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Why Not Every Superhero Has To Be “Dark and Edgy”…

News surfaced earlier in the week that reported Sony are reportedly less than pleased with how The Green Hornet is turning out. What are they unhappy about? Oh yes, the fact that the movie from Seth Rogan and Michael Gondry about a man who fights crime in an emerald business suit with a domino mask and a Japanese man-servant might not be delivered with the poe-faced gravitas that the very concept deserves. Apparently, it’s campy.

Wait, what?

Darker and edgier, what?

For those unfamiliar with The Green Hornet, fear not. His closest brush with mainstream pop culture came in the 1960s with a camp television show. Think of it as 1960s Batman‘s little brother. It starred Bruce Lee as Kato, introducing him to Americans. However, Batman has had the chance to evolve in the public mind over the past forty-odd years. The Green Hornet has not.

Let’s face it, this is because of Batman, that cunning comic book character. The Dark Knight was, as the name would imply, dark. It was a gritty and bold exploration of the nature of man as a violent beast and the perpetual cycle of violent escalation that we find ourselves in while trying to live our day-to-day lives. Or something. I was distracted by the explosions. Anyway, it made a boatload of cash (why is ‘boatload’ an empirical measurement? ah well). Hollywood has drawn a connecting line between those two factors.

I had honestly hoped they would have gotten this out of their systems by now. Punisher: WarZone should have been a grim (yet strangely camp – thank you, Dominic West) catharsis for them – a chance to vent their violent urges. And it worked. no more talk of a darker and edgier Superman film. No more mention of a gritty Captain Marvel film (he’s an eight-year-old kid, for cryin’ out loud!). Of course, Sony have hinted they want a darker Spider-Man reboot. In fairness, their idea of ‘dark’ Spider-Man is putting Tobey Maguire in tight jeans with hair gel, so we’ll see how that plays out.

The current cut of Green Hornet might be going out the window...

Of course, it’s arguably a general reflection of the superhero trend in general. The Dark Knight proves that dark superheroes can be critically and commercially successful on screen, while Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns proved it on the page in the late eighties. That sound you hear is the sound of cash registers opening inside the heads of company executives, whose pupils have all spontaneously taken the shape of dollar signs. Even the European ones, strangely enough. Suddenly your product is infantile if it doesn’t feature an anti-hero, a downer ending, a gritty moral dilemma and enough gunfire to run a small-scale civil war.

Comic books themselves have been through this fascination. The nerdier among us refer to periods of comic books with the pretentious term ‘ages’. There’s the Golden Age, the wacky Silver Age and the Bronze Age – each with their unique foibles. The period immediately following The Dark Knight Returns was called (appropriately, albeit ominously) the Dark Age. It was based on the somewhat faulty assumption that “dark” is synonymous with “deep”. Here’s a list of some of the stuff that was happening during that time:

Superman died (he got better). Batman had his back broken (he got better… then he died… he’s getting better). Green Lantern became an omnicidal maniac and died (then he got better). The Punisher became hugely popular (he got… less so?). Spider-Man villain got himself a really-trying-too-hard new name of the Lethal Enforcer and became an anti-hero (he got worse). Gotham City became the worst place to live; in the world; ever (it goes something like this: ebola outbreak -> earthquake -> anarchy -> booted out of the United States). The X-Men skipped from one end-of-the-world scenario to another crapsack genocidal future with alarming regularity, while Wolverine skipped from one Marvel book to another. The crazy part? I’m not making any of this up.

The somewhat incredible notion was that the darker and edgier and grittier a series was, the more mature it was. It was astonishingly childish – more adolescent than mature, to be frank. I’m not saying that nothing good came of this period of comic books (indeed many claim The Death and Return of Superman as one of the best in-continuity stories about the character), but that it also severely damaged a whole host of mainstream properties that just weren’t designed to handle that sort of gritty and depressing feeling.

What’s wrong with the Fantastic Four being light and fluffy and the very optimistic spirit of adventure? What’s wrong with Spider-Man being a slightly cheeky, down-on-his-luck, but ultimately upbeat hero? The argument is that such approaches are overly simplistic, but so is simply tarring everything a blacker shade of… well, black. That metaphor got away from me, I’ll concede.

Not all comic book characters are Batman. Not all thrive in a soul-destroyingly depressing world of sin and vice with no real chance of doing any good while bringing nothing but suffering to the ones they love. What’s wrong with acknowledging that maybe a guy dressed up in a suit and fighting crime is a little bit ridiculous?

He's the Goddamn Batman...

