Beware of Darkness: The Curse of Hollywood Noir

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There’s a popular myth in Hollywood – in fact, in all media– that ‘dark’ equals ‘deep’. If you want to be taken seriously in the movie business, to be considered ‘grown up’, then you have to make your product as grim as humanly possible. Every time a classic property is rebooted for a 21st century audience, you can more or less guarantee that its Gen-X producer and director will take to the stage at ComiCon and extol the virtues of their product by claiming that it is much ‘darker’ than the original. They consider this to be a vital ingredient in attracting a modern audience… and yet, the desire to be dark has killed more rebooted properties stone dead than any other factor.

The popularity of noir in modern Hollywood almost certainly started in 1989 with Tim Burton’s Batman. Previous to this, all superhero movies (which were pretty thin on the ground compared to these days) shared the colourful characteristics of their Golden Age comic book counterparts. Films like Superman the Movie and Flash Gordon successfully captured the bright, Technicolor glory of the printed medium in its most popular era. But comics were changing and comic book cinema followed suit; Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight changed how superheroes were viewed in the late 80s and it was the latter (along with The Killing Joke, also by Moore) that inspired Tim Burton’s Batman.

In the 1980s, the general public’s image of Batman was still of camp, tight-wearing Adam West in the deliberately comedic 60s TV series, so the change to black body armour and a no-nonsense attitude was palpable. I remember seeing the trailer for Batman at the cinema and it felt like a quantum leap forward; the screen had to be widened to encompass its 1.85:1 aspect ratio and the Dolby presentation  full of thunderous music and sound effects was just deafening. It was something different – the public saw that it was something different – and it was a massive hit! But it was a combination of many things that made it a hit; the rising star of Tim Burton, the manic appeal of Jack Nicholson and the songs of Prince, currently at the pinnacle of his success.

Still, a lot of Hollywood just saw the darkness and, in the way that Hollywood is prone to do, started applying a liberal coating to all their future products. Almost immediately it created flops. A movie version of Dick Tracy had been in the works at Touchstone Pictures (Disney’s now mostly defunct grown-up movie arm) since the early 80s, originally to be directed by John Landis, but the success of Batman pushed it forward… and in a different direction. The detective scenario of Dick Tracy lent itself to a classic film noir style, but it also had a certain 4-colour comic strip vibe and the film’s star and director Warren Beatty tried to combine the two, without success. Touchstone played up the similarity to Batman and marketed the film with a copy of the earlier hit’s minimalist advertising campaign, but it was misjudged; Dick Tracy wasn’t as well-known a brand as Batman and the silhouette of the detective’s face lacked the instant recognition of the Bat Symbol.

Other properties fitted the noir pattern better, such as the 1994 adaptation of 1930s proto-superhero The Shadow starring Alec Baldwin, but failed to make a mark. The truth was that Batman succeeded because of its product recognition; much as the studios liked to think so, Dick Tracy and The Shadow just weren’t as well recognised brands as Batman, and it was the public recognition and not the appeal of noir that drove its success. Ironically, the noir style worked better with entirely original films such as Sam Raimi’s Darkman; there is a film that wears its darkness on its sleeve and the public didn’t feel that they were being promised one thing and given another. When Raimi handled Spider-Man in 2002, his wisely took a much lighter approach and the result was a big hit. The cinema-going public aren’t fools – they know when something is being dressed up in a different suit of clothes just to follow a Hollywood trend.

Skip on a couple of decades and the arrival of Marvel Studios’ Iron Man launched the era of the modern superhero movie. The Walt Disney Company bought Marvel Entertainment for a staggering $4 billion in 2009 and almost immediately started plans for an expanded universe of films based on the Marvel Comics characters. But lessons had been learned since Disney belly-flopped with Dick Tracy in 1994 and no attempt was made to have these movies being ‘dark’. Initial missteps such as The Incredible Hulk, which had a darker tone than Iron Man, served only to enforce the Marvel pattern of quirky, real world settings with a generous helping of humour. It was much closer to the origins of these characters than any dark vision would have been and the public reacted to it very positively. Almost every subsequent Marvel movie, up to and including 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, has been a massive money-spinner and brought tremendous revenue to the studio.

