Over the course of seven years or so in the early 1980s, comics legend Frank Miller essentially coined the term “grim n’ gritty” with his seminal work on Daredevil and Batman, culminating, of course, with what is arguably the most influential and game-changing graphic novel of all time: The Dark Knight Returns. Dystopian hellscapes riddled with violent crime; psychotic villains committing brutal murders; stoic, stubbly faced heroes cloaked in the shadows – these were Miller’s calling cards, and he played them all brilliantly, ushering in a new era of social commentary and traditional superhero deconstruction into the incendiary post-Vietnam Reagan era.
I wonder then, if Frank Miller ever goes to the movies or reads Internet comment threads and winces at what he hath wrought; I wonder how he feels now that he’s seen that visual aesthetic and storytelling philosophy bastardized, misappropriated, co-opted, obsessed over, and—perhaps most worrisome—misapplied to properties and characters the darkness has no business touching, like The Fantastic Four and Superman. (But more on those two later.)
The legacy of Miller and his contemporaries like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman spread like ink from a knocked over well and permeated genre cinema and television, from the Gothic neo-noir of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, to the gloomy alt-rock atmosphere of The Crow, and on into the new Millennium with films like the Blade trilogy, Underworld, the Matrix, Resident Evil, Bryan Singer’s early X-Men movies and the current gold standard in “serious” superhero films, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. Thanks to their influence, there’s a prevailing attitude now among a huge swath of fandom and geek culture—an attitude that Hollywood has clearly latched onto—that “if it ain’t grim and gritty, it ain’t good.”
“Realistic” and “Grounded” are the new cinematic buzzwords when it comes to adapting America’s cape-and-tights clad icons. Words like lightheartedness, humor, adventure, fantasy, optimism, idealism, hope, inspiration, and righteousness are now taboo; they have no place in the “real” world. There will be no cracking jokes or saving innocents or any hokey, old-timey values like virtue and decency in this realm of grime and brooding and the ol’ ultra-violence, thank you very much.
One only has to look at the current crop of geek media dominating the zeitgeist like The Walking Dead, Dredd, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Game Of Thrones, Arrow, The first Amazing Spider-Man movie, Man Of Steel, and others to get a sense of how much a large percentage of fandom loves to be chained down in the dust. Despite the presence of dragons or spaceships or women dressed as cats, it’s the promise of grimy alleys, muted color palettes, brutal violence, gratuitous gore, and grimacing dispensers of justice that lures them into a world of staring and looming and killing and brooding; a world of moral ambiguity where the lines between good and evil and blurred and all your left with are characters trying to survive the savagery of, well, reality.
So where does this current infatuation with all things ashen and grey come from? Why are heightened realities and colorful superhero adventures frowned upon? Why do we want the God-like figures we once looked upon in awe yanked from the sky and raked through the muck we sludge through in our everyday lives? I suspect some of it is a reflection of the times—even Marvel Studios’ bright and spectacle-driven universe has touched upon our post-911/post-Boston Marathon bombing/Post-school and movie theater shootings/post Bush-era/present-day surveillance and drone warfare paranoia malaise—but much of it is insecurity and sense of ownership.
There is a residual longing for legitimacy among fans that goes back to the trauma dealt out by the 1960s Batman TV show. The Adam West vehicle was an exercise in campiness, tongue-in-cheek comedy, and pop art craziness – and it took decades to wash away the “Biff! Bam! Pow! Comics are silly and for kids!” stigma associated with it. Yet for some, it seems it wasn’t enough to have Joe sixpack forget about Adam West doing the Batusi in board shorts and respect the character enough to make The Dark Knight the fourth highest-grossing movie in history. Killing ’60s Batman—and to some extent, the Reeve Superman films and pretty much any Batman movie directed by Joel Schumacher—simply didn’t suffice. Any and all traces of camp and silliness needed to be burned, buried, and exorcised for all eternity; and how did they accomplish this? They demanded movies, TV shows, video games, books, and comics to go deeper into the blackness. And so they did.
The tragedy of this obsession with all things grim, gritty, and the current cringeworthy adjective, grounded, is that Hollywood directors and producers have noticed in a big way, and view this dark aesthetic as a quick and easy repair job for previously unsuccessful IPs they control, regardless if the approach is utterly tone-deaf and inappropriate for the property. Take The CW Network’s Arrow, for instance. The higher ups wanted to capitalize on the teen/sci-fi void left by Smallville and Buffy, so they took a character with canary yellow Three Musketeers facial hair and penchant for espousing liberal politics and spouting smartass zingers, gave him a gritty Christopher Nolan makeover, and the ultra-serious fans absolutely ate it up (and to be fair, so did I; it’s an entertaining show). But peel away Arrow‘s grim veneer, and you’ll find a gooey center oozing with moldy soap opera tropes – unrequited love and longing, infidelity, betrayal, and schlocky surprise reveals usually involving someone’s parentage “No, Thea, Malcolm Merlyn is your real father!” It’s material that usually draws eye rolls from the capes and lightsabers crowd, but throw seven to eleven minutes of shaky-cam superhero fights in Nolan-esque sodium-drenched, naturalistic lighting, and plenty of winking references to DC Comics’ characters and locations, and all of the sudsy stuff is overlooked.
