“America Hates Dark”

 

Fantastic_Four_2015_posterOne 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
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  1. Whiskey Sam Inactive
    Whiskey Sam
    @WhiskeySam

    The King Prawn: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?

    That will be an interesting one to get through.  I’m not sure the general public wants to see good guys fighting each other.  It takes half the characters you’re used to rooting for and makes you root against them which makes them hard to root for again later.  I was hoping they’d stay away from the whole thing since it didn’t work in the comics either.

    • #31
  2. Jordan Wiegand Inactive
    Jordan Wiegand
    @Jordan

    Gotta agree with Misthio here, Fantastic Flop was a disaster because it was a bad movie.

    We’ll watch a dark, good, movie.  Frank Miller graphic novel movies tend to do pretty well, such as Watchmen and Sin City.  They’re dark, yet successful.  I don’t believe these are particularly rare either.

    Miller’s contribution to Daredevil is a significant influence in the Netflix Daredevil series, which is truly amazing, yet quite dark.  Donofio’s performance as Kingpin is inspired.

    There’s an argument that happy, upbeat movies tend to do better than the dark and gritty, but if you made an unmitigated disaster like F4 in that vein, you’d wind up with a slightly less bad disaster.  I do think that the bar for success if higher in the darker stuff.

    I see dark movies as like music set in a minor key.  We naturally like the happier modes of the major keys, but the minor key can rattle the soul, in a way that the major keys are unable.

    But dark, incompetent narrative like F4, well, I really just feel sorry for the young actors they got for this.  Because it’s not like any moviegoer is going to be let down by the film.

    • #32
  3. David Sussman Contributor
    David Sussman
    @DaveSussman

    Incidentally, Daniel Craigs 007 has taken this track, even so much as to unveil his childhood demons in the recent Skyfall. It’s still good, but has shifted my perception of the beloved Connery and Moore films. They now sadly seem… tame.

    Before Craigs darker version of Bond, the only psychodrama Bond experienced was Lazenby’s melodramatic On Her Majesty’s Secret Service where he marries. It was darker than Connery’s stint and was not received well, for a myriad of reasons… maybe it was just ahead of it’s time.

    • #33
  4. Fredösphere Inactive
    Fredösphere
    @Fredosphere

    Isn’t this mostly semantics? If people start defining “dark” I’ll bet we get at least two definitions.

    • #34
  5. Whiskey Sam Inactive
    Whiskey Sam
    @WhiskeySam

    Rob touched on this in one of the podcasts last week when he mentioned USA’s former “Blue Skies” programming concept back in the late 90s/early 00s.  They ran out a string of successful shows including Monk, Psych, and Burn Notice that mixed humor and seriousness without going too dark.  Shows that hearkened back to Rockford and Magnum PI.  They actually pulled the creator of In Plain Sight off the show for wanting to take it too dark.  That branding took them to the top of the cable ratings for years.  Ironically, not long after In Plain Sight’s overhaul, they decided to go darker, and their shows have been less interesting and have had shorter runs outside of Suits.  As their parent network is NBC, I’ve often wondered if NBC would be in as bad a shape as it has been if it had been running Monk, Psych, and Burn Notice instead of the shows that were tanking.

    • #35
  6. Frank Soto Contributor
    Frank Soto
    @FrankSoto

    Whiskey Sam:

    The King Prawn: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?

    That will be an interesting one to get through. I’m not sure the general public wants to see good guys fighting each other. It takes half the characters you’re used to rooting for and makes you root against them which makes them hard to root for again later. I was hoping they’d stay away from the whole thing since it didn’t work in the comics either.

    It was a huge mistake to go with Civil War.  Marvel adores this story line for indiscernible reasons.

    • #36
  7. Probable Cause Inactive
    Probable Cause
    @ProbableCause

    In other news, I tried out Season 1, Disk 1 of the original Mission: Impossible T.V. show on the family.  From my childhood I vaguely recall the intro sequence (who can forget the music?), but I really don’t remember the show at all.  So it was new for me as well.

