Geiger's Culture Counter: Putting the humor into the hero

Comics used to be silly. As a child I spent my Saturdays watching the imaginative and outlandish animated adventures of the X-Men, Batman and the Teen Titans. If nothing was on the television I was curled up on the bottom bunk flipping through the latest issue of “Ultimate Spider-Man.” They were colorful escapes from the doldrums of school.

Understanding its pulp roots, Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher’s Batman quadrilogy embraced its origins with art deco set design and neon lighting that lifted panels straight out of the comics. Casting comedic actors like Michael Keaton for Batman, Danny DeVito as the Penguin, Jim Carrey as The Riddler blended comedy and drama. Additionally, Jack Nicholson’s Joker, Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze used their campy performances to chew scenery.

Now most critics and fans agree that the ridiculousness of the series is what made it barely watchable mockery of the caped crusader, but at least it was bold and daring.

Then the medium matured in the millennium with Bryan Singer’s “X-Men.” Xavier’s school was still there but it wasn’t exactly a Hogwarts for superheroes. The dark cinematography highlighted the grim stakes of persecution. The trilogy even joked about ditching the trademark yellow tights for the somber black and blue uniforms.

The rogues gallery of Sam Rami’s Spider-Man films continued the theme of elevating cartoons. Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin was twisted and scary while Alfred Molina’s Dr. Octopus added gravitas. Though I was excited for the addition of Venom, the inclusion of the alien symbiote backfired and turned Peter Parker into a brooding teen.  

All had their appropriate one-liners—especially because you can’t have Parker without his signature quips—but the tone wasn’t quite the same as what I would watch on the small screen.

With the casting of Robert Downey Jr. as a snarky Iron Man, the modern Marvel films paved the way for lightheartedness. The first phase of the studio’s new efforts culminated in the downright fun “Avengers” movie. There are too many jokes to name, but the post-credits scene in the shawarma restaurant is arguably one of the universe’s most memorable gags. Joss Whedon’s character-driven comedy was a writing style I could get behind.

This isn’t to say comics and their Hollywood adaptations shouldn’t be serious.

“Watchmen,” which turned the superhero genre on its head by purposefully diverging from happy endings, the Holocaust narrative “Maus” and the space opera “Saga” are seminal classics that deserve their spot in the cannon.

Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy remains my favorite live-action version of Gotham. By going the realistic route grounded in a world without superpowers, it did the “grimdark” motif right. Jokers for generations will always be compared to Heath Ledger’s iconic take and I doubt I’ll picture Alfred and Jim Gordon as Michael Cain and Gary Oldman forever. Without Nolan, Rami and Singer’s portfolio, comics wouldn’t be the powerhouse in media that they are today.

Yet Marvel’s recent films show the trend isn’t rightfully going away soon. “Guardians of the Galaxy” and its sequel aren’t just good for superhero movies, they’re outright good movies. This is because James Gunn knows how to have fun. The color palette alone telegraphs the tonal shift. He created a vibrant scifi aesthetic and paired it with a classic rock and pop soundtrack, making it impossible to not feel like you’re at a party in the theater.

“Thor: Rangarok” tapped into the same flamboyant space environment and the Asgardian was able to let loose. This, too, is because of allowing a comedic director, Taika Waititi, to give their spin on the series. It’s a charming intergalactic Hulk/Thor/Loki buddy flick set to a vibrant synth soundtrack by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh. Kenneth Branagh will always have a place in my heart for his noteworthy Shakespearean adaptations but The Bard’s translation into Norse mythology made the earlier installments fall flat. What we got this month actually made me care about Thor as a character.

Even DC realized they couldn’t ignore it any more. While Zack Synder’s take on the DC universe followed in Nolan’s footsteps with an angsty “Man of Steel,” “Justice League” introduces much needed levity. Barry Allen, like Parker, is known to be comedic but the surprises came from the humor of the other characters. Wonder Woman cracked jokes with her Lasso of Truth and Aquaman held his own instead of being traditionally being a punchline.

Box office performance is still to be determined, but the change in writing style caused a 12 percent increase between ”Batman v. Superman” and “Justice League” on review-aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes. They’re still not the greatest superhero flicks but I rather indulge in mindless entertainment than question my pastime watching an overdramatic bore.

Looking forward, I’m exited for a vacation to “Black Panther’s” Wakanda. The dazzling afrofuturistic architecture oozes optimism and joy. That’s something we could all use.