DC Comics is going dark (and that's bad)
This past weekend is the weekend the highly anticipated “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” finally hit theaters. Bad news being that the film is getting mostly negative reviews from professional critics, with the most common criticism being that the film is just too dull and depressing for a movie about a man who dresses up as a bat, fighting a super-human alien. Looking over this movie, as well as recent DC Comics works, I have discovered a disturbing trend where the majority of them try to be as downbeat as possible in order to suck out all the joy of being a superhero. Intense violence, blood, gore, scary images, unnecessary “moral dilemmas” and more seem to be the standard for anything DC related these days; and quite frankly, it needs to stop.
In 2008, Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” hit theaters and was a massive success. Critics praised the movie for being a dark, realistic take on the Batman mythos; and it, alongside Marvel’s “Iron Man,” launched the current superhero movie phenomenon. However, someone high up decided that “The Dark Knight” was a template that should be followed for not just Batman, but every superhero ever. Thus, all superheroes of the DC Universe must constantly have no true source of happiness in their lives, and always scream horrifically whenever they get hurt. Also, focus on the villains as much as possible. The Joker is obviously the greatest fictional character ever, right? So let’s just make him the main character of the series now! No room for stuff like “humor” or “hope” in this word, this is a “realistic” story!
This trend of making the DC Universe as joyless and edgy as possible is sickening. From the announcement that “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” will actually receive an R-rated cut, to the fact that recent Batman video games such as last year’s “Batman: Arkham Knight” and the upcoming Batman game from Telltale Games (the developers behind the critically acclaimed “The Walking Dead: The Game” and “Tales from the Borderlands”) are rated M for mature prove that this trend is not only restricted to the comics, but other media pertaining to DC.
What hurt me most about the darkening of DC was how it has changed the character dynamic between its two most popular characters. When I was a kid, Superman was the greatest hero in the world. Superman was kind, just, and willing to help out anyone’s troubles, no matter how small. But close behind him in superhero popularity was Batman, the cool, edgy guy who was still a decent guy underneath that brooding. But after the release of “The Dark Knight,” DC decided it wanted to make Batman the paragon hero for the DC Universe. Now most of the stories make Batman the leader of the Justice League, or make it abundantly clear how Batman can totally wipe the floor with every other member of the Justice League. Also, because this is DC, Batman’s angst has been turned up to eleven. Superman, on the other hand, was dragged through the mud. Now he’s often portrayed as a dangerous alien individual who often succumbs to the dark side who breaks the morals he was supposed to uphold.
Marvel, by complete contrast, has stories that are about superheroes clearly enjoying being superheroes. They only angst when it makes sense, and they always manage to get a hold of themselves in time for the final battle against the main bad guy. There are also a lot of jokes and comic relief to ease the tension and make the heroes more endearing to the audience. Many have criticized most of Marvel’s villains (at least in the movies) as very one-note and uninteresting, compared to DC, who has much more interesting villains. But that’s the problem, we are supposed to empathize with the heroes. They’re the ones who we aspire to be and want to make it out O.K. When you make the focus on villains, the people we are supposed to be rooting against, it makes the story rather unlikable.
Like it or not, Marvel’s more family-friendly approach seems to be beating DC’s adolescent edginess. As of this writing, “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” has a measly 41 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. By contrast, Marvel’s “Ant-Man” has a significantly better 80 percent on the same website. What is DC doing wrong? Why isn’t their more “adult” approach to superheroes working?
Perhaps it’s because DC has no idea why it is being so dark and edgy.
Why is Batman being tortured relentlessly with no ray of hope in sight? Why are we seeing The Joker murder civilians in the most brutal ways possible? Why is Superman acting like an insecure child that could blow up at the slightest agitation? The only real reasons I can think of are either shock value, to capitalize on the success of “The Dark Knight,” and to desperately say that “comic books aren’t kid’s stuff!” the same way a 13 year-old boy tries too hard to be cool. All of which are horrible reasons.
These are superheroes for Pete’s sake. They do things people dream about doing. So why are they whining about being the very things most people aspire to be? Marvel understands this and manages to strike a balance between high-octane action, likable characters, and enough drama to make conflict reasonable. DC, on the other hand, has this incredibly black-and-white view where “The Dark Knight” is the holy grail of superhero storytelling because it is ultra-dark and angsty; and Joel Schumacher’s “Batman & Robin” is the worst thing in existence because it is goofy and campy. But tone didn’t determine whether the two were good or bad movies, it was writing and characterization that made both movies succeed and fail.
The sooner DC can turn around and start making their superhero stories fun, or at least well-written, and treat its characters right, the sooner I can respect DC. Ironically, how I feel about DC right now can be summed up from one of DC’s own comics. From “Injustice: Gods Among Us” (#30):
“I miss Superman. I miss the guy who actually inspired people. The Superman who had time to help a kid who fell off his bike. Before he was changed. Before he gritted his teeth and looked angry all the time. Before he became all hard and dark because the people, supposedly, needed him to. I miss the city of tomorrow – and the man of yesterday.”
Very deep, the more you think about it.