Why So Serious? A Little Less Grimdark and a Little More Fun, Please

Image via samuraiminister on DeviantArt

“Are you a Marvel or a DC?”

It's become one of those questions—just as everyone has to pick Bats or Supes or side with Cap over Iron Man. And, for the most part, I've been firmly in the Marvel camp.

Mainly because, when I go to the theater to see a comic book movie, I want to have fun.

And fun is something that the DC films have been majorly lacking in the last decade. Because, for some inexplicable reason, someone decided that comic book movies needed to be serious. Heavy. Realistic.

Really, really grimdark.

We get it.
Which is vastly missing the point. Just because a film is monochrome, the set is perpetually soaked in rain, and the hero grunts and growls most of his dialogue does not make it more meaningful, sophisticated, and mature than a story where the sun is shining and the hero endorses optimism.

In fact, such heavy-handed treatment grossly oversimplifies stories and characters, reducing them to wind-up automatons who spout clichés and act predictably. If your entire story revolves around the hero's man-pain, that leaves very little room for personal growth or an engaging plot because he has to spend a majority of the runtime wallowing, bellowing, and glaring—which means even less time for any genuine fun.

Nolan (then Snyder) wanted to make Batman (then Superman) a character grounded in reality. Everything had to be explained, taken apart, and spelled out for the audience. There had to be reasons for everything. And the focus was unrelentingly on negativity: the pain our heroes experience, the nihilism of the world around them, a constant litany of suffering and madness and loss.

Boy, does that get exhausting after the first thirty minutes, let alone the next two to three hours. There's enough of that in the daily news; when I turn to escapist entertainment, that's exactly what I want to do—escape. These grimdark takes on beloved characters just make me more depressed and frustrated.

Superhero stories should be doing the exact opposite. They should be lifting us up and inspiring us, making us cheer and applaud and feel our hearts swell every time the music does. They should be stories about overcoming odds in all the right ways.

Batman and Superman can be these figures; they've been them in the past many times. Superman especially—his whole bag is about being a symbol of hope and optimism, for Chrissakes! (That's why he's got the Kryptonian word for “Hope” on his chest, after all.)

He's powered by the sun, he's an embodiment of the American dream, he's an “aw shucks” farm boy, proud of the fact that his mom made his costume, and he wants to save the world before giving Lois Lane goo-goo eyes when she accepts her Pulitzer.

That's who he is at a fundamental level! And yet Snyder and Co. have cut all of that out of him and turned him into a broody bruiser who stands around looking tragic in the rain, constantly wallowing on past mistakes and indecision—something that goes counter to his entire mission statement as a get-up-and-get-'em good guy.

There's a reason the Christopher Reeves films are so beloved: his Clark Kent is sweet, earnest, and loyal, because that's how Kal-El sees humanity. In creating a human alter ego for himself, he chose to emphasize the qualities he admires the most. Superman loves humanity; his abilities may make him a god to us, but in his eyes, we're the impressive heroes. This Clark readily admits that Lois Lane is the real force of nature in their relationship.

As for Batman: he's always been a dark figure, yes, but even he hasn't always been the overblown caricature of angst that Nolan made him out to be in his trilogy.

He refuses to kill his Rogue's Gallery because he truly believes people can be rehabilitated and saved. He lost his parents to violence, but builds a found family from all of the people he mentors and rescues along the way. He abhors guns because the only thing a gun can do is kill—a Batarang, however, can disarm a mugger or save the Caped Crusader from a twenty-story fall.

A good friend came up with a rallying cry we often use: “Keep Gotham Weird.” This is a city where the id runs wild, where everyone wears their trauma and psychosis on their sleeves in the most flamboyant, dramatic manner.

Of course there's a killer clown who calls himself the Joker and carries punching glove guns, and a scarecrow who throws hallucinatory fear gas at bystanders, and a woman who can grow plants, is literally toxic, and goes by Poison Ivy.

In this landscape, a billionaire running around on rooftops at night dressed like a giant bat doesn't make anyone bat an eyelash. It makes sense, because in Gotham, society is skewed. It's pure comic zaniness. There's no realistic logic to it, it just is. Stripping away all of the theatricality and the goofy, campy aspects of the Batverse makes it bland, drab, and—quite frankly—boring.

“But Angie,” you want to argue, “a lot of people like gritty comic book movies.” To which I reply, yes—I do, too! But here's the twist: you can have gritty neo-noir tropes and still be fun!

Let's go all the way back to Dick Tracy, a film that has sadly fallen by the wayside. If you haven't watched it in several years, I highly recommend you pick it up and give it another shot. It's a swell little flick with a lot going for it: a damn good cast, songs from the great Stephen Sondheim, music by the iconic Danny Elfman, probably the best performance Madonna has ever given in her life, and—it's a comic noir done right!

All of the tropes are there. Femme fatales. Mobsters. Plucky kids and a Girl Friday. Hardnosed detectives. Warehouses and nightclubs and alleys galore. And, most of the action unfolds at night, under neon lights.

