We live in a glorious time for nerdy media. All the children who grew up reading comics, watching anime, and playing with action figures are becoming fully functional adults, and they are beginning to throw their weight around in both the creative side and the consumptive side of pop culture media. This, however, is not always a good thing. In recent days, we have been flooded with Dark and Gritty™ material and people are avidly consuming it. This new trend is set up on several fallacies that most creators (i.e straight white dudes) have taken to be truths and rules of narrative, and that target audiences (i.e straight white dudes) are voraciously consuming.
FALLACY 1: Dark and Gritty™ Material Makes Mature Content
One of the most common fallacies out there, this trope got its start in 1986, with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen. These two comics are stunning, because they use character-driven narrative to explore themes that are present in comics and in the world at the time. The Dark Knight Returns is an examination of Batman’s psyche and an analysis of unchecked government power, Superman, all unfolding under the shadow of the Cold War. Watchmen is a meditation on human nature, what it means to be human, represented through Dr. Manhattan’s constant struggle, whether the ends justify the means with Ozymandias’ “Great Practical Joke,” and the acknowledgement that the world is not black and white, something Rorschach cannot understand.
It was a turning point in comics, coming right on the heels of the heavily censored Silver Age, and showed the flexibility of the medium, demonstrating that comics could be more than kid-fodder, but works on par with great literature, something that could be analyzed and discussed. Then it all went sideways, and the comics began to devolve into macabre voyeurism, best exemplified by the content (and style) of Rob Liefeld.
This also relates to the artistic portrayal of characters as well. Whereas superheroes were first displayed in bright, bold colors (partly due to the limitations of printing), more and more heroes faded and darkened.
Now there is a difference between dark, gritty settings and Dark and Gritty™. 2012’s Dredd is a fine example of a gritty setting used well, since the rough environment compliments the titular character’s own rough personality, and hi-lights the need of men like him in a world that is so rough and hovers on the edge of ruin (its also a really good movie anyway and you should all watch it). Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight saga works this way as well, but it also makes the point of showing off the wealth and opulent surroundings of Gotham’s elite as a counterpoint to the squalor that pervades the rest of the city. These dark settings set the mood and serve to advance the narrative. Dark and Gritty™ means contriving a grim setting where there is no need of one for the express purpose of making your product appear more mature.
In modern media, we have a perfect example of this in HBO’s Game of Thrones. George R. R. Martin’s masterful series A Song of Ice and Fire shows everything that makes a story worth telling and consuming: character-driven narrative to explore themes. However, to quote David Bennioff: “Themes are for 8th Grade book reports.”
This paradigm is becoming increasingly common, and demonstrates a low estimation of the audience’s intelligence. It also guts so much of the series that they are adapting. Sex and rape are used in the books for poignant and often horrific thematic development: Danerys Targaryen was sold like a heifer and raped, showing how little power she has and the role and perception of women in the world. In Game of Thrones, Sansa is horrifically raped by Ramsay Snow because…I’m still not sure why, but I’m sure someone has excused it somehow. The books also make a point of using the rich, lavish lifestyle of the court of King’s Landing with the abject poverty that the rest of Westeros is afflicted by. In the show, the rich, beautiful sets, props, and costumes are washed out by both desaturating the finished frames in post-production and using dim, dark lighting.
A perfect foil to this is Rebecca Sugar’s Steven Universe. Over the course of the series, the Crystal Gems have eviscerated tropes and bucked gender-norms, but the episode that best contrasts GoT is “A Cry for Help.” Fusion in SU can be a metaphor for many things, but at its very least it is a form of close intimacy and requires great trust, especially for Garnet, who is herself entirely a fusion, the physical form of Ruby and Sapphire’s love for each other. In her desire to feel strong and valued, Pearl creates a situation wherein she takes advantage of Garnet, abuses the trust, and violates the intimacy of fusion. Thematically, it is very similar to a rape narrative, but unlike GoT, it is not excused or justified or used as a background setting. The characters all feel the repercussions of Pearl’s actions and the fallout takes several episodes to resolve, and even then it is shown that Garnet and Pearl are not on the best of terms. Character-driven narrative is used to explore themes.