More troublesome than Green Arrow’s descent into grim hunter of the night territory, however, are 20th Century Fox’s plans for the classic and colorful “First Family Of Comics,” The Fantastic Four. X-Men & Fantastic Four producer Simon Kinberg recently told crowds at WonderCon in Anaheim California that 20th Century Fox’ approach to the material would be….yep…to ground them:
“As Singer created with the original ‘X-Men’ movies, Christopher Nolan created with the ‘Dark Knight’ movies, Jon Favreau and Marvel created with the ‘Iron Man’ movies, all the best superhero franchises – Sam Raimi did it with with ‘Spider-Man’ – they create a tone and that is the thing that defines them. It’s not the stories that differentiate them from each other. Sometimes the characterizations aren’t that distinct. It’s that the tone is different and in some ways [that’s because of the] lessons learned from the original ‘Fantastic Four’ movies, but also because of Josh Trank’s natural instinct for more realism, for more of a dramatic approach to things. This will definitely be a more realistic, a more gritty, grounded telling of the ‘Fantastic Four’ and no matter what people think about the cast.”
With this one quote, Kinberg, Trank, and the Fox brain trust have demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of everything the Fantastic Four embodies. Their story was born out of the atomic age and the thrill of the space race; an era of discovery and exploration, of family and optimism and a vision of the future that gleamed and was filled with technological wonders. The Fantastic Four fought giant subterranean beasts who broke up through the New York City streets; they faced insane, planet-eating space gods clad in enormous purple headgear; they ventured into Negative Zones and battled shape-shifting superpowered aliens; they were (and remain)—for all intents and purposes–-fantastic. And fantasy is the polar opposite of reality. How could I—or why would I even want to—relate or empathize with a hulking monster made of orange rock and a guy who can turn himself into a living flame?
It’s the same argument I made going into (and coming out of) Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel. There’s no denying it’s a beautifully-made and beautiful-looking movie, with some truly exciting and stunning special effects work, but on a personal level, it was lacking in a very specific way: Man Of Steel attempted to ground Superman in our reality; to make him relatable, but I don’t want to relate to Superman. I want to be inspired by him. I want to be in awe of him. I want to aspire to be as good and pure and virtuous and brave and moral as he was. Henry Cavill looked the part and did a nice job, but he needed to beam; to be a beacon of light and hope and justice for all mankind and he just didn’t get there. I certainly don’t feel alone in this; I know others share my sentiment and it appears Snyder is not only aware of it, but completely perplexed by it as well – judging by this gem of a statement he recently made in Forbes magazine:
“The thing I was surprised about in response to Superman was how everyone clings to the Christopher Reeve version of Superman,” he told Forbes. “How tightly they cling to those ideas, not really the comic book version, but more the movie version. … If you really analyze the comic book version of Superman, he’s killed, he’s done all the things. I guess the rules that people associate with Superman in the movie world are not the rules that really apply to him in the comic book world because those rules are different. He’s done all the things and more that we’ve shown him doing, right?”
Well, for starters Mr. Snyder, Christopher Reeve earned that attachment. Yes, the Reeve films are dated, have structural flaws, are rife with campy sequences (thanks to the Salkinds shitcanning Dick Donner and foisting a disinterested Dick Lester on us), and generally no longer play to an audience used to seeing Thor and The Hulk punching space dragons, or Zod and Kal-El toppling skyscrapers like dominoes, but Snyder could have preserved some of the elements Reeve embodied. There was no need for Man Of Steel to be as somber and near-morose as it was; there were opportunities for a funny line or two. Hell, even in the sacrosanct realm of the Nolan Bat-films, there was room for some wisecracks – “Does it come in black?” anyone? Nolan knew there’s only so much darkness and grit an audience could take before the weight of it all came crashing down on them; a lesson either Nolan failed to convey to Snyder, or one he just flat-out ignored (his comments above certainly seem to indicate the latter).The closest thing we got to humor in Man Of Steel was Clark impaling some douchebag’s 18-wheeler on a telephone pole. Did Henry Cavill even crack a smile in his dingy, barely blue costume?
The problem here is, many fans mistake a dark tone for good storytelling, and still more mistake humor for the dreaded “c-word.” There’s humor and there’s camp; and disciples of the darkness are terrible at recognizing the difference. They fear and ridicule any one-liner, quip, zinger, slapstick situation, or moment of lightheartedness; fearing it will sap all of the realism and impact out of the proceedings, but what they fail to understand is that as long as the humor is in-character, isn’t self-aware, or directed at the absurdity of the universe the characters occupy, it can function perfectly well in any type of narrative – grim or otherwise. Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark never poked fun at the world he was in, he was just having fun, period.
The good news is, there’s balance right now; it’s not all gloom and doom out there. The Fast & Furious franchise is dumb, stunt-laden fun; Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy is full Middle Earth charm, rollicking battles, dragons, and slapsticky Dwarves; The unabashedly colorful and dynamic Marvel Cinematic Universe is the dominant superhero franchise on the planet; Marc Webb seems to have come around to the lighter side of things, claiming Amazing Spider-Man 2 is far more vibrant and fun than the first dour outing; The first JJ Abrams Star Trek reboot was a terrific, character-driven space joyride; there are more eye-popping Avatar movies on the way; another TinTin, more Star Wars of course, and The Lego Movie is the first in what is sure to be a burgeoning franchise with zippy appeal to the geek hordes.
Don’t mistake this piece for a complete denouncement of everything dark and ultra-serious. Grim and gritty has its place, but the subject matter and the characters need to mesh with it: Batman, Rick Grimes, Daredevil, The Punisher, Wolverine, The Crow – these are all characters who function well in the shadows—both literally and metaphorically—and should continue to do so because they wrestle with fractured psyches, moral ambiguity, and beasts within. But even in the darkest of times, light can find its way in. Avengers director Joss Whedon probably said it best: “Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.”