Dick Tracy, however, knows exactly what it is: a movie based on a comic. The costumes are in bright primary colors and are so big and blocky, they look drawn onto the actors. The sprawling Art Deco city has clearly been built on a soundstage. The baddies have ridiculous names and even more ridiculous, cartoony faces thanks to prosthetics and plenty of make-up. And the dialogue is often so hammy you could slap it between two slices of rye.

Which is what makes it a rollicking ride. Everybody's larger than life. The characters have stepped straight off the page and onto the screen. It's silly, it's strange, it's fun. It's everything its source material was.

If you like your Batman dark and gothic, the Animated Series is a perfect thing that exists, and in terms of live-action films, Tim Burton gave us that—twice! And yet, unlike Nolan, who sucked all of delightful weirdness out of Gotham, Burton turned that dial all the way up to eleven.

Bruce is still very much a man haunted by his past and personal demons, but the psychology of which is the real man and which is the alter ego—Wayne or the Bat—is much more interesting, particularly in Batman Returns, with the paralleling story of Selina/Catwoman.

In Burton's films, the city Batman patrols is pretty close to perfect in terms of visuals. Gotham is suitably gothic, huge and imposing, yet also falling into dangerous decay. This looks like a world where people would don leather and latex and stride the streets at night with whips and henchmen—no need to reduce these larger-than-life characters so they can fit in tiny, normal human boxes for the sake of realism.

And while people may hate on Joel Schumacher or dismiss Val Kilmer and George Clooney's performances out of hand, there's still something to be said for Batman Forever and, yes, even Batman & Robin.

The comic book vibe is vibrant and crazy. I continue to maintain that Jim Carrey's Edward Nygma/The Riddler was practically perfect. Uma Thurman clearly had a riotous good time as Pam Isley/Poison Ivy.

Plus, we actually got an entertaining Batman and Robin dynamic—Robin's absence in all of the recent films has been a particular thorn in my side. Because in grimdark films, these heroes have to be lone wolves, manfully brooding alone; there's no space for sidekicks and pseudo-sons.

But if the early Batman flicks just aren't serious enough for you, look at Sin City. As an adaptation, it's a resounding success: many of the shots are lifted straight from the page. The slick stylization with the black and white (plus occasional vibrant splash of color) makes it a visually stunning film, and the over-the-top violence and action are so great because they're so over-the-top.

Again, the world of Sin City is a comic book world. It should look and feel like a setting far removed from our mundane neighborhoods. In terms of subject matter and tone, it's just as heavy, brutal, and grim as the Nolan Batverse—but because of its comic trappings and spirit, it's far more entertaining to watch. It embraces its origins, while these latest Batman and Superman films seem to reject theirs.

Like a moody teenager convinced that showing excitement, sincerity, or outright joy is “uncool,” Nolan, Snyder, and Co. have essentially shoved their characters' colorful, zany pasts into a closet and thrown away the key. All for the sake of being serious.

Which is the core problem: superheroes just shouldn't be serious, not 100% of the time. Sure, they have epic moments, grand gestures, and often the fate of the world rests on their shoulders. There's plenty of serious moments.

But these characters are more gods than men. They have powers and abilities far beyond the Average Joe on the street, alter egos and hidden lairs and arch-enemies with a flair for the dramatic.

They're complex and live in implausible, crazy worlds where anything can happen. By showing only their pain, anger, and sadness, the impact they have is cruelly denuded and their scope is now severely limited.

These reductive versions of such iconic characters are simply Debbie Downers, the glowering kid at the family reunion who refuses to join in when everyone else plays Charades. I don't want to spend extra time with them.

I'd rather tell them to stop pretending to be mature and actually grow up; I want them to realize there's more to life than perpetually indulging masochistic spirals. There's nothing wrong with sincerely smiling once in a while, or splashing a little color on the screen, or being silly just for its own sake.

So, until DC remembers that comic stories should be fun, I'm sticking with Marvel. They sure as hell aren't perfect, but at least I know I'll laugh and cheer a few times before the end credits crawl.


Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.


  1. Todd Mason

    The tone of a superhero film is a difficult thing to get right…I don’t like the Reeve Superman films very much, despite being a big Margot Kidder fan, since they actually seem to me to be clumsy comedies for the most part…which doesn’t make the ponderous muck of the Nolan Batman films any better. The Keaton/Burton films came a lot closer to getting it right, and some of the earlier animatiions in the Dark Knight series, such as MASK OF THE PHANTASM, manage to get at least as close to right. Even the overlong THE AVENGERS and some of its companions among Marvel films of late are doing the job largely correctly…but, yes. letting the people who lose perspective run all over such projects doesn’t help. Recently, the fanbase had been noting how much better the DC tv series were than the Marvel tv series, and the Marvel films than the DC movies, but everyone seems to be screwing up increasingly, as they try to factory-generate theses…and face the same kind of self-indulgence issues that made, say, the HBO TALES FROM THE CRYPT series unwatchable, in the heavy-handed, self-indulgent manner in which H’wooders approached stuff that only works with the most light, almost offhanded touch.

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