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“America Hates Dark”
One of the most successful network executives ever laid down this maxim to a producer who insisted that a new cop show be “dark” and “real:” “America,” he said, “hates dark.” He’s right, of course. When audiences sit down to watch something, they rarely want to be depressed. Gripped, thrilled, grabbed, amused, scared, any or all of those things (and more) are okay … but plunged into a depressing and dark vision of the world? Not so much.
Sure, yes, a few “Dark Knights” may achieve escape velocity and make some real money at the box office, but — for day-in-day-out television viewing — it’s hard to make money that way. And it’s getting harder to make money in the movie theater that way, too. I write a bit about this in my column for The National, the English-language newspaper of Abu Dhabi:
There’s more than enough dark and depressing content on the front page of the newspaper, and audiences – at least in the United States – are expressing their bad-news-fatigue by changing the channel.
Once promising, though grimly dark, shows like Hannibal have been cancelled, and the recently popular genre of the “anti-hero” – shows that depicted such complicated and morally compromised leading roles as Tony Soprano or Breaking Bad’s Walter White – now seem overly heavy and leaden.
It isn’t just a case of audiences demanding sunnier themes. It’s also clear that they’re tired of ceaseless controversy in general.
When former Olympic gold medallist Bruce Jenner announced that he was undergoing a major life – and gender – transformation, it was the kind of lurid and tabloid-ready news that garnered big headlines and seemed tailor-made for an eventual reality television series.
Which, no surprise, it was. Jenner’s series, I Am Cait, premièred a few weeks ago to a large audience, only to collapse in the ratings in the subsequent weeks. Call it “issue exhaustion” or “controversy ennui” or whatever you like, but it’s clear that when audiences get home after a long day at work and sift through their large and growing entertainment choices, what they’re looking for is a ticket out of the here and the now.
And then, there’s the summer’s box office disaster, “The Fantastic Four.” There’s a great summary of all the things that went wrong with the picture in the Hollywood Reporter, but this line stood out to me:
Sources say Fox believed in what one executive calls a “grounded, gritty version of Fantastic Four that was almost the opposite of previous versions” — and initially thought [the director] could deliver that.
Recall, for a moment, that the Fantastic Four includes a guy with stretchy arms and another guy who’s all rocky and stuff. It’s a comic book movie. Whoever suggested a “grounded, gritty” version should be dragged naked through the movie lot and then publicly whipped.
Because people have “grounded, gritty” lives. When they pay money, or crack open a beer and sit in front of the TV, what they want is entertainment. And that doesn’t mean it has to be shallow or stupid or comic-book light: it can be brilliant, and complex, and all sorts of smart. But don’t make a movie about a guy with elastic arms and try to make it all dark.
America hates dark.
Image Credit: “Fantastic Four 2015 poster” by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.Published in Culture, Entertainment
Well Said Rob.
My job has plenty of darkness in it. We care for people no one else cares for. When I want entertainment, I want it to be fun. MI5 was fun. And even in the Dark Knight, Batman got to be Batman.
What about Captain America: The Winter Soldier? It did ok while being pretty dark, maybe leaning a little dystopian. Do you think the next movie, Civil War, will drown in the dark and depressing?
It was like a 70’s Political thriller (complete with Redford) but with Captain America and flying Aircraft carriers. I don’t think it was all that dark. At no point was Cap going to waver, turn into a bad guy etc. He knew he could trust Black Widow. We knew Fury was not dead. We knew that Cap would win out and come out noble and true and American.
He put on his old Smithsonian costume.
But don’t we know basically the same thing about Fantastic 4?
Fantastic 4 didn’t fail because it’s “dark”.
It failed because the plot is entirely incoherent and because the scenes that were reshot and reedited by the studio are SOOOOO obvious. Sue Storm’s hair changes from shot to shot, for crying out loud.
The parts of the movie I liked the MOST were the dark sciencey stuff.
Dark is not bad. What’s bad is when a movie can’t decide what it wants to be.
The director of the movie wanted to make a full-on dark science fiction flick, but the studio stepped in and forced him to shoe-horn some comic book hijinx into the second half of the movie.
Leave the director alone!!! He knows what he’s doing.
Fantastic Four comic books haven’t been goofy for a generation now. They are about power, and death, and infidelity, and depression, and betrayal, and monomania, and technocracy, etc, etc. Reed Richards hasn’t been an unambiguous “good guy” for a very, very long time.
Funny you mentioned this. Last night our family sat down to watch a movie. We turned off 4 movies because they were just too dark, gritty, depressing. What followed was a discussion on how they do not make any good movies anymore and how most current movies just suck. (I hope the Ricocheti can handle that word because my mother said it is the only word that truly describes what is being made) You come out of them an emotional wreck, like you just did marathon sessions on a psych couch, tore up and sweating.
