In case my last few articles haven’t made it clear: I live for the summer movie season. For me, walking into a summer movie season is like walking into the titular bar from Cheers with everyone greeting me “Norm!” (Only my name is not Norm. It is Diego). It’s the time of year where everyone gets together to sit down in a giant air conditioned room to watch a movie that entertains, thrills, and provides straight up good fun. But then, at the height of a summer season filled with incredible blockbusters, I stumble across the latest Batman v Superman poster and… Let’s just say Norm is not pleased with this.
So we’ve got Superman, the definitive superhero and symbol of hope for humanity, standing in the rain in front of what looks like Gotham. It’s familiar. It’s dark. It’s gritty. But when did dark and gritty become the go-to approach for Hollywood blockbusters? When did people become so insecure about enjoying colorful and imaginative fantasy worlds that we resorted to the darker color palettes that now plague our theaters on a yearly basis?
I’ll tell you the answer in a minute but first let’s look at the two movies that suffer the most from the dark and gritty infection.
The Amazing Spider-Man and Man of Steel take the two most light-hearted (but still emotionally resonant) superheroes and turn them into angst-ridden characters who become reluctant heroes through destiny.
For those who don’t know, The Average Spider-Man was made so Sony could keep the rights to the Spider-Man franchise. It is the definition of a cash grab. It’s financed by greed. That prospect alone turned me off to the movie but I still went in with an open mind (as we all should). What I experienced was a generic reboot that aped the darker tone of the Nolan Batman trilogy (several people working on the movie cited The Dark Knight trilogy as the main inspiration for the reboot) without understanding why that feel ever worked for Nolan’s film in the first place. New York criminal activity was made to look more realistic with street thugs actually doing street thugs things (even though they looked like a gang in West Side Story). Then the compounded mistake was made of holding onto the darker, grittier tone while keeping The Lizard as the villain. The Lizard. In a dark and gritty reboot.
The biggest problem is the unavoidable creation of conflicting tonal shifts within the movie. I explain the problems here in my review of TASM but my central contention is that the movie wants to be taken seriously, but not seriously like an actual movie. More like a rebellious teenager who lashes out at everyone and takes no responsibility for their actions. So when it does try to get goofy, it’s like two tonal trains crashing into each other. While fixing the overall vibe may not have been a direct troubleshoot into success, it certainly would have helped (TASM 2 had its own set of problems. Like, a lot of them).
The ultimate offender of the dark and gritty syndrome is Zack Snyder’s highly anticipated reboot Man of Steel. The trailers left me speechless and the final trailer actually pulled at my heartstrings. It was guaranteed to be atmospheric, visually stunning. Turns out, the movie would have been better served in the hands of whoever directed the trailers. I was stunned when I sat in the theater to witness a direct copy-and-paste of Nolan’s cinematic style, one that exhibited an even further misunderstanding than TASM. The colors are even more dark and subdued than Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man costume. And it’s actually humorless. We now have a big-budget, humorless Superman. I merely chuckled at the “I’m from Kansas” line at the end of the movie. One time. In a 2 hour movie. About Superman.
I just don’t understand the mindset that would lead an established and accomplished director to move into production on a Superman movie and follow the approach Nolan took for Batman. In The Dark Knight trilogy, the darker color tones and grittiness of Gotham’s criminal underbelly worked in tandem to show Batman’s struggle to overcome the darkness that was devouring his city and his spirit. It’s no accident that the city looks cleaner in each sequel post-Batman Begins. Not to mention, dark and brooding has been Batman’s traditional comic shtick for quite some time. It can get pretty grating at times when people take the “DARK. NO PARENTS” too seriously but Michael Caine as Alfred had a solid handle on livening up the proceedings.