    Houston, we have a winner.  Among other things, it’s fun to see Martin Landau having fun.  I know him mainly from his role in North by Northwest.

    And seriously?  They actually have a character named… Cinnamon?

    • #37
  8. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    David Sussman:Incidentally, Daniel Craigs 007 has taken this track, even so much as to unveil his childhood demons in the recent Skyfall. It’s still good, but has shifted my perception of the beloved Connery and Moore films. They now sadly seem… tame.

    The Daniel Craig Bond movies are an excellent example of what I’m talking about.

    Casino Royale made sense. The writers/director/producers spend a long time working on it to get it just right. A lot of care went into it. They hired a long-time action director and a very, very experienced writing team. Plus, they had the original novel to work from. It kicked butt.

    Quantum of Solace was made during a writers strike. ’nuff said.

    Skyfall was made by the same guy that made Revolutionary Road and American Beauty. You might as well hire Ang Lee to make a Hulk movie!

    • #38
  9. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Fredösphere:Isn’t this mostly semantics? If people start defining “dark” I’ll bet we get at least two definitions.

    1) The absence of light. (Turn the lights off. It gets dark.)

    2) The absorption of light. (Black paint.)

    Boom. Nailed it.

    • #39
  10. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    As far as the alleged studio interference in the tone of the movie, it could be someone’s desperate bid to deal with the ennui that is to be expected from making the same stupid, stinking movie over and over and over and over again!

    I hope Douglas is right and the tastes of the public are changing. I’ve given up hope on them improving.

    • #40
  11. David Sussman Contributor
    David Sussman
    @DaveSussman

    Misthiocracy: Quantum of Solace was made during a writers strike. ’nuff said.

    Ahh… that makes sense, although the intro Amalfi coast scene with the Aston Martins was great.

    • #41
  12. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Percival:As far as the alleged studio interference in the tone of the movie, it could be someone’s desperate bid to deal with the ennui that is to be expected from making the same stupid, stinking movie over and over and over and over again!

    I could agree that “studio interference” could be a useful excuse for an incompetent director. However, in this case, I think it’s a valid explanation because the stark contrast between the director’s scenes and the studio’s scenes is really, really obvious … right down to Sue Storm’s freakin’ hairdo.

    • #42
  13. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    David Sussman:

    Misthiocracy: Quantum of Solace was made during a writers strike. ’nuff said.

    Ahh… that makes sense, although the intro Amalfi coast scene with the Aston Martins was great.

    No dialogue in that scene.

    • #43
  14. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    The first three years of “Mission: Impossible” were the best. There were some, but fewer good episodes in the final four years. It was best as a spy show; later, Paramount made it more of an anti-crime show fighting “The Syndicate”. Paramount also hated the Iron Curtain locations of the beginning years; they wanted bright sunlight, attractive decor, and (cheaper) US settings.

    I was in Catholic high school when the original aired. My friends and I made a Super 8 parody one Christmas holiday; I’m sure thousands of other kids did the same. One thing that’s sadly/wistfully changed about the culture: frequently, “M:I” rescued bishops, cardinals, and other clergy who were unnamed but pretty obviously Catholic. It was assumed at the time that nearly every American would see them as being on our side, broadly speaking, in a worldwide ideological war.

    What also made this a souvenir of its times is the fact that few, if any of the M:I gang were Catholics: creator Bruce Geller, head writer Allan Balter, first male lead Steven Hill, Martin Landau, Barbara Bain, even Lesley Ann Warren were all Jewish. We used to think of them as “the Vatican’s rescue squad”.

    • #44
  15. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Gary McVey:The first three years of “Mission: Impossible” were the best. There were some, but fewer good episodes in the final four years. It was best as a spy show; later, Paramount made it more of an anti-crime show fighting “The Syndicate”. Paramount also hated the Iron Curtain locations of the beginning years; they wanted bright sunlight, attractive decor, and (cheaper) US settings.

    Much like James Bond was, really, if you look at it with a clear head, hurt badly by the invention of SPECTRE.

