Why so Serious? – What has happened to light-hearted superhero movies?

I saw the new Fantastic Four trailer a few weeks ago and couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed. Not because it didn’t look cool because it did, it really did, but because it felt like the creators were making the same superhero mistake that seems to be rearing its head a lot at the moment… it’s a dark, mature and realistic take on the characters (again!)

This is something that is beginning to annoy me and I think it’s impacting on all areas of superhero movies. Not just the ones that have obviously gone the dark route but also the movies that have for the most part managed to avoid this… and the one studio that is supposed to be the saving grace of the superhero genre.

In the beginning…

Extra Large Movie Poster Image for Spider-man 2

Superhero movies done well always reflect their source material and the character that the film has focused upon. Christopher Reeves Superman was a lighter, hopeful character while Tim Burton’s Batman took the darker, edgier and more mature route. These characters are the polar opposite of tone and story-telling and their movies reflected that – and it worked.

More recent examples exist too. The first, and only Punisher movie in the series I truly recognise, had the darker, more violent tone (without going full R – it’s still a comic book movie…) while more mature versions of darker source material, like Blade and Spawn, exist with a fair representation of their original material.

On the lighter side, you have the original Spiderman movies. They worked, bringing a light-hearted and optimistic superhero in Spiderman to the big-screen without making the film dark, gritty and realistic. Spiderman 2 is considered by many, including me, to be one of the greatest superhero movies made, and it was done without any dark, mature themes. It dealt with darker moments, for example the death of Uncle Ben, but you didn’t feel the weight of the world on the heroes shoulders and you aren’t supposed too, that isn’t what Spiderman is about.

Fantastic Four Movie Poster
The original Fantastic Four movie had the right tone

Quality and tone are not intrinsically linked. The original Fantastic Four movies weren’t great but I will defend them, they told the story and represented the characters correctly. Fantastic Four’s source material is not a grim tale, with a darker, sombre tone, so the movie representation shouldn’t be either. The movie being light in tone was not the reason it was poorly received.

In the same breath though, movies which do bring the wrong tone will suffer in quality and there is an early example of that too. Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns had the darker tone and it suited a character who thrives in the night. Joel Schumacher tried to being something else to the characters, with sillier, goofier versions of quite dark villains and the introduction of the sidekick. Batman Forever didn’t “feel” right but it was passable. Batman and Robin was the final straw, taking all of the negative aspects from Forever and none of the redeeming features. Camp, silly and completely forgetting what made Burton’s movies such a success – the dark edge.

Then there was Nolan…

It feels only appropriate then that it was Batman that would tip the scales. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy would bring back the gritty, realistic edge that Batman needs. It would ground everything in realism and make one of the least “super” superhero movies. It was dark, it was edgy and it was incredible… because it fit the character really well.

It took a little bit of time for the impact of Dark Knight to take hold. It meant that we got the superhero movies we deserved. Iron Man and Thor embraced the lighter side of the characters and delivered movies true to their respective heroes. Even Captain America, although one of the studio’s weaker efforts, had the right tone and was on the lighter side, delivering a hopeful, inspiring character, like Cap should be.

Avengers brought together the right tone with the right superheroes

All this came to a head in The Avengers and it was glorious. Not a gritty, mature and dark scene in sight. It wasn’t silly, it just had the right amount of tongue-in-cheek and knew what it was bringing fans, an exciting, action-filled piece of guilty-pleasure cinema.

So when the success of other franchises begins to run dry, studios do what they do best – look to what has worked before and suck that well dry. Of course this is a tried and tested method but it isn’t a “one size fits-all” genre – it’s too expansive for that.

Enter the darkness…

It means we now have characters with completely the wrong tone and the results have been exactly as expected – poor. Two of the superheroes that represent the lighter side of comics were given movies with the wrong tone completely. Man of Steel gave us a dark, reckless and remorseful superhero that didn’t represent light and inspiring but outsider and loner. Spiderman wasn’t the optimistic, teenage hero that every kid wanted to be but was a moody, troubled child who was full of guilt. It was a better representation of Spiderman as a character but the film around him was too concerned with being “real.”