To make matters worse, the action in MoS is probably the biggest ever put onscreen for a Superhero movie. Action is not inherently a bad thing (obviously), it’s why we go to the movies in the summer, but this shit’s on par with Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich movies in terms of scale and sloppy execution. Superman punching people through buildings is kind of cool for a second, but then you realize Superman is blatantly disregarding any and all human lives. For anyone out there thinking “Zod caused the destruction not Superman” Well, no. Superman tackles Zod through several buildings in Smallville and a gas station. In Metropolis, Superman grabs Zod to smash his face along the side of a building and even into the train station at the end. And it’s not even the fact that Superman is responsible for the destruction that really bothers me. It’s that the movie doesn’t explore it in any meaningful way. It was so focused on being more action-packed, darker, grittier, and more humanly realistic to cash in on recognizably profitable trends that it actually lost sight of what makes Superman the greatest superhero of them all. Superman puts humanity’s needs before his own. That’s what makes him so special.
If you noticed one common thread between those movies, it’s the inspiration from The Dark Knight trilogy (specifically The Dark Knight). Nolan’s is a fantastic trilogy that helped superhero movies be taken more seriously. But it wasn’t the grime and grit that solidified the legacy of that trilogy (and its outstanding middle chapter). It was the mature themes and all-around expert filmmaking that were present onscreen. Somehow, people thought “Hey this is dark and gritty. We should do dark and gritty and more realistic too!” And if you think more dark and realistic makes these movies better, you need to grow up. Don’t apply real life logic to superhero movie logic. You’ll hurt yourself (probably by somehow knocking a building atop yourself).
Imagine this problem occurring on a much more massive scale with movies of every genre turning to the dark and gritty approach. What if every movie was like a fucking 3 hour long Judd Apatow dramedy with married couples constantly yelling at each other? Nobody wanted that so we don’t really see Apatow movies anymore. At least the mediocre ones stopped him from getting worse (for now). Nobody wants this plague of sad realism to spread further into blockbusters.
I’ve briefly mentioned it before but The Avengers is what I consider to be a near-perfect blockbuster. It’s got heart, compelling character arcs, hilarious dialogue, and action in service of the characters. It climaxes in a similar way to Man of Steel with a giant attack on a popular metropolis with some huge differences: It’s fun, doesn’t drag on too long, and we actually get to see these heroes doing acts of heroism. By having the heroes isolate the battle of New York to a few central blocks, the excitement is also pumped to 11. All throughout the battle these heroes look unfathomably cool – not just lip service with cool heroic poses, they just happen to look cool while saving civilians and stopping an alien invasion. It’s also 100% comic book. If you’ve ever wanted to know what it’s like to read an Avengers comic, this is a great representation of it. Watch this movie and find out (or, you know, read the comic book). But in the end, it’s about one giant unhappy family coming together, putting aside their differences, and becoming a part of something bigger. It’s an entertaining movie that has a classic sense of summer fun about itself when it wants to, and takes itself seriously when it needs to (Who didn’t shout “NO!” when Coulson got stabbed?).
All I’m trying to say here is that summer blockbusters shouldn’t take what works in one situation and force it to work in any other situation. There are countless ways to success and each path has to be specific to the journey. Senselessly borrowed formulas do not work. Darker, grittier, and more realistic just doesn’t jive with characters like Superman and Spider-Man. They’re brightly lit characters that bounce well off the darker heroes who tend to take themselves too seriously. Why do you think Superman and Batman work so well together? They’re the figurative Yin and Yang of the DC universe. It’s self defeating to make them both dark and brooding. It’s bad enough when you have writers that take the brooding too seriously with Batman.
What I love most about the summer movie season is the variety of movies that come out at this time of year. Earlier this summer we had a groundhog day/sci-fi action movie, the best comedy sequel ever made, and a movie about training 2 dragons (I know there are more than 2 in the movie. I saw it. I cried). This week we have a movie about apes on horses for crying out loud! There are plenty of summer movies that don’t get uncomfortably weighted with Nolan’s precedent. Come on. It’s summer. Go check out movies that don’t drag you down with grey and bland visuals.
Ask yourself: Which picture looks more heroic?
Once you know the answer, then decide which one you want to give your money to.