Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Grim & Gritty

One of the conversations happening about comic book properties, specifically in film, is about the difference in approach between the big two, Marvel and DC, in their cinematic universes.  Marvel is going for a brighter tone that does not apologize for the four color comic book silliness of their superhero world.  DC has been taking the gritty realistic approach. My first observation is that this is slightly amusing.  Based on the comic books one would assume the two companies would take the opposing approach than they are.  This is the film universes I am talking about.  DC Comics’ approach for their television universe with the Flash and Supergirl tends to follow the same idea as what Marvel is doing with both their cinematic and television universe, which are the same universe.

A problem I have with the DC Comics’ cinematic universe approach, is that it loses sight of what made its characters so interesting. Certain characters like Batman and Green Arrow or groups like the Suicide Squad and the newer versions of the Secret Six lend themselves well to the grittier approach.  As vigilantes and characters with villainous pasts, they deal with human crime, so it makes sense to have a harder edge.  Superman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, the Atom, Shazam/Captain Marvel, and Wonder Woman are the bright shiny paragons.  The darker, more realistic style clashes with their core concepts and mythos.  Superman is supposed to be a symbol of hope not fear.  Batman is supposed to instill fear in the cowardly lot that is the criminal world.

Even when Marvel does a dark storyline like Captain America: Winter Soldier, it comes out with a bright shiny superhero exterior. We are talking about a guy that literally dresses up in a flag inspired costume.  The Flash television show (2014 –present) does the same thing; they even have their characters poke fun at the absurdity of the concept of people running around in bright shiny costumes fighting crime.  Part of the reluctance to use a lighter approach by DC is to avoid the campiness of the 1966 Batman.  The 1975 television show, Wonder Woman, and the 1978 film, Superman: The Movie, were able to straddle the absurdity of the concept without devolving into complete camp.

Another thing about their differing approaches is that DC tries to make Superhero films, Marvel makes films and television programs with Superheroes in them.  Captain America: The First Avenger was a World War II drama.  Iron Man was a corporate intrigue drama as well as a personal journey story. The Guardians of the Galaxy was a space opera.  Marvel’s Daredevil was a crime drama.  Captain America: Winter Soldier and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. were spy dramas.  The Incredible Hulk was a fugitive drama.  The reason the Nolan Batman trilogy worked was it was a crime story that just happened to have a guy dressed up as a bat in it. Previously with Green Lantern and others, DC has made a habit of making Superhero movies, not movies with Superheroes in them.

Let’s get back to the subject at hand.  The grim and gritty movement began in the mid 1980’s.  The two chief works attributed to starting the trend were Watchmen (1986) and the Dark Knight Returns (1986).  Alan Moore (Watchman) and Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns) were trying to show are more serious side to the superhero genre.  At that time the comic book format was not taken very seriously by mainstream society. These works and Maus (1980-1991) started to change those attitudes. The comic book industry has a history of taking a successful idea and beating it to death.  That resulted in grim and gritty for most of the latter 1980’s and the 1990’s.  This approach was hit and miss.  It worked for characters like Batman, Green Arrow, Punisher, Wolverine, Swamp Thing, and Daredevil.  Other characters like Aquaman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Captain America, and the like it was less successful.

Alan Moore, one of the architects of that movement, in 1999 worked to bring back the bright shiny four color world with America’s Best Comics. Some works in that imprint were darker, but with others like Tom Strong, Promethea, and Top 10 he went back to the Golden and Silver Ages of comic books for inspiration.  Some writers bridged the more serious tone with the wildly out there concepts like Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis, and Mark Millar.  The comics industry went too far with the grim and gritty portrayals in the late 1990’s, afterward the industry moved away from using that approach as much.  There are still many books that use the approach, but they are not as many as they were in the 90’s.

The DC cinematic approach with a more serious tone started with Batman (1989).  In 1997 with Joel Schumacher and Batman and Robin the approach went too campy, and that soured the studio. In 2005 when Christopher Nolan rebooted the Batman films, he went back to the more realistic and darker approach.  That seems to be the blueprint DC Entertainment is using.  That resulted in 2013’s Man of Steel.  I have problems with Man of Steel, by going grim and gritty it loses the emotional and moral center of the character. 

In 2008 Marvel started their cinematic universe with Iron Man. Marvel continued through with their phase one including the Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), and in 2012 the Avengers. They tackled the silliness of costumed heroes, armored heroes, superpowers and mythic beings. They just rolled with it.  I am worried about the 2016 Superman v. Batman: The Dawn of Justice film. It is borrowing heavily from Dark Knight Returns without much of the history that was part of the story’s setup.   We will see how it goes.

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