The trend is starting to seep into other movies series too. X-Men is a series with many different types of characters so can be almost anywhere on the overall spectrum but you couldn’t help but notice the latest movie on the grittier side of realism.

Even Marvel’s poster-boy has gone for a darker edge

Sticking with Marvel, Iron Man, Thor and Captain America have all embraced a darker edge since their ensemble movie. These were great films and in the case of Thor and Cap, I preferred the sequels, but darker, edgier material that begins to go down the moody route rather than focusing on the lighter source material, does not instantly make for a successful superhero film.

It is coming to a head with Fantastic Four. The characters I saw in that trailer, albeit briefly, were not the characters I recognise from the comics. Serious to the core Mr Fantastic – (check), caring but heroic Sue Storm (maybe?), wise-cracking Johnny Storm (doesn’t look like it), sarcastic Ben Grimm (not holding my breathe). This seemed like Interstellar crossed with Prometheus, not a story of a family given incredible abilities who use them to become the famous four. Dark does not mean successful but nobody is telling Fox that!

The future…

Marvel are the saving grace here. Guardians of the Galaxy was fun without being silly but at the same time did not have the dark, gritty tone that is seeping into all other superhero movies. If they can keep that away from the sequel, there is hope yet. The same is hopefully going to be true of Age of Ultron but from what I’ve seen, it does seem to “up the dark stakes.”

DC have embraced the darkness entirely. Every picture is on a murky background. Batman should be the odd one out in Justice League, not the darkest of a grim group of heroes. No bright blues and reds but an edgy Aquaman who looks like he has just come from Game of Thrones rather than the bottom of the sea.

Overall, I’m hoping the continued failure of darker movies begins to show the studios the light. People are not excited for DC and Justice League which is ridiculous and I think the reason is the poor choice in tone and adoption of gritty realism. Marvel have their movies pitched right and continued to flourish so hopefully, as they get bigger and their reach is wider, studios go back to the (comic) drawing board and realise what made these characters so successful in the first place.

Would love to see a Superman that captured the character more closely
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11 comments

  1. Thank you. Thank on all counts. I love the Spider-Man movies because they don’t take themselves seriously. With Batman everything is dark. Have you watched The LEGO Movie yet? If you have then you’ll know about the darkness factor. It’s a hilarious scene, but it’s so true to what superhero movies have turned into.

    Great post. Perfect, in fact!

    • Thank you very much. I was expecting some backlash from this post actually.

      I have seen the Lego Movie and it captures the dark Batman and his “struggle” brilliantly. Looking forward to the Lego Batman movie that is in the works.

  2. I like both. I like my dark and gritty more adult oriented films and the more humour and lighter tone ones. Am loving it at the moment. Got DC vs Marvel, comedy vs drama. Can’t wait, getting all I want 😀

      • Well now I have a different opinion on that. I think some characters need to be mixed up every so often to keep them fresh.

        When you look at the comics Superman has become vastly more popular recently due to a revamping of his style and origins.

        I doubt a fully established superman will be a dark character. Maybe a darker world but that’s just the way the DC Universe has been written for the past 20 years

  3. I agree with you I miss the lighter superhero adventures, Superman was way too emo and dark. I have to say though I loved Punisher “War Zone” it felt like a rad Punisher comic book from the 1980s…totally underrated flick. Just some dumb fun!

  4. Awesome read, and I agree with you completely. I really enjoy the 2005 fantastic four for the same reasons: they mailed the tone just right. I have no desire to see the new one.

    Marvel is certainly the wave crashing against the grittier versions (though the Dark Knight trilogy I still hold up as the pinnacle for comic book films). And even though Iron man, etc. got a little darker with their next movies, they still weren’t THAT dark. I think Marvel is going to keep things on the right page for a while yet.

    • I really hope so. The best case scenario would be if Marvel could actually get their products back. We need a decent Fantastic Four and X-Men that could link with the wider Marvel Universe.

  5. The cookie-cutter take on superhero films really doesn’t work. The FF movies nearly had everything right save the ill-conceived take on Dr. Doom and Galactus.

    Marvel still seems to have it down right, but I’m worried about what to expect with Dawn of Justice after the first two posters… Dark doesn’t always equal good.

    Great post Ben!

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