In the letters page of the most recent issue of Marvel Comics’ Uncanny Avengers, the editor aired a complaint received about the dark tone increasingly more comic books seem (according to the emailer) to be adopting. The email was rambling and otherwise ill-conceived, but this individual concluded that comics aren’t meant to have “this kind of [dark] heroes, . . . this kind of sadism.”
He won’t find too much solace in mainstream films either. Hollywood blockbusters have gone dark as well. Action heroes are now grim, tarnished figures—Jason Bourne is an easy example; in the realm of television, 24’s Jack Bauer—dramas like Zero Dark Thirty throw scenes of torture our way, teen flicks like The Hunger Games are far from rosy, and traditionally blithe icons like Batman find themselves mired in bleak, somber tales. The upcoming Superman picture seems to be heading down a similar path. Even the always bright and flippant James Bond is only getting darker with age. As I’ve noted before, last year’s Skyfall was for all intents and purposes that franchise’s The Dark Knight, complete with disturbed origin story. This is hardly a phenomenon unique to comic books, then, and it could even extend past movies and television—it would not surprise me if video games traveled down a similar path. Everything is going gloomy.
The problems that are said to arise from this seem to me superficial, and I don’t really find them that interesting, but they should be addressed in any case. This trend is only a sticking point for individuals that aren’t into anything watching or consuming somber, like our aforementioned disgruntled comic book reader. It’s bad times for them, but there’s little to do other than to vote with their dollar. Slightly more valid is the concern that this storytelling trope might become oversaturated. The market gets flooded by those types of films and consumer interest dies out. In that case, the more capable producers will simply pull their money out from any Dark Knight derivative and the direct-to-video market will be left to pick up the gloom-and-doom scraps. (Past all that, we shouldn’t pretend like it’s all bleak. We’ll know we’ve gone a step too far when the likes of Adam Sandler produce a black comedy. Until then, I think we’re on safe ground.)
More interesting to me is why so many films are adopting this darker tone. We might pin it all down on a handful of films (or even just one film) that started the trend, the picture the industry’s mainstream has taken its lead from. In this case, I’m thinking of Batman Begins which, if not responsible for setting off this wave of dark-toned movies, is certainly responsible for popularizing those kinds of narratives and proving that they can do big business even when attached to such an iconic figure. The copycat game is typical fare as far as Hollywood goes, and this phase is probably just another fad that will eventually fall by the wayside as all fads do. Another possibility is that the mainstream audience is slowly maturing over time, and darker films are now accepted as legitimate. This is patently visible in the teen market. Consider how dark Twilight and The Hunger Games are compared to the most popular teen flicks of the 80s and 90s (The Outsiders, Dirty Dancing, and Bring It On). I certainly don’t mean to imply that dark-toned films have never existed—just consider foreign cinema even before looking domestically—but those films weren’t ever in the mainstream. The dark tone is bigger now than it has ever been. This is a modern (if not entirely unique) occurrence.
Perhaps it’s the fact that grim stories are more compelling to us than the average lighthearted tale is likely to be. It’s more interesting to watch Batman go through strife in attempting to prevent massive acts of terrorism in Gotham City than it is to watch him pull out a bag of tricks from his utility belt and cycle through them all. This is patently the case with the Bond franchise. The goofy Moore films of the 70s and 80s are almost impossible to sit through for anyone that didn’t grow up in that era watching those pictures. Moore’s James Bond seems utterly out of place in our time; Craig’s are perfectly in tune.
In that way, the dark tone is a device screenwriters can easily employ to give their story more punch. It’s been beneficial to the Bond and Batman franchises, and to my mind it’s a totally fine approach, even if it’s already starting to feel a little lazy. It becomes obstructive only when it is poorly implemented. Opening one’s film with a bombing where scores of innocents die doesn’t really make the film dark; it just makes it tragic. Effort must actually be put in to develop characters that are troubled in some way, and perhaps are even anti-heroic.
The Bond franchise could certainly go further down this path, if only as a one-time experiment. The secret agent developed an alcohol and drug addiction in Skyfall, though ultimately little was made of it. It would be interesting to see Bond projected into a serious, real-world situation that he must sort through, perhaps in a state where he is personally compromised. A simple example: he could get caught up in the murky (and often sickening and utterly deplorable) European child modeling business, where plenty of horrible things go down—connect it to an international crime ring that he is in the process of dismantling. It’s a lifelike situation that Bond would prove heroic in, and it’s a far cry from the simple unchallenging villains that Craig’s Bond has had to face—a poker player that cries blood, an environmentalist gone wild—and an even further departure from the positively wacky villains of old.
I don’t mean to reduce the issue of dark narratives down to personal taste (‘either you like it or you don’t’—that old chestnut) but these movies evidently appeal to preponderance of the audience. They’ll only come on faster until that appeal diminishes. But it’s not as if this type of story is new. Man has always been doing bad things, and life was more grim two thousand years ago than it is today. The stories of old—the ancient myths and legends—are, in many ways, more brutal and troubling than most of what we come up with now. The dark tone isn’t something we should shrink from simply because, as the letter writer we opened up this article with would say, we want to hear a happy story. A happy story is great, but a grim story can be just (and if not more) inspiring, striking, and entertaining.