So we've all heard about 'The Dark Knight', right? Grossed something like $500 million, critical and financial success, absolute blockbuster to end all blockbusters and DC's first real success in the movies since...well, arguably since 1989, when 'Batman' launched with a different Batman and a different Joker and a different director. Certainly, the biggest success DC has had since Marvel started absolutely cleaning up with their string of well-received hits. (And, okay, 'Elektra'.)
But the thing is, I think DC is taking away the wrong lesson from this. They're talking about how this proves "dark" superheroes sell, and how they're going to be doing more dark stories in their next several movies, and how this validates Dan DiDio's tenure at DC where he made a conscious decision to aim for a more "adult" audience. (Which has been a bit of a controversial point over the last few years, with both sides pulling out sales charts that support their case, and goalposts moving back and forth, and all the general fun you get from Internet debates. But I digress.)
Because I don't think that 'The Dark Knight' succeeded because it was "dark", I think it succeeded because it was real. It was heart-felt, to use an older term. Christopher Nolan felt genuinely, personally touched by some of the Batman stories he'd read (most obviously "The Killing Joke") and he told a Batman story that meant something to him, and that intensity, that depth of feeling resonated with his audience. The audience was willing to follow him to a very dark place for that story, because that's where the story led.
It's that last point that's key--"that's where that story led". The darkness in 'The Dark Knight' wasn't forced, it wasn't there for its own sake...it was there because Christopher Nolan told a story of moral ambiguity, of the specter of mindless chaos in a world still reeling from the 'War On Terror' (and no, Bush isn't Batman. Bush is Harvey Dent. But I digress again.) Nolan didn't tack on a sad ending and he didn't tack on a happy ending. He followed the story through to the ending it had to have.
Audiences can always smell when they're being manipulated, and just as surely, they can smell when they're not. Everyone who watched '28 Days Later', whether they loved the movie or hated it, all hated the ending, precisely because it pandered. The writers looked at the ending they had to have, with Selena and Hannah about to become the unwilling mothers of a new society while Jim was left to die, and it scared them, so they copped out. Even before they tacked on the uber-happy ending where Jim survived being gut-shot in the middle of nowhere, they backed away from the truth of what things were, and the audience knew it.
And DC has been doing just the opposite. They've been tacking on death and rape, blood and gore and misery and discord not because they're where the story has to lead, but because they think it sells. (And they're not the only ones--in fact, the single worst offender in this regard in the last decade has to be Penance, whose character can be summed up as "Dark Speedball". Does anyone think this was a deeply heart-felt change for this character?)
In the end, things have to be real. The audience will follow you if they're real, whether through darkness or light. We don't want sad endings or happy endings, we want true endings. We want our happiness to be earned, our sadness to feel honest. We want to be moved, not pandered to. And if DC can't understand that, then its next "dark" movie is going to feel more like 'Superman Returns' than 'The Dark Knight'...and it'll probably do the same kind of box office.