Marvel Comics major rival, DC Comics, had been owned by Warner Bros Studios for a very long time and if you remember it was their 1989 Batman that kicked this whole thing off. Like any savvy business entity, Warner Bros spotted a trend and immediately embarked upon their own answer to the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) using the well-loved DC characters. However, they were still hung up on the ‘dark’ stylings of their big 80s hit Batman. In the intervening years, Christopher Nolan had taken Batman down a different avenue with his trilogy of movies Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. For all their titular emphasis on the dark, Nolan’s films eschewed the tired noir pattern in favour of a gritty real-world approach; these were like hard-hitting 70s cop dramas, only featuring a man dressed as a bat.

However, when Warner launched the DCU (DC Cinematic Universe) they chose not to take the route established by Nolan and instead go with the more stylised comic noir approach used by Zach Snyder in his 2009 adaptation of Watchmen. Snyder was brought on board to direct the 2013 Superman reboot Man of Steel, but whereas his dark vision was appropriate to an adaptation of Alan Moore’s very adult opus, it seemed to almost work against the legend of Superman. Although it had the biggest opening weekend of any Superman film, it was given a critical mauling for its darkness. Superman is perceived as a very family-friendly superhero and Man of Steel is not a family-friendly movie. Nevertheless, it was followed by Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, intended as the first step towards a Justice League film that would rival Marvel’s Avengers, which was similarly dark in tone; darker, in fact, as (SPOILERS) Superman is seen to die at the end!

The problem with Batman v. Superman was that it was being promoted as a more kid-friendly movie than it actually was. In the UK, your kids could get a McDonalds Happy Meal with a toy promoting a film that they couldn’t actually see in the cinema because it was a certificate 12. The superhero movie was becoming more adult, but promoters continued to push it as something for the kids. The popularity of R-rated films like Deadpool and Logan seems to be suggesting to Hollywood that ‘adult kids’ movies might be the next big thing, although the disappointing reception of Deadpool 2 seems to suggest that this trend might already be burning itself out. The promise of an R-rated Star Trek movie directed by Quentin Tarantino seems no more than a gimmick with little actual artistic merit.

Batman v. Superman’s one redeeming feature was that it introduced Wonder Woman to a new generation. Patty Jenkins’ 2017 solo feature Wonder Woman kicks aside Snyder’s dark DCU and presents the material in a manner more appropriate to the character. The film was an enormous hit, but whether this was, as many have claimed, because the world was ready for a female superhero, or because it was much less damned depressing than Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman is open to debate. Maybe it was a bit of both. Whatever the reason, that lighter touch carried over into the eventual 2018 Justice League movie, with added touched of much-needed levity with the introduction of Aquaman and the Flash.

Coming right up to date, Warner’s two latest DCU productions have totally abandoned the noir style of their predecessors; Aquaman is more in the style of a Marvel film than any previous DCU presentation and Shazam! is an out-and-out comedy… and they’re both all the better for it. Warner stuck to their guns with the idea of the DCU being a darker alternative to the MCU for a long time, but they had to eventually realise that it was a cul de sac. The general public’s perception of the DC Comics characters is of something bright and breezy; Batman is the exception that proves the rule, he moved on because stylistically he was able to, in a way that Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman et al were not.

Yet still, Hollywood persists with its love of the darkness. Every now and then a report will come out over plans for a reboot of Flash Gordon or Barbarella or Doc Savage, and those fresh-faced producers will take to the stage at ComiCon and gleefully tell the audience how it will differ because it will be ‘much darker than the original’. Every time I hear it, I cringe. There are some things that cannot – and should not – be subject to a darker vision. If a producer or director wants to present something dark, then invent something new! That way, if it fails, then the blame is completely on you. Don’t trample all over someone else’s hard work then whine because the public ‘weren’t ready’ for your ‘dark vision’ of the Care Bears. Familiar properties should be presented in the manner most suited to them and slapping a darker visage on them will not make them ‘modern’ or ‘relevant’.

Dark does not equal deep. The drain in my back garden is dark, but it only goes down five or six feet, whereas the Grand Canyon, brightly lit by the Arizona sun, is very, very deep.

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