Why so serious? The death of comic relief in film

We used to go to blockbusters to be thrilled and to giggle. But modern Hollywood seems to have lost its sense of humour, with depressing YA adaptations and morose superheroes dominating our movie screens. We mourn the death of the comic relief.

Feature by John Stansfield | 01 Apr 2016

Back in the 1980s, when all the best movies were made, you could always be certain that no matter how bleak proceedings got on our cinema screens, or how ridiculous, there would always be a ‘comic relief’ character on hand to lighten the mood – or, at the very least, to let the audience know that it’s OK to laugh during tough times. If it wasn’t Bill Paxton’s Hudson in Aliens or Shane Black’s Hawkins in Predator, then the heroes themselves would be cracking wise, be it John McClane in an air vent or Indiana Jones getting drunk with a monkey. These moments of lightness helped cinema perform one of its original functions: to help us escape our humdrum lives for a few hours. But Hollywood seems to have lost its funny bone. 

The darkness of Harry Potter

It happened around about the time the fifth Harry Potter was due to be released. There was a buzzword flying around at every press junket, like it had been drilled into the minds of the actors both young and old: darker. 'Oh, this one is definitely much darker' and 'this is the darkest one yet,' as if the muddy colour scheme and heavy subject matter was shorthand for ‘good’. This culminated, and was perhaps symbolised, in the death of house elf Dobby, one of the series' most beloved comic relief characters, in the final part of the final movie (splitting films into two parts is a gripe for another day).

Though he had hardly featured since the much brighter, and shall we say magical, second film, Dobby's demise was still a tough one to take. Watching the light in those giant eyes going out marked The Deathly Hallows Part II as a film that would pull no punches. JK (short for ‘Just Killing’, it seems) Rowling is obviously to blame for this plot device but as a scene in a movie it’s pretty indicative of the ‘darkness’ that had enveloped this once whimsical cinematic world.

The only point of levity in a terribly dour and overlong two-part saga comes when Hermione and Harry have a bit of a dance to remember better times, but this only serves as a reason for Ron to discover their tryst and storm out in a flurry of righteous teen jealousy. Since these films decided to exchange fun for a sense of dread and foreboding (they even kill off one of those twins!) movie producers were quick to find the next adaptation into which they could grind their jackbooted heels.

So long Dobby

Po-faced murderous teens: The Hunger Games

Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series centres around the murdering of children for a weary nation’s entertainment. It’s a ludicrous concept that has been done better elsewhere (Battle Royale and The Running Man to name but two), but at least its film adaptations have reason to be po-faced. Unfortunately, so stern does its face turn that you worry the whole thing might implode under the weight of star Jennifer Lawrence’s scowl. Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman and Elizabeth Banks’ Effie Trinket start out as hilarious futuristic caricatures of the dystopia’s cruel excesses, but as the quartet of films drag on the former becomes a dead eyed puppet for state control, and the clothes of the latter get more utilitarian as her spirit is crushed under the weight of revolution.

This is not to say that weighty issues shouldn’t be discussed and dissected in films aimed at teens: there’s no need to coddle an audience and sometimes the dark undertones of the screen are there to reflect our own messed-up world, something that shouldn’t be shied away from. But dear God, someone could at least crack a smile...?

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The Hunger Games heralded a swathe of pale imitators, such as The Maze Runner series (once again inexplicably killing off teens), The Divergent series, and The Mortal Instruments (thankfully axed after the first outing), that traded in light for dark, never quite terrifying viewers but just lulling them into a tomb of depressing imagery and brutalist shades of grey.

Perhaps the movie industry has started pandering too much to the hormonal teens. After all, they're about the only ones still willing to shell out a tenner to go to the flicks. Being told that adults are making the world awful is like shooting fish in a barrel for the pubescent masses, though perhaps they ought to start thinking about where the money came from to buy their tickets. Society seems so unfair for those in their teenage years, so why shouldn’t they see that in the reflection of the silver screen?

J-Law having a bad day in Catching Fire

Batman v Superman: Dark v darker

Which brings us to the big one. The one they’ve all been waiting for. The fumble in the jungle! The filler in Manilla! Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Reviews have hardly been kind, with the majority of critics griping that this search for ‘dark’ has turned the comic book film into a black hole devoid of all lightness, both in tone and touch. Comic book junkie Kevin Smith sharply cited a lack of heart as being chief among the film's myriad problems. Even if you haven't seen Batman v Superman yet, you'll likely have seen its Batman-free predecessor Man of Steel, and so know exactly what to expect: a turgid shit of a film dressed in a mucky superhero outfit.

Batman is, by definition, dark. He is, after all, a creature of the night – that’s his thing. Plus, his parents were murdered in front of his very eyes. Let's give the guy a pass to be brooding (and the Lego Movie skewed this brilliantly). Superman, on the other hand, really doesn’t have too much to complain about. Yes, he may have lost his parents at an early age, but he went on to lived the American dream with his adoptive Earth parents. He’s an alien but he’s also a super-man. This battle should have been dark v light, not dark v darker.

The commonly perceived notion is that this overbearing darkness has given substance to these most ridiculous of concepts, be it a wizarding world, a child-murdering game show or this superhero slugfest. It's more like the Emperor's new clothes, however: we treat these films like they're worthy simply because they're set at night. But if you look close enough, you can see through the gloom that Zack Snyder has his wanger out and he’s urinating on your fantasies. He's muddying dreams and placing them in a supposed realism that makes the whole prospect even more unbearable. No jokes, no smirks: this is a serious business, guys, and it demands respect.

Hopefully there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Irreverent comic book joke-fest Deadpool recently became the highest grossing R-rated movie ever, and it's a film that's around 90% comic relief. It seems people have not forgotten how to laugh while they’re watching society explode, and if we lose our sense of humour then what are we to become but the soulless automatons depicted in recent Hollywood outpourings? With terrorist attacks, school shootings and the inevitable Trump takeover, the world needs comic relief. Now more than ever.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is in cinemas now