Do we fans really want dark comic book movies and television shows? The quick and easy answer is “Yes”… conditionally.
Now, I know and understand that this may seem like a bit of a cop-out, but frankly, it’s the only answer that makes any real sense. If you look at the superhero landscape when it comes to film and television, you can plainly see that the entertainment industry’s track record is hit-and-miss, and that’s being generous. One of the greatest factors in why many comic book movies and TV shows fail can be identified easily by taking a look at the tone in which the character’s movie or show is representative of. We comic book fans are an excitable, but extremely (some may say OVERLY) critical lot. We hold deep reverence for our comic book heroes and we often will not stand for even a modicum of revision when it comes to how they are represented on the screen. Whether I agree with the level of perceived ownership is completely besides the point; the fact is that comic book fans want to see the version they hold most dear on display and many of them tend to get very upset if that isn’t the case. This has lead to what I see as a bit of confusion in people’s minds regarding what kind of comic book entertainment we fans want to see.
The DC Extended Universe
The latest example of the disconnect between what we want and what entertainment studio’s think we want is the fallout from the early attempts from DC to establish their DCEU (or whatever they’ve decided to call it). Now, I understand that this is VERY low hanging fruit, but it stands as the prime example for our generation. It’s not the only one, but it is the most obvious and it has had the most repercussions. Of all the characters DC has established in this universe, their most famous (or 2nd most famous depending on who you ask) is the one they have gotten the most wrong. Superman has been portrayed as a dark, brooding, depressing presence on the screen thus far and it has not resonated well with most of us. Man of Steel has its fans, but even early on there were fans of the character bemoaning the dark mood of Superman’s first entry into the DCEU. The movie made enough money to be profitable, however, so this version of Supes made his way into the poster child for getting the tone wrong: the divisive Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Here’s where things, in my opinion, took the worst turn. But before that, let’s just admit that of all BvS got wrong, it got Batman himself pretty much correct. He was dark, brutal (maybe too brutal) and driven, which is everything the Dark Knight is supposed to be. The problem with the movie, though, is that everything and everyone else was just as dark. What has always made the relationship between Batman and Superman so compelling is the dichotomy between dark and light. Superman is ever the bright optimist and Batman the brooding creature of the night. When you make both of them dark and brooding, there’s no interplay between the two and all sense of their relationship is stripped away. BvS gave us darkness in spades and those fans that put up with it in Man of Steel weren’t as forgiving this time around.
The movie opened huge, to exactly NO ONE’S surprise, but audiences weren’t loving it and it took an enormous 69% drop in its second week which puts it at 114th all time in second week drop-offs. 114th place may seem as if it’s not that big a deal, but when you consider how many movies have been released theatrically since these stats have been tracked (since the 1920’s!) and the history of the characters included, coupled with the star power behind the whole thing, a 69% drop off and 114th place all time is shocking, to say the least. Warner Bros. took note of the historic drop off and ran themselves ragged to change course. To make a long story short and get to the point, the follow up to Batman vs Superman was Justice League, and we all know how THAT turned out.
Justice League was DC and WB’s answer to the tepid critical reception of BvS. They lightened up the tone across the board and after pushing Zack Snyder out the door, brought in the quip master Joss Whedon to finish directing the film. What resulted was a lighthearted, but soulless exercise in over-correction. There were jokes flying like mosquitoes at a Louisiana cookout, even from Batman, which is so wrong for reasons I shouldn’t have to explain. Now, I’m not in love with Batman v Superman; I find it mildly entertaining at best, but Justice League was so far below the level of quality of its predecessor that it’s hard to believe they even exist in the same cinematic universe. The film was a disappointment and although it got better critical reviews than most of the other DCEU films, it also has the lowly distinction of being the lowest grossing film in the entirety of the DCEU, failing to crack even $650 million. For a movie about the flipping Justice League, that’s unbelievable.
So, that’s a look at the surprising difference between what fans want and what movie studios think we want. Instead of looking at BvS and realizing that there were certain aspects that needed to be tweaked, namely Superman, they scrapped Snyder’s entire vision and made a film that tried SO hard to copy the Marvel formula that it ended up becoming the worst thing a film can become: immediately forgettable.
However, DC or Warner Bros. are not the real loser in all of this. WE are. Most of us still want dark and mature comic book movies, we just want it when appropriate. WB’s knee-jerk reaction painted a picture of fans who simply didn’t want that kind of film when in reality, we wanted Batman to be dark and Superman to be light, but WB and DC took an all-or-nothing approach to the tone of their burgeoning universe and in the end, threw the baby out with the bathwater.