The word ‘camp’ is a loaded term when it comes to these adaptations. Because it immediately calls to mind a certain movie; a certain Joel Schumacher Batman movie, complete with bat-nipples and bat-credit-card; a certain film where an ice-themed villain delivering the line “Ice to see you!” is the comedic masterstroke of the film. Yes, it’s Batman & Robin. Arnie may as well have been playing Mister Cheeze. To give you an idea of how terrible it was, Chris O’Donnell is now supporting LL Cool J on television. And teen sensation Alicia Silverstone can’t get a steady job.

I’m going to throw an idea out there. It’s radical. Please don’t hate me. Batman & Robin was a terrible film because it was a terrible film. If you somehow found a way to remove the terrible writing, acting and direction – somehow leaving a disgusting Austrian-bodybuilder-shaped cheese mould, you would have an infinitely superior film. Had the movie been played straight, it would have somehow managed to be even more terrible. The universe might even have had imploded.

The Adam West Batman show gets a lot of misdirected hate for its camp qualities. I can understand that, I really can. I won’t proclaim it a pop culture masterpiece or pretend that it represents a crowning moment for the character. Yes, it’s the embodiment of everything that was wrong about the character as he was portrayed at the time, but it’s also paradoxically responsible for imprinting the character on a whole generation. It may nearly have destroyed the character at the time, but it is also a reason the character as remained in pop consciousness. Sure, you can make the argument that the image of Batman as a square crime fighter with his own dance movies does all sorts of damage, but I think you might be taking it all too seriously. Like The Incredible Hulk, people remember that show, and it has lived on in cultural memory and done its service. Plus, to be honest, it represents the best kind of dumb fun.

Not everything works darker and edgier...

And, truth be told, it’s ridiculous to think a work is shallow or devoid of merit because it isn’t packed with notions of depressing realism or because it’s self-aware enough to be funny. Richard Donner launched the concept of the superhero movie with the bright and cheerful Superman and almost-as-cheerful Superman II – these are films where Clark deals with the angst of losing Lois by flying so fast around the world that time literally runs backwards. In contrast, Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns is a much more emotionally complex movie (and, by no coincidence, a lot physically darker), but didn’t enjoy nearly the same success – because the tone simply didn’t fit the character.

Even the Spider-Man movies which launched the current superhero trend were reasonably lighthearted. My favourite scene of the trilogy involves the eponymous webslinger being forced to ride the lift in his costume, making idle chatter with a fellow passenger. Perhaps Bryan Singer’s X-Men movies could be tagged as dark – with their stylish black leather outfits and torture flashbacks to the experiments which haunt Wolverine – but they weren’t the only superhero success story of the first half of the decade. The key is that there’s room for all sorts under the superhero tent.

Michael Gondry and Seth Rogan were never going to turn in a dark urban fairytale or a modern noir film. That’s just not their style. So, what’s wrong with celebrating a little diversity?

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14 Responses

  1. Whenever I read stories like ‘Sony displeased with Green Hornet flick’ and others where film executives say things like that I really wonder; they can’t really be dense as that can they? The Dark Knight made a lot of cash for many reasons, to insist that it being ‘dark’ is the only important factor in its success is to be really ignorant of everything else going for it.

    • It was also stunningly well written, acted and directed. Why can’t Hollywood focus on those parts of what made it succeed?

  2. Well said, sir. However, I agree and disagree with you. I was so relieved when X-Men showed that superhero movies didn’t have to be all bubbly and technicolor just because they were culled from a comic strip. Superman’s camp (not as campy as Batman, but campy) seemed to demonstrate to me that the producers and directors had little or no mastery of the source material. It didn’t have to be dark and edgy, but it didn’t have to be silly. It didn’t have to wind up being so hard for the hero to come off as “cool”.

    When you measure up Nolan’s Batman to Burton’s, there is certainly an element of camp there too – and that makes a strong case that the camp isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At the time, Burton’s Batman was seen as “so much darker”, a sign of hope for dudes like me, and sign of things to come, but perhaps it was the film that marked the happy medium.

    Not to ramble on too much, but you can’t imagine how cheated I felt that Spawn had to come out just before that darkness switch. If anything, that movie should have been the benchmark for how dark a movie could go. Instead it was just a prototype for the kind of fat suits Martin Lawrence and Eddie Murphy would wear.

    That there was any doubt that a movie by Gondry would buck the trend is laughable to me. Hopefully everyone will come to their senses and understand that it can be judged on it’s style rather than its tone.

    Great analysis! Loved reading it.

