Down In A Hole – Geek Culture’s Obsession With “Grim, Gritty, And Grounded”

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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?

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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.”

Amen.

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About Author

Jeff Carter

Jeff is the defining voice of his generation. Sadly, that generation exists only in an alternate dimension where George Lucas became supreme overlord of the Earth in 1979 and replaced every television broadcast and theatrical film on the planet with Star Wars and Godzilla movies. In this dimension, he’s just a guy from New England who likes writing snarky things about superheroes, monsters, and robots.

  • Tom Racine

    Excellent article, Jeff, Old Bean. Hollywood tends to follow the money, of course, and “dark and gritty” is where they think it lies. They are, of course, wrong. It lies in good storytelling and directions, but they never seem to see that. I think that for those of us in our 40s and up, the “dark and gritty” thing was a welcome change to the crap they kept throwing at us in the 70s on TV and movies. No one took comic book stories seriously in the least back then. I could point to many a very strong storyline before “The Dark Knight Returns” and “Watchmen,” in various comics of the day, but no one would give comics a second thought. I think Tim Burton’s “Batman” can’t be underestimated in how taking your source material a bit more seriously can be a good thing. That film found a nice balance of fun, action, and seriousness. (Not a perfect balance…I hate the ending of that film with the passion of a thousand suns, but still.)

    I think the recent “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” found a way to be serious, but maintain the morality/innocence of its main character that “Man of Steel” didn’t do as well as we would have liked. I recently re-watched “Man of Steel,” and I think they were going for a lot of the “look up to Superman” stuff…but that it didn’t pan out as the script obviously intended. Probably because they got a bit too lost in the cool FX…but they WERE going for the “people will look up to you…they will try to follow…they will stumble…they will fall” concept that was beautifully expressed in that dialog…but that overall, they didn’t achieve that feeling for Superman. (Not Cavill’s fault…much like Routh before him, I don’t think the actor was to blame in either case.) I still think “Man of Steel” was a very good film overall…I’m not a huge Superman fan or purist, and I thought in general they did a good job. But I do think they could’ve done better.

    Ironically, not being dark ENOUGH is what I think killed the various “Punisher” movies. There’s a series that should’ve been 1970s exploitation film dark…and they just couldn’t do it. And as you mentioned above, I have high hopes for this Netflix “Daredevil/Luke Cage” stuff they’re doing…THAT grouping of shows should be gritty and real.

    Chances are, this is like most things in entertainment….a pendulum that swings back and forth. I think we’re seeing things slide back the other way now…and people may have had enough of the darkness overall. I have high hopes for “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Avengers 2.” And I wish more filmmakers and producers would watch the most excellent animated “Justice League” and “Batman, The Brave and the Bold” series….they found ways to bring those characters to life in a way all ages could enjoy.

    • Thanks, Tom! Good point about The Winter Soldier; I wanted to mention that and cover that ground in the piece, but the length got away from me and it had to go.

      • L.

        Congratulations on setting up the dictatorship of fluffy stories.

  • Actually the Reality Is…

    Geek culture has more of an obsession with candy coated mindless entertainment flicks ala Guardians of the Galaxy and The Avengers. These people are always crying about how this and that is too grim for them to handle. Everything should be a pop culture reference and an in-joke instead of having the audacity to reach for something more. To them I say, get some variety in your life. Just like everything else, quality comes in all shapes and forms. Sometimes I want to watch Star Wars and sometimes I want to watch 2001.

    • The mistake you make is equating good, intelligent, complex and mature storytelling with a dark aesthetic. Something like Man of Steel is no less “candy-coated” or mindless than Guardians Of The Galaxy. Just because it’s sodium-drenched, doesn’t mean it’s saying anything deeper. Don’t kid yourself.

      • L.

        Because these assholes have to destroy the fun of others with that shit? Now thanks to shit like you, and we have to put up with shit to please babies who can not see dark stories that go cry on Mom’s lap.

  • Larfleeze

    I think the balance is the key. The CW have realised this and now to balance with the aesthetically dark Arrow, they now have the light and colourful Flash, which looks like it could be good, though both shows still definitely need to drop the soap opera shenanigans. Such is the balance with the Marvel & DC Cinematic universes. Marvel give us the mostly light hearted and colourful approaches, DC with the darker take. I’m a DC fanboy so I’ll always go for them, but I’m trying to just talk about the movies/shows, on which they are equally balanced. I think people just need to open up and enjoy what they’re seeing, or they’ll just complain about stuff. I’m a DC Comic fan, but I won’t complain when they change something to suit a movie. I’ll look at the movies as completely separate things, entertaining in their own right. I need to shut up now. Thanks for reading if you made it this far! ^.^

  • L.

    Because of people like you and who ended up with adult films and now just have silly things to please iditoas who just want jokes forced in place a good adult and dark history, congratulations now will make tuddo what you want is to deliver stories idiots and full of padinhas and pathetic action scenes to please infantiloides like you.

  • L.

    We live family entertainment dictatorship.

  • L.

    Now Arrow turned into a silly and stupid story to please people with no sense critical she was so good in the first season when it was dark and he killed, but the idiots who want everything light and silly spoiled the Seire because the producers heard guys like that of text and infantilize the show.

    • Did you really need to break this incoherent, badly misspelled babble into three separate comments?

      • L.

        Motherfucker saw the trailer for Batman Vs Superman? Congratulations your shit you managed to turn the DC cinematec it was promiosr in a generic movie Marvel’s full of stupid jokes.

        • Yes!!! muahahaha! My evil plan worked. My power and influence over the Warner Bros. execs and Zack Snyder is all-consuming.

          • L.

            You will fucking asshole and push their colorful and cute films in the eye of your ass. Movies adults died in the 70s and stories in quandrinhos dark and violent died in year 80 now only have children’s entertainment for idiots like you.