    In the books, the bad guys are the Soviets. It’s pretty unambiguous.

    For the movies it was decided that picking on the Soviets for an entire movie franchise wasn’t fair play, for some reason. It was the 60s.

    So, they invented SPECTRE, which is basically just a stand-in for the old tired trope of evil capitalism.

    This trope of the evil, private, profit-making, multinational organization infected all film/tv spy stories of the time. Man from U.N.C.L.E. Mission Impossible. Get Smart. Etc.

    The one show that didn’t fall into this trap, The Prisoner (and its spiritual predecessor, Danger Man), never really gained more than cult status.

    • #45
  16. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Gary McVey: What also made this a souvenir of its times is the fact that few, if any of the M:I gang were Catholics

    Yes but you had the Aurness brothers, both on CBS.

    • #46
  17. Real Jane Galt Coolidge
    Real Jane Galt
    @FakeJohnJaneGalt

    CLARK SUMMERS: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.

    Agree with you on the FF4.  Everybody was a kid with the emotional chops of children.  In the end they could not make be believe they were anything but a bunch of kids thrown together.  There was very little love or friendship or any relationship between them.

    • #47
  18. Valiuth Inactive
    Valiuth
    @Valiuth

    Real Jane Galt:

    The King Prawn: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?

    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.

    I doubt the Civil War plot will be about slavery unless they decide to throw all the comic book lore out the window. The Civil War plot line is a fight between freedom and security. Granted the left can do plenty of stupid things with that, but it won’t be about slaves. Now if they did the Genosha story lines from X-Men then you might have a lead into slavery.

    • #48
  19. Valiuth Inactive
    Valiuth
    @Valiuth

    I have yet to go see the movie, but from everything I gather it isn’t worth the price of admission.

    What I will say is this. They should never use Dr. Doom as the villain in the FF4 origin story. Dr. Doom is one of Marvels top bad guys, heck he is one of the top bad guys in all comic bookdom. He need to be the focus of a movie not some throw away villain. This was my primary worry when I was anticipating this movie, and it turns out I was right to worry.

    If they wanted to have made the FF4 more of a Sci-fi adventure they really should have just gone all Lost in Space. Have the team get lost in the Negative Zone and have to fight Annihilus to get back to Earth.

    • #49
  20. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Valiuth:

    Real Jane Galt:

    The King Prawn: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?

    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.

    I doubt the Civil War plot will be about slavery unless they decide to throw all the comic book lore out the window. The Civil War plot line is a fight between freedom and security. Granted the left can do plenty of stupid things with that, but it won’t be about slaves. Now if they did the Genosha story lines from X-Men then you might have a lead into slavery.

    They can’t really use the Civil War plotline from the comic books, since it depended on there being way more superheroes that what we’ve seen so far in the MCU. So, instead of a conflict over superhero registration, it’ll have to be a conflict over the Avengers’ continued cooperation with the US government.

    • #50
  21. Real Jane Galt Coolidge
    Real Jane Galt
    @FakeJohnJaneGalt

    Valiuth:

    Real Jane Galt:

    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.

    I doubt the Civil War plot will be about slavery unless they decide to throw all the comic book lore out the window. The Civil War plot line is a fight between freedom and security. Granted the left can do plenty of stupid things with that, but it won’t be about slaves. Now if they did the Genosha story lines from X-Men then you might have a lead into slavery.

    Time will tell.  But Hollywood loves white guilt and to smear peoples face in it.  Almost as much as it loves homosexual and transsexual issues.  It seems to show up in all kinds of places and with a movie titled Civil War, I suspect there will be a reference to it somewhere.  Hollywood will have a hard time allowing white people to live without guilt for a 2 hour movie, it is almost too much to ask of them.

    • #51
  22. EHerring Coolidge
    EHerring
    @EHerring

    I don’t like dark movies so the last movie I saw in the theater was The Proposal.  I have purchased a few patriotic movies on DVD, though, so I can watch at home and eat all the popcorn I can stand.  The last several trips into Best Buy have disappointed-can’t find any movie that interests me.  To fill the void, I attend more college sports.