    • I think everone will agree that Spawn should have been a bit darker. Seriously John Leguiazmo as Violator? Seriously?

      And I definitely think there’s elements of camp in Burton’s Batman (mostly in the Joker and the Penguin), but he played it well. Dark and camp, eh? Strange combination.

      I think you’re on to something with Supes, I know that Donner played it relatively light and soft with Superman, and I’m not pretending “that’s the way it should always be and they’ll ruin it by changing it”. I just think those two movies worked really well (and, for my money, are the best Superman stories in any medium not by Alan Moore).

      • I absolutely agree that Superman needs to be represented in a bright and shiny way. (I don’t often shill for my own website in comments, but I’ve got an article that’s absolutely about this: http://www.thefilmcynics.com/blog/?p=150)

        The thing about having the real Superman as Boy Scout is that it’s totally boring for young modern audiences, so studios feel that he needs to be darkened. But you can’t darken this guy, that’s the whole point. My feeling is that all you can do is have a darker figure alongside of him that can occasionally poke fun at what a goodie two-shoes Superman is. And there can be no doubt that the man for that job is Batman. Too bad they’re dragging their feet on that crossover film.

      • I’m kind half with you on that and half not so sure. I think that integrating Batman with an onscreen DC universe needs to be done very carefully – very carefully. I’ve always found that Batman as part of the Justice League stands out more than any other major superhero on a superteam – Thor on the Avengers is a bit of a push (what with being an actual god and all), but nothing close to how odd Batman seems amidst the Justice League (“doesn’t play well with others” really comes into my head when I think of Bats, as well as how difficult he is to portray on screen without ‘grounding’ him, a feat near impossible if he’s sharing the screen with Supes or Wonder Woman or The Flash).

        Very good article, by the way. We agree entirely on Singer.

      • It’s a tricky balance, no doubt. As far as I’m concerned the only explanation for The Avengers and JLA coexisting was that the teammates were the biggest selling characters of their respective companies. While that might come off as terribly lame, it might be the best reason why a Batman and Superman movie would work. See, while your “grounding” argument totally makes sense to me, it’s their iconic status, both in geek circles and pop-culture in general, that would allow them to team up without a lot of background or explanation.

        It never made sense to me why movies about Superheroes had to be framed in terms of them being all alone in their particular world. If Spider-Man is kicking it in New York, then so is the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, and Power Man, no? What a sad realisation to find out it really just comes down to licensing rights – the reason comics will always be better than movies (about superheroes, anyway).

      • Yep, the licensing is a bit silly, to be honest. Do you know that Sony wouldn’t even let Louis Leterrier use “Empire State University” (Peter Parker’s school from the Spider-Man films) in The Incredible Hulk, let alone plans for a silent cameo from Maguire as a student or Dylan Baker as a lecturer? That would have been pretty cool, if I dod say so myself. It isn’t as if that alone will cause Spider-Man fans who weren’t going to see the movie to see the movie, if that makes sense. But then Sony are… just Sony. They’re like the Fox Studios of superhero movie companies.

  3. Very valid points here, and as littered as the theaters are with comic book and superhero movies now, a lighter side is refreshing.

    I saw Kick Ass last night and felt it balanced the darker side and the lighter side very well.

    I’m curious to see where this goes. It’s an unlikely coupling and creative perspective, but one I’m compelled to see the results of.

    and P.S. LOVE LOVE LOVE the wrong smurf picture. ha!

  4. I agree with you. With the success of The Dark Knight, the movie execs wants all of their IP’s to be a little dark to appeal to the older audience. Hopefully nothing too serious happens to The Green Hornet flick.

    • Yep, it would seem a little… out of place if Christoph Waltz’s bad guy took to mercilessly playing morality games involving knives and explosives with the unwitting public. I just want it to be entertaining. In whatever fashion. But I don’t see it working in Dark-Knight-mode.

  5. I’m glad someone has finally said it. I think it’s a lack of understanding of each individual comic book or graphic novel that leads to the uneasiness over the end result of adaptations, such as GH. There is this general view of an overall comic genre, when it’s really not as simple as that.

    I’m almost afraid to read updates on Preacher and Sandman for fear of whispers of butchering of same.
    I don’t think I’ll ever get over what they did to 30 Days of Night! Unless I remove the audio during viewing. Then it would, at least, be bearable.

    • Yep. I really don’t want a Sandman film. Really. If Gaiman was on board unreservedly, maybe – but just maybe. But it’s just too damn risky. And the “best case” scenario is an adaption like Watchmen, which was faithful, but lifeless.

  6. I’m a newb, thanks for the help.

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