If you had a good time at the movies this year, you’re not alone. The blockbuster season had critically and commercially successful options across nearly every genre. Marvel, Star Wars, Transformers, and 80’s video game throwbacks all had a solid rotation at the multiplex and they were all a blast for audiences. There was a trend of lightheartedness and less violence that showed through almost each one. That may change soon though.
The Lighter Side of Things
No one dies in Incredibles 2. By itself this isn’t remarkable — most kid’s movies aren’t exactly bloodbaths. Outside of the occasional parent death used to spark the emotional journey of the young princess/lion/deer/dinosaur, almost everyone lives happily ever after. What makes the nonexistent body count of Incredibles 2 interesting is that The Incredibles was a fairly violent little action picture.
Sure it was the bloodless, PG-rated kinda of violence that hearkened back to 80’s cartoons like GI Joe and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but the henchmen got stabbed, exploded, and stomped on. There was just no way those guys made it. They were done for. When it comes time to deal with arch-enemy Syndrome in The Incredibles, he gets a car thrown at him, sucked through a plane’s jet engine, and then the plane explodes. Syndrome doesn’t recover in a hospital. They vaporized him.
Incredibles 2 took a different approach. Nobody comes close to that same sort of fate, collateral damage in the biggest set-pieces is minimal, and the day is ultimately saved with very little loss of life or limb. And it was not the only blockbuster film to take this sort of approach. Several of the biggest blockbusters of 2018 followed suit.
Black Panther was as big and explosive as any Marvel movie, but the stakes were, by comic book movie standards, relatively low. The central conflict of the film was essentially a political one. Instead of the usual comic book stakes of “beat the bad guy or the world ends”, the fundamental nature of the bad guy’s scheme was to claim governmental power and eliminate his homeland’s isolationist policies. Where’s the violence in that? Sure, the main villain Killmonger wasn’t exactly in the peace-generating business, but he also wasn’t trying to build a robot army to become the ultimate dictator or a secret Nazi spy trying to command super-weapons that would allow him to eliminate any perceived threat via flying death machine. Furthermore, rather than the spectacular death reserved for most Marvel baddies, he’s beaten in a fight, given the opportunity to heal, and chooses not to. He’s not killed by the hero—he prefers to die on his own.
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom was another blockbuster that took the less-violence route. This entry to the bajillion-dollar dino franchise abandons some of the wanton cruelty of its predecessor, Jurassic World. Instead of taking place in a theme park where all the innocent tourists are fair game for food, it takes place on an island where everyone present (except the good guys) is an evil soldier just asking to get eaten and in a country estate where everyone is an evil one-percenter, super asking to get eaten. In Jurassic World, we’re forced to watch the kid’s uber-nice nanny get brutally thrown around by pterodactyls like a rag doll before getting fed to a megashark—for almost an entire minute. In Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, we have the Russian oligarch trying to buy bioweapons getting dinosaur’d to death. Are both scenes violent? Of course—but one is wholly easier to watch than the other.
Even though all these movies had plenty of whiz-bang explosions and fight scenes, and even though more than one of them featured someone unlikable meeting an untimely end, the tone was softer. These movies had violence, but not the dark and grim violence we saw in previous years. 2018’s blockbusters were feel-good entertainment at their very core, and if their predecessors were popcorn flicks, these were cotton candy films. But now we’re in 2019 and someone must have snapped their fingers, because it looks like things are about to get very dark, very soon.
Hello Darkness My Old Friend
If 2018 had a bunch of major blockbusters going out of their way to have a good time all else, 2019 appears to be gearing up to remind us that sometimes things hurt.
Compare the Avengers: Endgame trailer to the Avengers: Infinity War trailer, or any other Marvel trailer from the past few years for that matter, and it’s a whole different level of grim. Yes, Age of Ultron had some creepy horror overtones, and The Winter Soldier billed itself as a serious spy thriller, but in the usual Marvel formula, a message of hope plays over the dramatic music while some muscly, costumed character does their best to beat up a threatening bad guy.
Avengers: Endgame features Hulk and Captain America crying while Iron Man records a final love letter to a woman he doesn’t think will ever hear it. The tone of the footage is “half our friends are dead and there isn’t anything we can do about it.” That’s not usually the way superhero movies are billed.
Oddly enough though, Endgame isn’t even the most seemingly depressing or grim of the upcoming Marvel-related films. That credit belongs to the horror-centric The New Mutants. 20th Century Fox’s Marvel-related property is about, whelp, adolescent mutants being tortured in a mental health facility. Not really the standard setup for summer costumed vigilante fare is it? The trailer does nothing to hide any of this either. Marvel properties have moved through diverse genres with the movie adaptations of themselves. Whether it’s the space-opera buddy comedy Thor: Ragnarok or the Cold War-style thriller of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but The New Mutants is brave, risky, and unexplored territory. There have been relatively few misses in the Marvel canon, and there’s no reason that horror can’t work as well, but this is an extremely dark turn.
Also on the Marvel list: Dark Phoenix. The movie’s trailer tees this thing up as a fairly dark story, opening to a bleak cover of The Door’s “The End” while Professor X mutters about the effects of mental illness. It’s a pretty stark contrast to the funny, 1960’s inspired goofiness of X-Men: First Class, or even the sci-fi weirdness of Days of Future Past and Apocalypse. While Logan approached the X-Men with a more mature and gritty eye, it did so as an R-rated stand-alone, not as part of the franchise proper.
The brutal hits keep coming with other major studio releases. Star Wars: Episode IX will surely be a pretty dark installment considering it will likely explore the death of arguably it’s most beloved character. The first major live-action Pokemon movie looks to be a science-fiction neo-noir a la Blade Runner where Pikachu is a hat-wearing gumshoe detective on the dark and rain-soaked streets of some city. Sure, he cracks wise a lot, but is a gritty, detective noir really what anyone expected from Pokemon? There’s also the live-action Dumbo and a live-action Lion King. Don’t forget: the former is mostly about a baby elephant made miserable by his circus captors and the latter is a take on “Hamlet”, regicide and all.
Also, Dumbo will be directed by Tim Burton. Tim Burton who directed this.
What Are We In For?
There will be plenty of fun, fluffy, blockbusters in 2019. There is always a space for good, easy entertainment. But where blockbusters of 2018 seemed to lean into that easygoing mood (up to, and to some extent including, the moment when some fingers got snapped), 2019 is veering hard in the opposite direction. We took a year off from being challenged by our popular entertainment. Even if some of the movies were masterfully made, or uniquely culturally important, very few of them made us emotionally grapple with the consequences of the action. Our year off appears to be over. This year’s big releases are going to be a little heavier and a whole lot darker.