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“Dark” Superheroes Aren’t The Heroes We Need, Or Deserve

Warner Bros. Pictures

The trailer for the next Batman movie, called The Batman, dropped last month, and it seems like…

… pretty much like every other big-budget theatrical Batman movie of the last thirty years not directed by Joel Schumacher. I’m… just… so tired.

Look, I have no doubt that Matt Reeves is going to deliver a handsomely-made action movie and Robert Pattinson has the talent to play a convincing Bruce Wayne. I’m sure everyone involved in this project is going to do top-level work. But I can’t be the only one who looks at this trailer, laid over yet another slowed-down, mournful rendition of an alt-rock hit song, and sees an ossified product of old school studio executives who witnessed gold being struck in the 80’s and have been chasing that dragon ever since. We’ve been inundated with news stories leading up to now that this version of Batman will be “the darkest one yet” and that it will focus on “Bruce Wayne’s inner demons and trauma” as if such a take on the character is in any way novel and not something we’ve been inundated with for decades.

This trailer also comes on the heels of the reveal of a successful, years-long lobbying effort by a small but very loud segment of the DC fandom pushing for a “Snyder Cut” of Justice League, a movie plagued with the kinds of problems that more footage and more violence probably won’t remedy. But we’re getting more footage and visual effects anyway (which seems to contradict the insistence from these fans that there ever was a complete “Snyder Cut” hidden away somewhere, but that’s beside the point), satisfying those who have a disproportionate chokehold on this shared universe of costumed superheroes originally created to bring inspiration and joy to an audience of children and pre-teens. 

That fact, of course, has largely been forgotten, and I can’t say I’m surprised. Ever since the massive success of two books – Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen – and the box office smash hit that was Tim Burton’s then-original cinematic depiction of a gothic, truly dark caped crusader, DC Comics has decided that in order to keep up with Marvel, they had to be Very Serious™. But, as it usually goes with entertainment companies attempting to duplicate a creative spark, they didn’t seem to realize the critical and commercial popularity of those two books and one movie came from how unprecedented those approaches to superhero storytelling were back in the late 80’s. Back then, no one had any conception of Batman outside of the cheesy, tongue-and-cheek TV show that had him stopping gimmicky bank robberies and pulling out shark repellent.

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But now? There are adults in their mid-thirties, with children of their own, who literally have no living memory of a Batman who wasn’t “dark and brooding.” And while there’s an argument to be made that such a shift made this one character better (debatable), and we should stick to a “darker” portrayal of that one superhero, did we need that for seemingly every superhero? Was anyone clamoring for, for example, Superman to be a miserable pessimist who snaps necks and doesn’t seem to care about humanity at all? 

Zack Snyder thinks he’s being “edgy” by claiming his take on the Justice League is “for grownups”…

… when in reality, such a pathological desire to play up the violence and nihilism and brooding atmosphere of our childhood pop culture icons represents more of a weird form of arrested development. It’s as if there’s a not-insignificant segment of consumers who can’t let go of these childhood stories, or pass them on to the next generation. So they push to justify their continued attachment to these stories and characters that they know in their hearts aren’t really “for” them, anymore. No, I’m not still clinging to my childhood to assuage my anxieties about the future! These are for Adults! They’re tackling Serious Subjects!

But are they, really? Looking back, what did Zack Snyder actually say about superheroes? What was his big insight on Superman and Batman, anyway? In the end, all of that posturing and gritted teeth and “MARTHA!” shouting and heavy-handed biblical imagery amounted to a whole lot of nothing. There was more maturity and sophistication in the final minutes of a “kid’s movie” like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse than in any of the three grim, bleak, trendily pessimistic “visions” of the DC universe that Zack Snyder unleashed on us from 2013 to now. Joker was an Oscar-winning massive financial success that already feels dated and thematically incoherent not even a year after its release.

Yeah, remember that weird culture moment? Remember when Joker, a movie that nearly every bearded dude with a YouTube channel insisted was this dAnGeRoUs and EdGy mOvIe was embraced wholesale by the most elite and (on average) elderly members of the entertainment industry? And made over a billion dollars for a multinational entertainment company? I’m not going to reignite the debate over that film’s merits and comments on the Society We All Live In, but I think it’s safe to say that as soon as such a “dark” superhero movie reached that level of commercially mainstream success and high-profile industry recognition, we’re way past the point where anyone can fool themselves into thinking they’re subverting or surprising anyone with a depressing, violent take on the characters and settings created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Dick Sprang, Jerry Robinson, and Sheldon Moldoff. 

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But even if Matt Reeves, a far more humane filmmaker, can tap into more than just empty feints at surface-level “maturity” in The Batman, I can’t help but wonder if even in the best circumstances, this movie will depict a Batman speaking to the cultural shifts going on in this new decade, and I’m not talking about COVID-19 presenting a very real threat to the future of traditional theatrical distribution, either. We are now facing a reckoning in our culture about our putative system of criminal justice, our militarized law enforcement, and the outsized power we’ve given to the wealthiest elites. What movie centering on a billionaire who decides to fight crime by buying military-grade hardware and inflicting violent, extra-judicial retribution as the hero can possibly feel like it understands the present culture? 

If superheroes are going to continue to be the most lucrative template for modern blockbusters in the foreseeable future, I for one could use a little more levity from them after four years of authoritarian hell. Or, at the very least, a “serious” take on superheroes that understands how to speak to topical themes that actually resonate with a more diverse, global audience, like Damon Lindelof’s excellent Watchmen miniseries on HBO. That was a rare example of the kind of superhero comic book adaptation that genuinely felt like a product of the 21st century, and not a sad attempt to recapture some winning formula that was popular when Ronald Reagan was still President.

We don’t need superhero stories to be “adult,” anymore. We need them to grow up.

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  1. “a movie that nearly every bearded dude with a YouTube channel”

    Actually laughed out loud at this comment, because it’s so true. Very interesting article. Executives and directors really did take the wrong from Batman 1989 and The Dark Knight. Those movies aren’t these dark, bitter movies that this looks like it might be. They’re actually enjoyable to watch. Yep people see them and just go, “Oh! They’re a little darker than other super hero movies, we need to embrace and obsess over the darkness!”. And same with Batman: The Animated Series and Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, which are the perfect iterations of Batman. Sure, they’re darker than most comic book cartoons, but they sure are a lot of fun and amazing to watch as well.

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Written by Robert Hamer

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