Retrospective Movie Review: Serenity
Ten Years Later
By Ben Gruchow
September 29, 2015
It would be delightful if the film, with its modest audience reception not helped by some truly misguided marketing choices (to watch either of the two main trailers that ran in 2005 is to witness what appears to be a SyFy Original somehow escaping to the multiplex, and the movie’s poster is an object lesson in how to create a busy visual space without communicating anything useful) ended up being influential to the next wave of genre cinema. This is something that is very subjective and difficult to support, and almost impossible to prove conclusively.
The movie’s reputation is outsized for its theatrical and home-media sales figures, though, and you can argue that - for example - a line can be drawn from what Serenity did to the archetype of the alpha-male lead (Captain Mal Reynolds, played by Nathan Fillion in the role that unambiguously propelled him to any kind of name recognition). It did nothing more or less than deflate the layer of self-seriousness around the characterization. There will never be, I think, a reading of the line, “Do you want to run this [insert environment here]?” that fully succeeds as challenge again, owing to the explicitly weak follow-up, “Well…you can’t.”
The incidence of this kind of deflation and undercutting of the archetype saw a considerable increase over the following several years. What Robert Downey Jr. does with Tony Stark in 2008’s Iron Man, for example, is really just an Earthbound present-day version of Malcolm Reynolds. Peter Berg’s Hancock, with its characterization of a traditional superhero compromised by alcoholism and cynicism, causing copious amounts of property damage with every heroic action taken, played for levity and yet mixed with an attempt at genuine crisis and danger, holds a much balder (though less successful) similarity to what Whedon did with the archetype years earlier.
The dramatic and thriller elements of Serenity are solid, although some moments in the early going are a little forced (a panicked whisper by the character of River in an early sequence is the only time in memory that I can recall Summer Glau whiffing on a moment dependent on her ability to sell it). The comedic elements and timing, though, are bulletproof or close to it.
You can find the clearest similarity with mixing levity and danger in what is arguably the biggest current franchise in theaters: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That series is starting to run a little flat by this point, but it’s also been victim to endlessly raising the stakes, and even the most novel formula is going to become repetitive when the same rhythm is taken too many times. The knowing and snarky nature of most of them (the Iron Man films, Guardians of the Galaxy, and - of course - the Avengers films stand out in this regard) is something that’s not beholden to the comic universe they come from, even the Ultimate universe.
Since Marvel is and always has played it fairly safe with pushing boundaries, you start to look for inspirations that they took the hint from. In looking for sources of that tone, there aren’t many among its contemporaries. Marvel itself isn’t a good source; its earlier ventures were mostly hard-edged and violent (Blade and its sequel, The Punisher) or possessed of a sense of humor that was deliberately blunt and loud (the first two Spider-Man films; both of these were largely products of their time and cultural temperament).