Friday, October 03, 2008

Authenticity and the "Darkening" Of DC

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 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.


StacyHD said...

Well said sir. I don't mind a story taking me to grim places in the service of telling it's tale, but there's a fine line between doing such things for the integrity of the work and doing it because you want to generate sales and 'shock' readers. Jim Gordon staring down an insane Harvey Dent and trying to reach him is one thing, Marvin being eaten by Wonderdog is quite another. DC needs to realize it's first obligation should be to reader entertainment based upon the simplest premise of it's superhero comics; that good and evil are in conflict and good triumphs in the end. Better that than the grand guignol, sturm und drang tactics of late.


CalvinPitt said...

I generally agree with your point. I did want to say that I didn't hate the ending to 28 Days Later. yes, I regard the absolute end, where Jim gets gut-shot and survives as cheap, but the part you mention prior to that, where he avoids execution and returns to rescue Selina and Hannah? I had no problem with that whatsoever.

I thought it fit with the Captain's early comment about how he hasn't seen anything these last 28 days that he hadn't seen for years prior. I suppose that point could have been made with what he was willing to do to keep his men from killing themselves or abandoning all hope, but I certainly didn't hate the ending because they stressed it a bit more obviously.

John Seavey said...

Actually, I meant more that the infection was suddenly and retroactively confined to the British Isles, more than the implausibility of Jim's rescue. (Although that was a quibble for me as well...these men are trained soldiers, they should not be taken down by a bike messenger who's also a recovering coma patient.)

The whole movie's premise rests on the idea that the infection has spread worldwide. If the infection is localized, then someone with access to military communications technology would know, and then it's not a question of finding women to propagate the species, it's a question of hunkering down and waiting for the infected to starve to death. (Which wouldn't take 28 days. More like 2.)

The plane flying overhead is a colossal cheat, one that totally took me out of the movie. After that, everything else was just icing on the cake.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. That's what I truly hate about Marvel's supposedly "groundbreaking" new direction with Civil War and the Initiative. Now, all of a sudden, they're making things "realistic", and applying "real world" consequences?

That could be a fair point, but do they have to derail the characters of people like Iron Man and Mr. Fantastic to do it, do they have to hire known criminals and murderers as "hero hunters", does Iron Man have to become Iron Fascist, and do ALL the storytelling engines in the Marvel Universe suddenly have to deal with this new torque applied, whether they want it or not?

This is why guys like Tom DeFalco on Spider-Girl and Bob Budiansky on Sleepwalker ring truer for me than anything J. Michael Strazcynski did during his run on Spider-Man-JMS seemed to be changing things simply for the sake of change in many cases, with The Other, the Totem, Sins Past and everything in between. JMS was messing with the storytelling engine, and it went from a relatively smooth-running machine to an ugly gas guzzler that belched more smoke than all the Kuwaiti oil fires put together.

Budiansky and DeFalco, on the other hand, got the chance to tell their stories the way they wanted to, without being caught up in all these ridiculous events. When Budiansky had to take them into account, such as the Infinity Gauntlet or War, their effects were minimal and they were dealt with in one issue-Budiansky didn't have it breathing down his neck for the rest of the series.

Like other posters here have said, I'm not necessarily opposed to the dark and grim, but it has to naturally fit the characters and story engines involved. Revealing more about Bruce Banner's abusive childhood, as an explanation for his fractured personality and his inner rage, works great. Turning Spider-Man into a dark and angry antihero who threatens to kill his opponents, or revealing him to be heir to some sort of wacky mystical legacy, only harm the character.

If DC's problem is "darkening" its characters, Marvel's problem is derailing its best-known characters and turning them into stalking horses for the writers' political agendas, when it radically deviates from their established characters. Tony Stark can be paranoid, as seen in "Armor Wars", and the pressure of his life can lead him to drink and nearly lose his life's work, Stark Enterprises, but there's no way he'd arbitrarily arrest and suspend anyone who didn't comply with his point of view, much less jailing people without trial, or requiring anyone and everyone who develops superpowers to register. Didn't the U.S. government already try that with the Mutant Registration Act? Look how that turned out!

Similarly, Reed may have his head in the clouds, or otherwise be something of an absent-minded scientist, but he'd never, ever clone a superhero friend without his consent, or consent to the use of known mass murderers, like Bullseye, the Scarecrow, or the Venom Scorpion as law enforcers? Why doesn't he just give HYDRA the nuclear launch codes while he's at it?

DC and Marvel are taking different tacks, but neither one is the right step, and neither one is authentic. It's sad when the best depiction of the Marvel Universe is the one in the MC-2 Universe, and Tom DeFalco does a better job of depicting the real Marvel Universe than Bendis, Millar, Strazcynski and Ellis put together.

Anonymous said...

Very well said. The editorial staff at both companies could do with reading your post. Darkness for darkness' sake is just a cheap shock tactic.

I didn't find "The Dark Knight" a dark movie per se. Jim Gordon and Batman behave heroically. The people on the boats do not succumb to fear and inner darkness. Two-Face and the Joker are dark, twisted characters, but there is balance in the light that is shown in other characters. It was a movie with a solid story, accessible to fans and casual viewers alike: that is why was so huge.

DC has become so bloodthirsty that barely a month goes by without someone dying for no reason other than shock value. The current "Teen Titans" is like the old "Titans Hunt", a similarly misguided story. The only titles that I am finding any joy in are peripheral books like "Booster Gold" and "Blue Beetle". It's a shame and a let-down after the promise of the beginning of this decade.

Anonymous said...

You wrote this back in 2008.

It is astonishing how well you predicted the gratuitously and pervasively insincere Man of Steel movie.

They took one of the most optimistic major superheroes in history (second only to Captain Marvel) and turned him into a grimly smug ubermensch version of Nolan's Batman.

Unlike Superman, The Man of Steel is a bully and murderer (and indirect mass-murderer) whose homophobic director Zack Snyder thinks the audience will let The Man of Steel evade the moral and ethical consequences of it all if he merely cries onscreen about it for perhaps 30 seconds.

And you predicted it back in 2008.

Well done!

Now, let's hope your predictions of the faddish poser nihilism of DC doesn't mean we next see a movie in which Billy Batson turns into a "serial killer for justice" every time he shouts Shazam!