic Four series that gets slammed for, among other reasons, being too kid friendly and campy. We get promises of a darker, gritter GI Joe sequel after the first film was slammed for (again, among other things) being too much brightly-colored larger-than-life fun? We get promises from Michael Bay that Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon will be darker and more violent than the campier first two films. I wanted such darkness and monster-movie carnage from the second film and was initially intrigued by Bay's promises this time around. But is that really what we need?

Do we want a Transformers picture that is violent and bleak enough that parents have to question whether or not they can take their younger kids to a film based on a series of 1980s action figures? Do we want a GI Joe film that basically plays out like The Kingdom on steroids? Yes, I know, I grew up on the Burton/Schumacher Batman series, a franchise whose Burton-helmed installments took enormous lumps for their violence and sexual kinkiness. And I distinctly remember rolling my eyes back in 1991 at all the reviews that attacked Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves for being too bloody and violent. So, at the risk of becoming one of those annoying parents who changes how he sees the world after having kids, I suppose I simply believe that there needs to be a happy medium. And in this current 'everything must be dark and uber-serious' climate, where even Teen Wolf is being remade as a morose horror drama, we need to be reminded of something.

We were once kids ourselves. We discovered these properties as youngsters because the available media avenues were, if not geared toward kids, appropriate for them. Most of us discovered the X-Men thanks to that 1990s Fox cartoon or the Konami arcade game. We discovered the DC Comics universe through the Super Powers cartoon and action figures and then through the DC Animated Universe that began through Batman: the Animated Series. We discovered Superman from watching the kid-friendly films, from Lois and Clark: the New Adventures of Superman, and/or from Smallville. But those properties, while often PG-13 or TV-14, were family-friendly enough for our parents to allow us to discover those worlds. Those TV shows and films were gateway drugs. They were our introduction to the vast world of DC and Marvel comics and the pleasures that they contained. But had those films or TV shows been pitched to appeal to the hardened and cynical thirty-year old, with the adult content and violence that comes with that, do you think any of our parents would have let us watch them at a young age?

We don't like to admit it, but George Lucas knew exactly what he was doing twelve years ago. While the overgrown original fans carped about the kid-friendly tone and juvenile antics of The Phantom Menace, Lucas just sat back as that PG-rated adventure hooked an entirely new generation of youngsters on the Star Wars mythology. And nine years after that, he did it all over again, crafting an animated television show that hooked the generation after that into the Star Wars franchise. Star Wars turns 35-years old next year, and it's the one wholly original film franchise that has never died, never gone out of style, and never become uncool to the core fanbase of youngsters. If Lucas had given the hardcore fans what they wanted back in 1999, a dark and gritty Phantom Menace with Darth Maul slaughtering innocents left and right and/or a relentlessly bleak Attack of the Clones with a psychotic Anakin Skywalker raping Padme to conceive Luke and Lea, do you really think kids would still be playing Star Wars games on the playground this very day?

There can be a happy medium when the content calls for it. Chris Nolan's Batman Beginsolds (even The Dark Knight was very careful about its onscreen violence). The first X-Men film opened with a grim concentration camp prologue but maintained a single-digit body count throughout the narrative. Fantastic Four told a kid-friendly story of recognizable family dysfunction that just enough shots of Dr. Doom blowing holes in people's chests and faces to make the kids feel like they were getting away with something. And Kenneth Branagh's Thor seems to recognize that a story about Norse gods beating the hell out of each other with giant hammers might be something that kids would enjoy more than adults.

Point being, these properties will only get new fans if they are enjoyed and embraced by the younger audience. And they will only be enjoyed and embraced by the younger audience if their parents let them see these movies in the first place. And that may not happen if something like Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon, a film based on action figures, is not pitched to the young, but merely to the young at heart. Just because it's what I want to see in such a movie doesn't mean its what I deserve to see. After all, I'm a grownup. I probably shouldn't be all that interested in Transformers 3 at all, right?

Scott Mendelson


rick said...

Done well, I think "dark and gritty" is just a way to make fantasy universes have inheirent consequences. Instead of just taking for granted that there are superheoes, alien robots, elves etc. etc. walking around, I think it's a good way to show what the actual effects of their existence would be.

tv companies said...

People says that kids are violent becouse they play bloody videogames and watch too much TV. But, as I know, Nazis didn't used to watch TV, Al Qaeda don't watch "The A-Team", although they have the TV on, they don't understand it!

tv companies said...

People says that kids are violent becouse they play bloody videogames and watch too much TV. But, as I know, Nazis didn't used to watch TV, Al Qaeda don't watch "The A-Team", although they have the TV on, they don't understand it!

where else to alert you? said...

Typo: "..a duel audience" Unless it's an audience with a flair for settling scores in an old fashion way perhaps.

Scott Mendelson said...

I'm tempted to leave that as is, because it reads better as you describe it. Thanks though.


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