The really odd part is how even the comic movies and comedies are trying to go with this new gritty reality. What ever happened to feel good movies where the good guys win and were actually “good guys” and not emotional cripples?
Speaking of which did anybody see the last season of “True Detective”? The “good guys” were not really good. Just less bad than the “bad guys”. They were all emotional cripples that insisted that you take the trip with them into their emotional disabilities. Not fun or enjoyable at all.
I think Americans like dark but hate the over-the-top parody of a grim world that is derided by some as grimdark: the idea of a depressing world where honor doesn’t exist and might makes right.
The purported exception to this is George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, the much-lauded book and TV series where being a decent person means you will not live to see the end of the series. But for all the plaudits and “everyone is watching” mystique, how big are the ratings really: has it ever broken 10 million viewers? So this zeitgeist show has about half the drawing power of Two and a Half Men. And I bet the biggest cost for Two and a Half Men was salaries, not production.
What are the top movies of 2015 worldwide? Fast & Furious 7, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Jurassic World: all over $1.5 billion dollars worldwide. The next comparable gritty film? Mad Max: Fury Road at under $375 million.
For comparison sake Furious 7 cost $190 million, Mad Max cost $150 million, so for the cost of $40 million the cheerfully absurd action film made $1.2 billion dollars more.
Tell me again about the drawing power of gritty realism.
I loved the FF comic growing up. I want to support the effort by watching the film but boy is it getting panned by critics. So sad – why is it so difficult to put together a cogent story with these characters?
You write for a newspaper in Abu Dhabi? How did you pick that up ?
Liberal America is dark and perpetually depressed. Everyone is oppressed. And every new darker, grittier, reboot of something America is already in love with is going to make us snap into passionate social justice warriors.
In reality, opening weekends create word of mouth reviews of “Gee, they f’ed that one up” and everyone stays away in droves.
I’m waiting for the next “Lassie” reboot but they’re undecided between Lassie being kidnapped for animal testing drugs by Big Pharma or having Timmy fall down a fracking well.
Well, really Lassie is the hero so you’d have Timmy kidnapped for testing by Big Pharma who are using petroleum based drugs because they can sell them for more than the all-natural alternative you can grow in your windowsill.
The Civil War part has me scared on this one. The Hollywood left can’t ever seem to resist the American Civil War, slavery and why white people today need to feel guilty about something that white people 150 years ago did. If they can resist feeding me a guilt trip it might be enjoyable, if not I will be skipping it.
For the same premise as your article notes, I had zero interest in Breaking Bad. At the insistence of my Brother, it took me a few episodes to get into it, but on one Saturday, sans kids, I turned it on with my coffee at 7am and 14 hours laters I had to peel myself of the couch after a Level 5 binge. It was dark, gritty and disturbing… and for my money, the best written series I have ever watched.
I think entertainment can be dark, light, whatever, but to succeed they must have great writing, direction and actors you can relate to. Better Call Saul seems to be carrying the torch very well.
I genuinely would love to see a Krypto movie. Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. About a pampered family mutt. From a planet that orbits a red sun. Who is used to test a FTL spaceship. And it crashes in the middle of the Russian taiga. With zero dialogue until the very end. When Superman reclaims his pet dog. Roll credits.
(Gratuitous shot of a statue of Laika optional.)
William Shakespeare agreed with this.
F4 failed because the movie stinks, and the audience may be finally getting to a point Rob has been predicting for a couple of years now: superhero saturation. Look at the slate of major films coming up. Seems like half of them are comic book flicks. Hollywood found a winning formula in super flicks, and as it has always done, then proceeded to mine that shaft until there’s no gold left.
Another problem with comic book flicks is the reboot thing. In 15 years, we’ll have had three different Spider-Man franchises, with three different actors, all telling the same story three different times. We’ve had two F4 franchises in 10 years. And we’re starting to hit bottom of the barrel for characters.
This is a problem with Fox and Sony superhero flicks, primarily.
Instead of blaming the genre, or the industry, why not shine a light on the specific studios who consistently keep screwing up?
I wanted to like Hannibal. The reason I don’t like it as much as I wanted to (but I still watch it anyway) isn’t because it’s too dark. I mean how could it not be dark? It’s Hannibal. No, the reason is that they messed with the original too much. In the book and the original movie with William Petersen, Will was burned out from all the profiling of sickos. But in the TV series, they turned him into an insane mental patient. And the reporter Freddie Lounds is now a girl. They messed with the original story too much, that was the problem.
A large part of the reason for Marvel’s success back in the “Golden Age” of comic books was that its stories were more grounded and gritty than DC’s. This was one of Stan Lee’s great innovations.
