Television Rules the Nation #4: Doing Darkness Right

Wednesday, April 22, 2015
Previously on when this column was still called TV Talk...


Man, if there were a Bad Luck Olympics, that guy on the ground just medaled.
Yeah, Daredevil. The jaded contrarian in me might be "totally done" with Marvel's cinematic endeavors, but fortunately for me (and everyone else, if we're being honest), that smirking hipster only has control over about 15% of my brain at any given time, and the rest of it is totally friggin' psyched for Age of Ultron, and A.K.A. Jessica Jones, and Civil War and everything else. I'm even excited for Ant-Man, and nobody is excited for Ant-Man!

A million gallons of internet ink has already been spilled over Daredevil's increased levels of both darkness and grittiness relative to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And while yeah, it is a lot darker (and/or grittier) than anything else Marvel's put out right now, I'm not sure that darkness/grittiness alone is what makes the series so noteworthy, and it got me thinking about the role that "dark and gritty" has come to play in pop culture.

It's a fun coincidence that, during the writing of this column, the trailer for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice came out and immediately became the subject of debate regarding its almost laughable levels of darkness. For those of you who haven't seen it, Batman (who is a superhero, I feel compelled to add) growls "Do you bleed? YOU WILL." at Superman while wearing a metal bat-suit, and that's basically all you need to know. Taken together, it and Daredevil form a sort of interesting study in contrasts that illustrates something that studios -- and comic books in general -- have struggled with for a long while: that there is a right way and a wrong way to do darkness, and it all comes down to one thing, consequences.

So, brief history time -- feel free to skip to the next paragraph if you're already a nerd -- throughout the '70s and '80s, comic books started getting darker and grappling with more political, quote/unquote "adult" storylines. While most of these seem pretty dated nowadays (I'm sure you've seen Speedy doing heroin, but what about Captain America fighting the embodiment of American corruption, led by an offscreen Richard Nixon?) they broke a lot of ground in making comic books more than just something for children. This time was known in comic books circles as "The Bronze Age". In 1986, two comics -- Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns -- catapulted comics into what we now call "The Dark Age", by delivering stories that were deliberately and provocatively politicized, that pitilessly deconstructed the psychology of our heroes, and that featured brutal, bone-crunching violence and moments of horror that dragged the genre far away from the cartoonish "BOOFS" and "WHOMPS" that characterized earlier stories. That last part's important, or at least I assume it is, because it's the only thing that any comic books that came afterward seemed interested in. For years, we got stories filled with cheap violence, piggish sexuality, and hamfisted politics that attempted to cash in on Watchmen and DKR's massive cultural cachet.  But what made Watchmen great wasn't its noir-ish style or its street-level grit or its Grand Guignol finale, it was that Watchmen was first and foremost a character study that delved headfirst into not just the psychology of costumed vigilantes, but also into the culture that surrounds them (making it work as a meta-commentary on comics in general -- god, isn't that book just the best?). And what made DKR such a big deal was that it was the first time anyone suggested that maybe, just maybe, Batman is just as much of a violent, sadistic psychopath as the guys he fights, which was huge back then. The writers that followed took the trappings of darkness and grit, incorrectly assuming that those two qualities alone were what made those original stories so earthshaking, and plastered them across the same kind of boring, Status-Quo-Is-God hackery that represents comics at their worst.

Pictured: Bill Watterson, just -- straight-up killing it. Also: comics in the '90s, distilled into eight panels.
What they lacked, and what Watchmen and DKR were full of -- well, Watchmen more than DKR -- is that word again: consequence. Daredevil (we're still talking about TV, right?) seems to have taken the right lesson from those milestones: it spends as much time delving into Matt Murdock's and Wilson Fisk's broken psychologies and laying into the one percent as it does having Matt punch people real good. The consequences of Matt's nightlife -- which, again, involves donning hockey gear and savagely beating Russian mobsters within an inch of their lives -- are visited again and again, as we watch it wear away his relationships, his body, and his increasingly guilty conscience. And man, can I just take a second to gush over how right Daredevil does its action? It's all visceral, but it never feels nasty for nastiness' sake; Matt gets winded, bruised, and lacerated, has to use more than one punch per bad guy, and then has to spend whole episodes recovering from his wounds! It's almost like violence takes a serious emotional and physical toll on people, or something.

Compare that to, say, Man of Steel, which caught a lot of (in hindsight, pretty justifiable) flak for senselessly murdering an estimated 120,000 people and causing roughly 700 billion dollars in property damage in its finale and then just kinda...shrugging it off. I mean, it's not like Marvel movies are exempt from this stuff, either -- how many people are dead or dying in the wreckage of New York while the Avengers sit around eating shawarma? -- but the difference is that The Avengers never once pretended to be anything other than a bunch of pulpy, celebratory action fantasy. Millions of people die at the beginning of Star Wars, but the movie doesn't sit around exploring the presumably massive sociopolitical and economic ramifications of an entire planet being destroyed because it's obviously fantasy. It never plays at being a serious character study, or a serious study of anything other than "lasers and laser swords are neat, the end".

And therein lies the peril in doing dark. When you go dark, you aren't just bathing everything in shadows and blood, you're inviting reality into your narrative, with all the messiness and complexity that implies. In reality, yeah, Batman's probably a violent psychopath and Superman probably kills hundreds of thousands of people and deals billions in property damage every time he throws down with a supervillain, and guess what? That's the story you have to tell now. And if there's one nice thing I can say about that Batman v. Superman (I'm not typing the full title again), it's that it does appear at least to be trying to tell that story -- dealing with the fallout of MoS' almost cartoonishly destructive ending and Superman's status as a demigod. My only concern is that I'm not convinced that Zack Snyder and his crew can do that story any kind of justice, or make it anything more than window dressing for the "main event fight" that they're trying so hard to sell us on.

Daredevil does, like, the opposite of that: the spandex-clad, flying-kick ninja fights and the blood-spattered gloom are the window dressing for a story that seems more concerned with the relationships between its main characters, and the themes of justice, guilt, father figures, and the ways that crime shapes a community. As a consequence (hehe, see what I did there?), it highlights the strengths of going dark: namely, how it can ground big concepts in relatable emotional stakes and really draw the audience in.

"Dark n' Gritty" seems easy, because there's so damn much of it these days, but in reality it's a pretty fraught aesthetic choice, and it requires a deft hand to pull off properly.

If you don't stick the landing, the audience will know.


P.S. Also, I changed the name of this column! I figure we're still early enough in this race that I can change horses midstream (is that how that metaphor works?), and Daft Punk references are never uncalled for.

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