Forget what you've heard, says Diablo Cody: Christian Bale's Batman and Meryl Streep's musical have a lot more in common than ''counterprogramming'' strategies would have you believe
Meryl Streep, Christian Bale, ...
Credit: Peter Mountain; Stephen Vaughan

Diablo Cody: Batman? ABBA? Why choose?

Self-indulgent though it may be, I’d like to begin by addressing a criticism: Recently, a reporter for Variety described my EW column as ”largely thesis-less.” Slander! If you look back on my oeuvre, every one of my columns has a clearly defined main idea. For instance, ”90210 is awesome!” qualifies as a thesis. ”YouTube is awesome!” — that’s totally a thesis. My prose is searing, precise, much like a skin-refining laser wielded by Dr. Robert Rey. It’s as decisive as Tim Gunn making a judgment call about a sloppy hem. It’s as focused and unwavering as an icing tube guided by the steady hand of that Ace of Cakes guy. But enough with the cable-centric metaphors. On with the spew!

I think I might be one of the only people in America, or at least the only person I know, who saw both The Dark Knight and Mamma Mia! on their shared opening weekend. The simultaneous release of these films turned out to be a canny strategy for both Warner Bros. and Universal. The Dark Knight (unsurprisingly) made over $48 million overnight and Mamma Mia! had the biggest opening for any movie musical in history, surpassing even b.o. juggernauts like Xanadu and Grease 2. I imagine the film was also appreciated by a small yet devout group of fetishists who’ve spent years Photoshopping bib overalls onto pictures of Meryl Streep.

Counterprogramming — pitting dissimilar films against each other in the hopes that audiences will be divided — is a high-stakes gambit. Particularly for the romantic comedies that are quietly released opposite the latest megabudget explodo-flick, Marvel adaptation, or apocalypse fantasy. Personally, I consider Titanic the most brilliant example of successful counterprogramming; the film actually countered itself by embedding an epic chick flick within a classic disaster movie. Sentimental types got Jack and Rose flirting in steerage. The rest of us got a dude being killed by a propeller. Genius, right?

Since I like to defy classification, at least as far as market research goes, I decided to see Mamma Mia! and The Dark Knight in rapid succession. Stylistically, these films are jarringly incompatible. The pale, brooding denizens of dim Gotham City are like a photonegative of Mamma‘s blond, tanned revelers on their sparkling Greek isle. Christian Bale‘s inscrutable, rasping antihero is the ideological opposite of Amanda Seyfried‘s saucer-eyed bride. The Dark Knight makes bold, definitive statements about morality and responsibility. Mamma Mia! is — to borrow a distinctive term — largely thesis-less. Shockingly, I loved both films.

NEXT PAGE: ”As the credits rolled, I felt a strong desire to head to the Los Angeles Gun Club and spend the afternoon slaying (paper) bad guys with a Glock.”

The Dark Knight left me adrenalized, stunned, in awe of Heath Ledger‘s craft and Christopher Nolan‘s eye. As the credits rolled, I felt a strong desire to head to the Los Angeles Gun Club and spend the afternoon slaying (paper) bad guys with a Glock. Mamma Mia!, by contrast, made me want to kidnap Dominic Cooper and book a ticket to Santorini. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such diametrically opposed emotions in such a brief filmgoing period, unless you count that time I watched a double feature of Capturing the Friedmans and Meatballs. Total mindfreak!

And yet, The Dark Knight and Mamma Mia! are alike in strange ways. Both have unsettling moments: The former involves Aaron Eckhart‘s bulging eyeball, while Mamma‘s most disturbing scene features Pierce Brosnan singing ”S.O.S.” Both movies have a scene-stealing character in heavy, garish makeup. (Where’s Christine Baranski‘s Oscar buzz?) Both movies have sequences that could best be described as ”flaming.” In a way, you could even say the films are companion pieces. Opposite sides of the same coin, to employ a visual aid from Harvey Dent.

Most importantly, both films are successful in that they’re totally immersive. The respective crowds were riveted for the entire running time; I didn’t see a single audience member bolting for the snack bar or bathed in the telltale glow of a silenced BlackBerry. No one wanted to miss a single rousing production number or emotionally charged Joker moment. Even my long-suffering date enjoyed both movies (though he seemed to vastly prefer one over the other, and I bet you can guess which one that was). Perhaps we should all make a point of defying demographic projections once in a while and checking out that movie we’re not expected to see. Hey, if Pierce Brosnan can make the jump from Bond to ABBA, we can all stand to be more open-minded.

Mamma Mia!
  • Movie
  • 108 minutes