Are movie going audiences going dark ’cause they like it? Sampling the more successful or well received genre movies of the last few years there appears a tangible trend towards the dark, toward characters with a disturbing underbelly who we nonetheless root for, a draw to dire plot lines that wrench free from the confines of overdone, canned narratives. These types of stories and characters are among the most attention smothered productions of late and begs the question, Are audiences loving the dark side?
While this is a personal observation that has grown over the last few years, one author’s speculation in a recent io9 article brought the question to the forefront again. It cropped up in the conclusion of a broader discussion about the tone of Man of Steel and upcoming DC Comics movies; “If all of DC’s films succeed in copying the tone of Man of Steel, then it will be a very gray world.“
This holds true for DC’s ventures to pull their heroes from comic book pages to the big (and small) screen. Few can deny the dark nature of the Batman movies going all the way back to Tim Buton’s visions on up to the latest Christopher Nolen’s re-imaginings. What more dark and twisted character is there than Heath Ledger’s Joker? He stole the movie from the star and I’d be surprised if there weren’t more than a couple of us out there who rooted for him in the quiet places of our minds once or twice watching the movie the first time. One could argue Batman is a dark character borne of personal tragedy and evolved surrounded by the air of revenge, so of course he’d be dark.
Valid, yes but then we bring in Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel which was imbedded with gritty realism and a main character who had, essentially, tortured himself with the shame of being different all his life. He lived a life insulated in anonymity avoiding anyone who could become too close for fear of them discovering his secret, a secret he doesn’t comprehend himself. Then there is Arrow, the current flagship of DC’s television strategy. I will claim some amount of ignorance on this one as I’ve only watched one episode but from what I gathered the show exhibits many dark undertones and a hero dealing with more than a few internal issues. All this speaks to wonderfully abrasive tales ahead and their success speaks to an audience drawn to such stories.
That’s DC, but what about Marvel? The Marvel superhero movies are able to balance well the darker elements with the lighter side, better than DC seems to be doing. Having said that and sticking to my broader assertion, the Marvel movies have given us characters with some fairly deep internalized issues. From the onset, Iron Man (Tony Stark), began as a playboy-esque character, not a care in the world, doing whatever he wanted. He is then captured by a terrorist group exposing him to the other side of reality, so to speak. He returns to his life with a need to right the wrongs he witnessed and do better by the world. The second movie revealed a Tony losing a battle with physical ailments brought on by the very technology meant to keep him alive along with a loss of purpose and mental drive.
The Avengers overarching theme revolved around a team of persons of extraordinary abilities figuring out how to work together for a common cause. They had to deal with the ego of Tony Stark, the possibly outdated worldview of Steve Rogers (Captain America) injected into civilization 70 years removed from the one he knew, the just under-the-surface god complex of Thor (who is also battling his duty to family and protecting the Earth from his brother Loki’s rampage), a juggernaut waiting for release in the form of the Hulk and a potential conspiracy in SHIELD the organization responsible for bringing the team together. While many will rightly point out that all this has happened before in the comics, these are movies somewhat detached from the universe in those pages meant to draw in an audience beyond the typical comic book aficionado. Yes, these issues are common among the genre but my argument is their portrayal is darker, harder, grittier than in previous film incarnations of the same characters. This was touched upon is another io9 interview with the directors of the latest Captain America movie discussing, “How To Make Steve Rogers Dark”.
There is room for debate here with probably more than a few exceptions to this trend. But these are not the only examples worth pointing out. Shifting to television, look at the viewerships of Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead each garnering ratings only network shows dared to hope for. Breaking Bad’s series finale sported 10.3 million while Game of Thrones averaged 13 million for its third season and The Walking Dead hit record levels with last season’s premiere and finale posting 16.1 and 15.7 million, respectively. Other newer shows which have drawn quite respectable numbers for cable include Bates Motel, The Americans, Sons of Anarchy and American Horror Story.
Is it the shock value we love? Or are we drawn to that dark complexity of these characters and the plot lines set before them? Perhaps we see something of ourselves in them and the struggles we all deal with allowing us to relate just a little, at least, to what would otherwise be over-the-top characters. Do those dark and gritty problems humanize them, bringing them down to the level of mere mortals allowing us to say, “Hey, our lives aren’t all that bad.” Or maybe it’s none of that at all. Maybe it’s as simple as sometimes, just sometimes we like to see the bad guy win once in a while.