    • #52
  23. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    How terrible movies get made:

    “We want a movie about the fundamental battle between good and evil, featuring characters with the power of gods … but don’t make it too dark. America hates dark.”

    • #53
  24. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Canadians like dark. Which is where we find out the Hanson Brothers were serial killers and ate right-wingers (and left-wingers and goalies) for dinner.

    • #54
  25. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Misthiocracy:

    Gary McVey:The first three years of “Mission: Impossible” were the best. There were some, but fewer good episodes in the final four years. It was best as a spy show; later, Paramount made it more of an anti-crime show fighting “The Syndicate”. Paramount also hated the Iron Curtain locations of the beginning years; they wanted bright sunlight, attractive decor, and (cheaper) US settings.

    Much like James Bond was, really, if you look at it with a clear head, hurt badly by the invention of SPECTRE.

    In the books, the bad guys are the Soviets. It’s pretty unambiguous.

    For the movies it was decided that picking on the Soviets for an entire movie franchise wasn’t fair play, for some reason. It was the 60s.

    So, they invented SPECTRE, which is basically just a stand-in for the old tired trope of evil capitalism.

    This trope of the evil, private, profit-making, multinational organization infected all film/tv spy stories of the time. Man from U.N.C.L.E. Mission Impossible. Get Smart. Etc.

    The one show that didn’t fall into this trap, The Prisoner (and its spiritual predecessor, Danger Man), never really gained more than cult status.

    When “Magnum, P.I.” went on the air, people were startled to hear the enemy named as “the Soviet Union” and “KGB”. They were used to “Mission: Impossible” fig leaves like “The East European People’s Republic” (in M:I’s defense, that was a helluva lot more specific than most shows ventured).

    But I’ll disagree just a bit in defense of TV’s “U.N.C.L.E.”: it was droll and funny how much the two competing spy organizations resembled the 1964-era corporate world. Like wary mocking frenemies from Google and Apple running into each other at airport lounges, they each know something about the other group’s rules and traditions–“Say hello to Mr. Waverly for me, will you? I haven’t seen Alexander lately”. “THRUSH having trouble meeting payroll this month, old boy? I hear your retirement plan is a–ha, ha–killer”.

    • #55
  26. Tuck Inactive
    Tuck
    @Tuck

    Misthiocracy:How terrible movies get made:

    “We want a movie about the fundamental battle between good and evil, featuring characters with the power of gods … but don’t make it too dark. America hates dark.”

    I liked Green Lantern!  Of course I also liked the first Daredevil, so maybe something is wrong with me…

    From Rotten Tomatoes on F4: 8% from the critics, 22% from the audience (out of 127,252 ratings!) equals $8 million at the box office.

    I think I’ll wait until this one hits Amazon Prime…

    • #56
  27. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    I’m beginning to think Fake Jane Galt just doesn’t like us.

    (signed)

    Hollywood

    • #57
  28. Dad Dog Member
    Dad Dog
    @DadDog

    Rob Long:America hates dark.

    Does that mean that film noir is dead . . . or, at best, in suspended animation?  “Brick” was a worthy attempt, I thought.

    • #58
  29. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    EJHill:Canadians like dark. Which is where we find out the Hanson Brothers were serial killers and ate right-wingers (and left-wingers and goalies) for dinner.

    How many other countries’ national sports feature fighting and cheap shots as an integral part of the game?

    Margaret Atwood has written pretty influentially about how the common theme of Canadian literature is survival (whereas the common themes in US literature are success and/or justice).

    Survival can be a pretty dark theme upon which to base a nation’s cultural identity. When one’s very survival is at stake, the old “ends don’t justify the means” rule tends to go out the window.

    • #59
  30. No Caesar Thatcher
    No Caesar
    @NoCaesar

    Over the last two years I’ve been listening to more music and watching fewer flix.  Most of what I do watch is older. No special reason, there just has not been a lot of new stuff that catches me (with a few notable exceptions, e.g. American Sniper and Interstellar).

    • #60
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