I haven’t seen the new Fantastic Four movie—I liked the last two well enough, and didn’t think it needed a reboot—but I see others have observed that the new movie just wasn’t that good.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier was also pretty dark—can you get darker than Nazis secretly running the country?—but it was fundamentally about overthrowing the darkness, by the least-dark hero in the Marvel universe. I think that element is what distinguished it from other dark stories with no positive aspect.
I’m thinking of a specific Batman movie here, which I’d never bother to rewatch.
It’s like that whole “film noir” fad….nobody wants to see dark.
I love Hannibal. I am very sad that they have to wrap it up this season.
Thomas Harris has been quoted as saying that the tv series is better than his original books.
Yes. Watching that series was a necessary evil, I think. I hated doing it at times, not because it was bad, but because it was so well-done it was hard to take. And I was delighted to have finished watching the last episode.
But it was fantastically well-done as a drama. And I’m happy that I saw it.
But I’ll never watch it again!
Absolutely. The tone of FF4 lends itself as poorly to dark and gritty as this one.
I for one am sick of the Damaged Hero or Heroine. We should go back to having heroes to look up to, heroes for kids to aspire to be like. No more Carrie on Homeland with her manic depression and her meds. No more anti-heroes with three bad marriages behind them. And they’re usually recovering alcoholics to boot.
Entertainment/art products can fail or succeed for many reasons, and usually do for multiple reasons in conjunction. There is no entirely objective and mathematical way to measure the influence of these factors. At best, we can make educated guesses.
Factors like “bad acting” or “believeability” can only be identified by surveys. If you ask ten people who didn’t like the acting why the acting is bad, you will get ten different answers…. if half of them can even offer explanations. Most consumers of art respond to requests for criticism first by describing their own feelings (“I didn’t like it”) and struggle to understand, let alone explain, their own judgments.
The many factors involved in any artistic product rely on each other like parts of an engine. If any part is flawed or broken, it makes the other parts look bad. Conversely, excellent features might hide flaws elsewhere in the work. And no feature pleases unless it is well implemented. Sometimes a work fails because it presents a winning feature poorly.
To complicate the matter further, each factor must be considered in relation to scarcity or saturation in the market at the time of its release. Film production schedules vary, typically requiring years. It is difficult to anticipate what other movies will be released when the film is completed.
All of which is just to say…. I’m skeptical.
Appreciating Rob’s expertise in the subject at hand (Hollywood and the entertainment industry), I have to suggest that the current “Fantastic Four” re-boot is a flop for no other reason than…it’s a lousy movie. The story is incoherent, the characters dull and two-dimensional, and the franchise villain only emerges in the last ten minutes or so…and then is immediately neutralized by the obligatory kindergarten-level teamwork of the erstwhile heroes.
In the original Marvel comic book, the characters were adults, accomplished in their respective fields, and the only adolescent was Johnny Storm (a nod to the then-accepted requirement in comic books for a “teenage side-kick”). In this version, all the characters are precocious teenagers; The adults are all stupid, corrupt and exploitative, or exist simply to provide the young geniuses with the means and facilities their intellectual potential entitles them to.
No wonder this movie is so boring…it’s a fairy tale for millennials, one that ultimately fails to affirm any message worth telling.
I think people are forgetting just how horribly the technicolor superhero movies of the 1990s performed at the box office.
People enjoy it when realism is injected into superhero movies. It helps to make these VERY unrealistic characters and situations more relateable.
The failures happen when a) the studio gets nervous and forces the director to showhorn some idiotic superhero cliches into the story, and/or b) the writers confuse realism with darkness.
Now, what do we mean by “realism” when we’re talking about superhero movies (or fantasy movies, or sci-fi movies, or horror movies, etc)? How can these sorts of stories possibly be “realistic”? Isn’t is an oxymoron?
No it isn’t. What we mean by “realism” is simply that the writers/directors must plug the freaking plot holes!
A movie that is dark and gritty, but still doesn’t make a lick of sense, is not going to do well just because it’s dark and gritty. It fails because it doesn’t make sense.
I loved Man of Steel, and cannot wait for Batman v. Superman. However, Man of Steel still isn’t a perfect Superman movie because it still had too many plot holes.
Daredevil on Netflix is quite successful. It’s fairly dark but it’s always entertaining.
We could probably reach, and maybe exceed our goal of 10,000 by re-imagining Ricochet as some dark, foreboding website.
A few psychotic drugs into Peter’s Ovaltine should do the trick. Maybe Lileks could go postal in the STrib news room.
I was sad they didn’t slip a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle reference into the origin scene. One throwaway shot of a kid carrying a bowl with four baby turtles would have sufficed.