Read Dana Stevens’ review of The Dark Knight Rises.
“You think darkness is your ally,” Bane barks at Batman in The Dark Knight Rises. He means to mock, but in truth darkness is more than an ally—it’s basically the air that our brooding hero breathes.
Christopher Nolan’s densely morbid, infrequently illuminated Batman trilogy, which concludes with Rises, epitomizes a culture-wide lean into the bleak, matching a gloomy style with a pitch-black moral universe in which business and corruption are synonymous, and every cop (save for two exceptions) is on the take. Dark isn’t simply a quality of Nolan’s world—it infuses every aspect of the look, narrative, characterizations, and ethos of the films. In style and content, the series has proceeded as a tricked-out dimmer switch, progressing from dark (Batman Begins) to darker (The Dark Knight), to darkest (The Dark Knight Rises).
Black remains the gold standard for cool, but (outside of a racial context, at least) it’s really just a shade, an appearance, a fashion statement. Dark, by contrast, is an attitude, a mood, a view of the world and a fashion statement. It hints at things that are better left unseen, at subterranean things, nefarious anti-social things, underbellies and the underground, things proper society wishes to avoid. Once upon a time a little edge was fine, but one didn’t want to be, seem, or feel too dark. But over the past several years we can’t seem to go dark enough. Now dark doesn’t just sell, it defines the mainstream. It’s the word we reach for to describe everything from The Hunger Games to CSI, teen romances to deodorants.
A gussied-down selling point as well as a low-wattage aesthetic, darkness dominates from the cineplex to the erstwhile antiseptic realm of the supermarket, where energy drinks now dress up as scary monsters and cat litter packaging has the ominous gaze of an Ingmar Bergman film. Woolite, the gentle cleanser, even sells detergent in what looks like a Drano bottle, via an ad campaign directed by Rob Zombie, promising “Extra Dark Care” (anything that stands between you and your dark undies must be crushed). Meanwhile, Axe, the most coolly forbidding product line of all, has a model of shower gel that, from broad shoulders to crisscrossed abdomen, is a ringer for the Batsuit.
It’s often hard to distinguish black-clad bodies from the enveloping darkness in Nolan’s Gotham, and it’s even harder to discern where one darkish genre begins and another ends in his postmodern mélanges of crime, horror, kung fu, war, serial killer psychodrama, snuff video, and revenge fantasy. In The Dark Knight alone, characters are executed, tortured, and terrorized; bodies are thrown from windows, exploded, and set on fire; necks are broken and faces are impaled. In tone and content, the films recall the likes of the Saw and Hostel series as much as they do noir touchstones like The Asphalt Jungle. They have musical scores that nod to military recruitment videos and slasher films, as well as a gravelly voiced, often anti-heroic lead performance that channels Dirty Harry, Saw’s Jigsaw, and Inspector Gadget's Dr. Claw. These are dark stories about a man in a dark suit driving a dark car through dark streets thinking dark thoughts while darkly fighting dark men doing dark deeds in the dark of night.
We’ve always had a taste for dark, be it for the grim gore of Beowulf, the apocalyptic visions of the Bible, Milton’s sympathy for the devil, or Grimm’s child-filleting ghouls. Synchronized to the horrors of the 20th century, the cinema begat German expressionism (with its nightmarish visions and exaggerated existential foreboding), postwar American noir (dark shadows, darker morals), '50s horror and sci-fi (we are not alone or safe), Watergate-era vigilante fantasies (Dirty Harry, Death Wish) and Reagan-era super-violent actioners (courtesy of Stallone, Van Damme, Seagal). With these dark turns in mind, we could view this most recent wave of darkness as a product of post-9/11 anxiety, but that strikes me as a secondary factor. Not that films haven’t been motivated by recent world events—from direct evocations like Spielberg’s War of the Worlds to the crass opportunism of the torture porn films—but the truth is that the gloom industry started long before 2001. What’s news is how thoroughly it’s infiltrated the mainstream.
What were once genre exercises or B-pictures are now big budget behemoths that earn billions of dollars worldwide. Teen-friendly horror and sci-fi films are no longer slapped together to make a quick buck but engineered to move tens if not hundreds of millions. And despite—or perhaps because of—its lack of clear definition, “dark” has become a marketable attribute on par with gross-out humor, 3-D, and Kristen Stewart. Especially internationally, an ill-defined “moodiness” can translate better than sharply articulated intent. But the spectrum of entertainment to which the adjective applies is wide. Shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad are more substantively dark than stylishly so, while ludicrously “gritty” entertainments like Transformers and Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films are the extreme inverse, wearing gloom as costume, not even as a mood. But they all benefit from this present reality in which the most popular stories have the grimmest, and dimmest, of outlooks. And none are grimmer, dimmer, or more popular than Nolan’s trilogy.