The Dark Knight Trilogy
If anyone would need proof that audiences still want dark, moody adaptations, one need look no further than WB and DC’s own crown jewel in the comic book movie genre, Christopher Nolan’s exemplary Dark Knight trilogy. Of the three movies in this trilogy, one, The Dark Knight Rises, is in the top 25 highest grossing movies of all time and another, The Dark Knight, in the top 35. The trilogy itself has eclipsed $1 Billion at the box office and is widely loved by fans and critics alike. The second film, The Dark Knight, is probably the most highly regarded and it is, SURPRISE, easily the darkest of the three. Heath Ledger’s legendary performance of The Joker was cinematic brilliance, but he was a dark, DARK character. The film dealt with heavy, weighty issues and was loaded with plot points and exposition on top of the mayhem, horror, and murder. Even with the prevalent darkness draped throughout the entire trilogy, audiences ate it up and asked for seconds. So… do we want dark comic book movies? Well, apparently we do. Conditionally.
Unfortunately, what most of us comic book fans need to come to grips with is that we are, surprisingly, not the target audience for these big screen films. Comic book movies cost studios an awful lot of money to make, and as such, they need to appeal to the widest audience. To do that, the movies often need to offer a broader appeal that darker elements would, at least in part, negate. It’s why Marvel has had such unprecedented success with their cinematic universe. They make wildly entertaining films that appeal to all age demographics. Those films make for amazing cinematic experiences, but what they most certainly are not, is dark. Even their darkest film yet, the amazing Avengers: Infinity War, had plenty of levity and jokes aplenty. That is the formula that puts butts in the seat and for better or worse, that’s the tone that most comic book films will ultimately attempt to hit.
Darker films will always appeal to a more niche audience. Horror films can make a huge box office splash and hit the number one box office spot, but those kinds of movies are typically much cheaper to produce and will never have the broad appeal that the comic book movies require. The investment from the studios is far too high and they also need to sell a metric butt-load of toys and collectibles to recoup the astounding marketing costs. Darker movies don’t have this requirement because they have much, MUCH lower overhead. There’s no necessity from the smaller studios to flood Target and Walmart shelves with action figures from The Conjuring or The Grudge. Although, if there were, I would definitely buy them!
However, for those of us who like the darker elements in our comic book entertainment, television and streaming services have given us the avenue through which to prove our existence! Shows like FX’s Legion exists in the X-Men universe and it is, as of this writing, prepping for its 3rd season. It is a largely dark show with heavy, weighty themes and it has resonated extremely well with audiences. It even sits at an impressive 8.4 in audience rating on IMDb. Another example would be Netflix’sDaredevil series. Daredevil carries an even more impressive 8.7 on IMDb and anyone who has watched that spectacular show can attest to its dark, even occasionally oppressive atmosphere. Daredevil would easily net an “R” rating (and a hard one at that) as a film, and it is absolutely adored by most of the audience. The success of Daredevil has even spawned several other dark Netflix Marvel shows such as Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and The Punisher. Coincidentally, the most light-hearted of these shows, Iron Fist, is also the least revered by fans and critics alike.
Television and streaming services have given us an avenue to enjoy our heroes on the screen and allowed them to keep their darker elements intact. Even shows that didn’t last, like Constantine, endeared itself to fans and star Matt Ryan has been inexorably linked to the character in fans’ minds. This has allowed him to appear as the character on other live action comic book shows and even voice him in DC’s direct-to-disc animated movies. This and more proves that we do, in fact, want dark comic book entertainment; we just want it appropriately dispersed.
Luckily, I believe that we are beginning to find an acceptable balance in terms of desired tone. Although we aren’t likely to always get the exact incarnation of every character embodied on the large and small screen, studios seem to be getting on the right track. Marvel seems to be staying the course with their cinematic universe without much deviation, but the difference in tone we’re getting from their small screen counterparts is refreshing and entertaining. WB and DC also seem to be righting the ship with some of their upcoming offerings such as the appropriately goofy Shazam as well as the intriguing Joaquin Phoenix Joker film. Everything we’ve been hearing from Matt Reeve’s upcoming Batman film is also highly promising. It looks like DC’s decision to create films outside of their cinematic universe could pay off for them as well as us. As much as I despised Justice League, its lingering stench may well be responsible for us getting the kinds of films we want in the tones that we want.
Are Audiences Rejecting Dark Comic Book Movies and TV?
So when it’s all said and done, yes, we do want darkness in our comic book entertainment. Conditionally. We want Batman to be dark, we want Punisher to be a ruthless killing machine, we want Daredevil to break bones and spit out his own blood after a fight. Conversely, we want Steve Rogers to be optimistic, we want Shazam to walk around with a goofy grin on his face and we want Superman to be just as concerned with helping an old lady across the street as he is with stopping a terrorist attack. What we DON’T want is anyone on one side spending too much time on the other side. We need the darkness as well as the light. As much as we need the day, also we need the night. We want our comic book heroes to be what they were created to be and the consistency of their individual tones will, ultimately, dictate our level of entertainment.