One of the things both the MCU and the DCEU have done that is unusual is to set movies in the past without making them Serious Dramatic Movies. “Unusual,” not “unique,” but still. Most of the time, if a movie is set in the past—with one or two exceptions—we’re talking Serious Prestige Picture. The 1980s seem exempt from this phenomenon, and of course the entire genre of the Western, but for some reason, we have a hard time thinking of period pieces as just being a choice for when to set a movie because you think it would be fun to set a movie then.
I’m actually proposing that we wildly reconsider our stance on this. Movies like To Be or Not To Be should be enough to convince people that no time is exempt from playing with time and genre. And, okay, let’s say you don’t feel up to a Holocaust comedy; that’s fair. And I do think it would be hard to do one well. But a World War II comedy? Films actually from the era prove easily that there’s nothing wrong with that. But once we got a few years away from the era, the comedy seems to have dried up.
Many eras would be easy places to set a mystery. Novelists have taken full advantage of this; there are mystery novels set in all kinds of times and places, and indeed I’m particularly fond of a pair of mystery novels I have that are fantasy, because mysteries are always among us. The Brother Cadfael novels are set in the chaos of England in the era of Empress Maud, the first English Civil War, and that’s a great setting. There are mysteries in the Court of Elizabeth I, in feudal Japan, in ancient Rome. Pick an era, and someone has doubtless written a mystery novel set in it. But mostly, they haven’t been filmed then. Even the classic Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies weren’t made as period pieces.
Romantic comedy is probably harder; you have to pick a time and place and class where your lovers don’t have to worry about arranged marriages or what have you. But there are plenty of those, if you’re willing to go digging, and I don’t insist on going back even more than a few decades. Why not make a romantic comedy set in the ’20s? You get to do all the interesting visuals of The Great Gatsby without the heavy symbolism and the misunderstood themes. Make a romantic pair that it would actually be worth emulating instead of one marked by tragedy and lies!
Even having Captain Marvel in the ’90s was unusual. Think about that. A time that’s clearly within the lifetime of almost everyone involved in the project—one of the cast members got an Oscar nomination around the time the movie’s set, for heaven’s sake—and yet hardly any movies have been set then since then, except biopics. We can use movies to make any time and place we want, and that keeps getting easier. But somehow, this is one of the places we’ve never taken full advantage of what we have. It’s weird, isn’t it?