‘Mamma Mia’! vs. ‘The Dark Knight’: Great Moments in “Chick Flick” Counterprogramming

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This week, as you might expect, Flavorwire is devoting extensive coverage to the biggest and most anticipated movie of the year: Sisters, the new big-screen comedy starring Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Follow our coverage here.

In the summer of 2008, I dutifully trotted off to see Batman: The Dark Knight on opening night. I had high hopes, having really enjoyed Batman Begins — but more than that, it was a summer in New York City and the theater would be pleasantly cool and dark. Yet the night, and the knight, proved a bit too dark for me. Nearly three hours later, I emerged from the theater exhausted and disappointed. Reader, I hated it. Well, perhaps hated was a strong word. I admired the performances, of course, and was stunned by the effects. I liked parts of it and was often at the edge of my seat. But overall, I found the film to be exactly what I don’t enjoy in an action or superhero flick: drawn-out, nihilistic, bloated and dispiriting.

In the carpeted hallways of the multiplex, as we streamed out, I found myself feeling like I’d just been socked in the face with a bat-glove multiple times. Then I noticed another theater emptying out — and the fans looked a bit different. They were all women, out with groups of friends, and they all appeared extremely really happy and satisfied, like their collective margarita night had been a great success. Oh, how I suddenly envied them. As it turned out, they were emerging out of an opening night screening of Mamma Mia!, the star-studded musical adaptation that was the weekend’s major counter-programming to the Batman behemoth — just as Sisters stands alone this forthcoming week in the massive shadow of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Later that weekend, at a party, my sister-in-law reporrted that she’d seen Mamma Mia! instead of The Dark Knight and that it was absolutely a must-see, preferably in an altered state of consciousness. I couldn’t really understand the enthusiasm but I needed to gargle Gotham out of my system, so I was in. Making sure I wasn’t entirely sober, I betook myself to the theater soon thereafter, with no real idea that I was about to see Pierce Brosnan attempt to carry a tune.

I’m something of a musical theater snob, a sassy Rodgers and Hammerstein girl in a saccharine Andrew Lloyd Webber world. In fact, when Mamma Mia! was the biggest thing in London, my best friend Julia and I, traveling abroad by ourselves for the first time, were sipping lagers in that city’s theater district near and snobbishly making fun of anyone who would actually go to an ABBA jukebox musical. How much things had changed in seven mere years of adulthood or so. Now I was sitting in a theater, not sober at all, and cringing at the first heartfelt musical notes, trying to find the magic in it. “Just be patient, it gets good,” my sister-in-law— back for a second theatrical viewing of what would be a handful— assured us.

As promised, Meryl Streep came onscreen and the musical numbers started to get wackier and wackier. There were people dancing in flippers on the beach. There were May-December relationships celebrated and cast off through song. Christine Baranski slayed in a sarong, and Meryl Streep sang in a toilet song. I was soon laughing so hard the tears came — and when Streep, in overalls, I should note, led an entire group of Greek villagers to the water, singing “Dancing Queen,” and they all jumped in for no discernible reason except they could, I was one-hundred percent invested. I wasn’t entirely sure if the film itself was in on the joke, but at a certain point I didn’t care.

It was like watching a bunch of our most dignified thespians go on holiday, drink way too many shots of ouzo, and start play-acting together, having been told by their equally drunken crew that everything they’re doing is simply divine. As A.O. Scott wrote at the time: “The impression left by the old pros who make up most of the cast is that they have nothing to be ashamed of and nothing to prove, and that worrying about dignity is for newbies and amateurs.”

There’s something to be said for that lack of dignity, particularly when contrasted to the dire-feeling pomp of Christopher Nolan’s directorial attempts. And Dana Stevens hit at the message beneath the messiness of the film, writing: “It posits a transgenerational, pansexual paradise that’s so deeply queer that when one of the characters comes out of the closet late in the movie, the revelation seems superfluous. We’ve just spent the last 90 minutes singing ABBA while line-dancing on docks in snorkeling flippers, and you’re telling us you’re gay? Big whoop.” To me, the campy, amateurish tone felt subversive, too, and I wasn’t alone. In the end, Mamma Mia! flaws and all, smashed worldwide box office records, gaining steam from word-of-mouth and repeat viewings.

Today, I see traces of that film’s aethetic in female-gaze type movies like the Magic Mike and Pitch Perfect franchises, which similarly put a lot of faith in the power of choreography and music to cover up gaping plot holes. So as Sisters goes up against Star Wars, it’s appropriate even for franchise fans to cheer this littler engine onwards.

Of course, women like action superhero movies as much as men do, especially with the recent trend towards actually having actually good female characters kick ass. Yet you don’t have to despise a given season’s big blockbuster film to appreciate the existence of counter-programming. It simply takes an appreciation of different aesthetics, and different definitions for what makes a worthy spectacle.