I think it was suspicious ceiling-dweller Uncle Albert who said “I love to laugh”. Or rather he sang it, over and over again, in order to lure children up into the rafters for ‘tea’. But Mary Poppins was right to be disapproving of his gushing joviality, because life isn’t all laughs, and living as if it is will leave you bobbing weightless and alone, with only a skylight and the corpses of your victims for company.
Conversely, critics who have seen The Dark Knight Rises ahead of its release this weekend have not been crippled by mirth. Some have instead complained that Christopher Nolan’s trilogy-capping superhero movie is a little bit too serious. But when the world is falling apart around our spiky-eared saviour, is there really time for jokes?
For many years, comic book movies and action films in general have been trivialising violence through the liberal use of quips. From Lethal Weapon 2’s “It’s just been revoked!” to Commando’s “Let off some steam, Bennet!” adding a little pun to punctuate one human murdering another has become completely acceptable and also totally hilarious. In fact Bruce Willis’ hard-boiled P.I. actively parodies this trope at the end of The Last Boy Scout, courtesy of Shane Black’s script.
But would something like Philadelphia have been any better if, for example, Tom Hanks’ character had been really flippant about dying from AIDS? Obviously not. But it shows that sometimes treating a subject seriously is neither critically nor commercially a bad thing.
Batman in particular is a character who needs to behave seriously and operate in a sober environment. The campy 1960s TV version is well loved, but only because it is one big joke. Then in the 1990s when Joel Schumacher sucked the darkness out of Tim Burton’s reimagining of the caped crusader he ended up with two movies that just sucked.
Of course the real issue here is not whether or not films should feature serious and light elements, but whether there needs to be a balance at all. It’s not like The Dark Knight’s inclusion of a The Joker turned it into a laugh-a-minute slapstick fest. In fact the depravity of Heath Ledger’s character left little room for whimsy or respite, which was a real strength of the movie.
I admire films that have the guts to be unrepentantly stoic or unpleasant, which is a quality that made Drive one of the best films of last year. It looks like The Dark Knight Rises might be able to repeat the trick in 2012. And for the record, while at the start I heavily implied that excessive laughter indicates that you are a paedophile, this is not scientifically provable.