FALLACY 2: Superheroes Must Be “Badass” To Be Cool
Having a superhero who is a badass is not a bad thing. In fact, it can often be a very good thing. Batman’s whole role in DC is to show the amorality of superheroism, as vigilantism is always illegal and Batman has only a single rule: no killing. Everything else, assault and battery, “advanced” interrogation, physical harm, biochemical poisoning, confessions made under duress, breaking and entering, theft, interfering with a crime scene, and evidence obtained without a warrant are all on the table. That’s the point. Batman’s narrative is to push the boundaries and chafe with authority. This is all to contrast against my personal favorite superhero, Kal-El, the Last Son of Krypton, aka:
Superman’s role in pop-culture serves as both the demonstration and foil to this trope. In 1996, Warner Brothers Entertainment released Superman: The Animated Series. With the highly acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series having wrapped up in 1995, the creative duo Bruce Timm and Paul Dini’s take on the Man of Steel was just as good as Batman, and demonstrated why Superman is the best hero (fight me). Superman is the most powerful thing in the DC Universe. Fed only by sunlight, Kal-El could become a god: he can kill with a blast of heat from his eyes, level a city with his super-strength, freeze crops with a breath, and move so fast that nothing could be done to stop him. While most people would say that makes him a boring character (looking at you Livewire), this makes his whole existence a moral theme. Superman is uncheckable power, and yet he chooses to be as good as he can be: he never kills (heck, he never even hurts people because literally nothing can hurt him), he bows to legal powers, and he even saves people from themselves, when he can.
Then we got Man of Steel, Zack Snyder’s lost-in-the-ninth-inning mess of a Superman movie. It starts out promisingly enough. Krypton is a rigid caste-based society that attempts to crush free-thinkers like Jor-El, and the handling of Clark Kent’s childhood is some of my favorite scenes in all cinema. How often do we see an all-powerful god have to be rescued from his own superpowers by his mother?
We even have Kevin Costner’s moving performance as Jonathan Kent, and his foil to Superman. Jon is willing to let a whole school bus of children drown so that his son will be safe from external powers. The fight-scenes are also good, as for once gratuitous violence shows just how much is at stake and how unbelievably powerful Kryptonians are. Then Superman kills Zod. This is exactly what Superman is not. This goes against everything that Superman is. In Justice League “A Better World,” Superman killing Lex Luthor is the catalyst that sends the world spiraling into a fascist dictatorship lead by the Justice League. In Man of Steel, it is glossed over and all we get is an anguished scream from Superman. Props to Henry Cavill’s acting, but dang it that is not O.K.
FALLACY 3: It’s Not Kid’s Stuff Anymore™
The world is still reeling and rejoicing from the release of 20th Century Fox’s Deadpool. Rejoicing for a faithful and excellently executed rendition of the character, and a welcome comeback from the last time when he appeared on the big screen. Reeling because this was the first R-Rated superhero movie and it was a rip-roaring success. Even before it was released, Deadpool was guaranteed a sequel, and it has made money hand over fist, grossing 711.1 million against a budget of fifty-one million. I will not criticize the rating because for a faithful adaptation of the character, the movie needed to be rated R. Deadpool is an assassin, and to lessen the rating would necessitate significant changes to his character and what the character can do in the movie. There would be no fake-blood effects, no curse words, no off-humor jokes. In short, we would get this:
Of course, if this were the exception to the rule, everything would be peachy-keen. Unfortunately the derpwads at DC and Warner Bros. have decided that two can play at the ratings game, and have stated that they will release an R rated version of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The movie already promises to be a glut of CG destruction and even teases at some Strong and Empowered™ Wonder Woman, but why does it have to be rated R? As much as I dislike Man of Steel, it still showed (for the most part) some good family entertainment, something that parents could enjoy alongside their children, and kept to the themes of Superman for the most part.
To sully the Man of Steel, Wonder Woman, and Batman with an R rating with one stroke is beyond me. This means we will see Batman violating his code “for the greater good.” This means we will see Wonder Woman slicing off peoples arms and still show enough cleavage for someone to get arrested in the theater for indecent exposure. Heck, we might even see some Wonder Boobs. This means we will see Superman effortlessly killing people, indirectly or otherwise. This will be the death of theme in superhero films.