Saturday, May 6, 2017

On Jokes in Superhero Movies

A taxonomy of jokes in superhero movies and television shows:

1. Supposed inside jokes meant for people with cursory knowledge of the superheroes' origins in comics and/or comics history in general.
In The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Marc Webb, 2014), Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) tells Aunt May (Sally Field) that no one has gotten a decent pay for freelance photography since 1962. Nineteen sixty-two is the year that Spider-Man first appeared in Amazing Fantasy #15. This joke functions to flatter comics readers, remind them that they are smarter than the people in the theater who do not read comics. 
2. References to previous film or animation depictions of superheroes.
In Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi, 2004), a street violinist (Elyse Dinh) plays the theme song from the animated series Spider-Man, which ran from 1967-1970. This is a nostalgic joke. 
3. Jokes about male costumes.
In the first season of The Flash (2014-2015), The Flash (Grant Gustin) says that he's not wearing a leather suit, but rather a polymer fabric that serves a functional purpose. The joke tries to defuse gay panic, while still winkingly admitting to the inherent eroticism of superhero costumes. You can hear similar jokes during interviews with Olympic athletes every four years. 
4. Jokes about female costumes.
In the first season of Supergirl (2015-2016), Supergirl (Melissa Benoist) tries to find a costume that is tasteful and not too revealing. The joke apologizes for the male gaze.  
5. Jokes about navigating the same world the rest of us navigate.
In Captain America: Civil War (Anthony and Joe Russo, 2016), Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) and Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) fight over leg space in a tiny European car. Superheroes! They're just like us! 
6. Jokes about heroes behaving pathetically.
In Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon, 2015), the Avengers take turns trying to pick up Thor's (Chris Hemsworth) hammer in a hold my beer competition. Superheroes! They're just like us! 
7. Fish-out-of-water jokes.
In Thor (Kenneth Branagh, 2011), Thor behaves like a god, swilling beer in the middle of a quiet all-American cafe.  These jokes play to the fantasy of having a friend from another world whom you can teach the ways of your own. 
8. Celebrity cameo appearance humor. 
In Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau, 2010), Bill O'Reilly has a cameo as himself. The superheroes are grounded in our world.
9. Stan Lee appearance humor.
It's mostly about ritual at this point. His appearance Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (James Gunn, 2017) is also a point 1 joke.
10. Calling into question the vanity of superheroes and supervillains.
In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) makes fun of Taserface's (Chris Sullivan) name. Taserface, despite putting on the airs as a great supervillain, is humiliated.  
11. Pop-music jokes.
The soundtrack from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 makes a lot of uncool people feel more cool. 
12. Lovable-jerk jokes.
One-liners from Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) in The Avengers films (2012-2015), Iron Man films (2008-2013), and Captain America: Civil War. Tony Stark is fun on screen. You would punch him in the face in real life and you would be right to. 
13. Judd Apatow-movie humor
In Thor: The Dark World (Alan Taylor, 2013), a poor schmuck named Richard (Chris O'Dowd) just can't compete with the object of his affection's true love, Thor. These jokes often work.
14. Sex jokes.
In The Incredible Hulk (Louis Letterier, 2008), Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) stops himself from having sex with Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) when it becomes clear that he might end up becoming the Hulk. These jokes never go too far. No one ever wonders how bad things could go if a well-endowed Hulk had sex. No one ever thinks about the bedroom possibilities offered by the many characters' abilities. 
15. Out-of-nowhere, hey-that's-good humor
Ben Kingsley's genius performance in Iron Man 3 (Shane Black, 2013); Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) just hitting a computer keyboard in Iron Man 2. These jokes show up once in every 400 minutes of screentime.
The funniest and best superhero movie is Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1992). It either avoids or transcends most of this humor. I dig the light touches in the better X-Men movies (2000-2017). In X-Men (Bryan Singer, 2000), Magneto (Ian McKellen) faces off with the X-Men in the Statue of Liberty. When they threaten to zap him with a lightning bolt, Magneto says, "Oh yes! A bolt of lightning through a copper conductor. I thought you lived in a school."

The movies could be better and smarter, but we don't want them to be.

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