From The Dark Knight to Mountain Dew Dark Berry to Woolite Extra Dark Care: How darkness took over our culture.
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.
Nolan’s aesthetics serve his story, but both answer to a higher power. It’s about branding. It’s about making every aspect of a multibillion-dollar product support (or at least work within) a successful template and to exploit that template more vigorously than anything the American cinema has ever produced before. In an industry committed to catering to 14-year-old white males—while persuading the rest of us that serving 14-year-old white males is tantamount to serving us all—Nolan’s franchise elevates adolescent miserabilism to something like art. It draws the culture toward it, focusing our tastes and philosophies into an agreed-upon, simplistic conception of the world as a very—if vaguely—hellish place. (The only thing that separates us from psychopaths like Bane and the Joker is that we think it’s a hell worth saving.) We are all romantic cynics now. We have all gone goth. Affect motivates the art and motivates our perceptions in turn. Surely, anything this dark must be profound, astute, and serious. Its very grandeur is both part of the aesthetic and a hard sell for its importance.
The trick is to take material originally intended for young-adult audiences and infuse its adolescent ennui with adult gravitas, be it via socio-political referents or psychological and moral “complexity” (another usefully imprecise word). What gave The Dark Knight cultural currency in 2008 was its invocation of the war on terror and mass paranoia—the kind of dovetailing between popular entertainment and politics that surely launched a thousand film-studies dissertations. But it was never clear what such a crowd-pleaser had to offer the political moment, and its sequel is only more opaque. Is it a critique of corporate culture or a demonizing of the urban mob? A call for revolution or a defense of law and order? (In one of Rises' most provocative sequences, unarmed police officers rise up against civilian oppressors.) Whether or not the films stand up to serious scrutiny, there’s no mistaking the fact that audiences and critics have responded to these films, that the culture was primed for a superhero franchise that looked deeper into the shadows. That wasn’t the case the last time Batman showed up in Gotham.
In 1989 when Tim Burton launched his Batman series, based in part on the same Frank Miller comics (The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One) that have served Nolan so well, dark matters were still, as far as the mainstream was concerned, an acquired rather than an assumed taste. Burton’s vision of a gothed-out Gotham City proved to be a box-office smash and helped set the trend for gloomier superhero films. Yet when his follow-up, Batman Returns (1992), delved into even seedier territory—triple the villains, dimmer the palette, kinkier the sado-masochism—many blanched. In a two-star review, Roger Ebert called it “a dark, brooding film, filled with hurt and fear, childhood wounds and festering adult resentments,” and recoiled from its portrait of an anguished dark knight. “I always thought it would be fun to be Batman. The movie believes it is more of a curse.”
Reluctant to follow Burton further into the shadows, Warner Bros. gear-switched to kitsch-meister Joel Schumacher, who reintroduced the Caped Crusader to his modish, wham-bam-pow past—and promptly drove the franchise into the ground. But not before another comic book adaptation upped the ante, and, the skittishness of Warner Bros. aside, proved where Hollywood was headed. “Its dark look of midnight terror and its skewed cityscape link it to the ‘Batman’ movies,” wrote Caryn James in the New York Times in 1994, “but The Crow makes even the bleak Batman II (sic) seem like a kiddie's playground.” Fourteen years, two Wachowski brothers, and three ultraviolent Frank Miller adaptations later, Nolan was celebrated for things that Burton had been chastised for. “With little humor to break the tension, The Dark Knight is beyond dark,” wrote Richard Corliss in Time—and he meant it as a rave.
Burton himself recognizes how things have shifted. "At the time, people worried about our version being too dark," he told the Associated Press last week. But in light of the Nolan series, “it looks like a lighthearted romp in comparison. Batman on Ice. " Meanwhile, Burton’s 2012 release, Dark Shadows, has a cheeky, carnivalesque aesthetic that seems positively passé in this era of homicidal chic, where not taking oneself seriously is more of a problem than a saving grace.
Even if the latest reboot or sequel isn’t actually any darker, in palette or content, than what came before, rest assured that Hollywood will still market it—and the culture will dutifully receive it—in the darkest possible light. (The Hunger Games was actually criticized for treating its dark themes too lightly). The best that can be said of this summer’s needless, listless The Amazing Spider-Man is that it doesn’t go on darkness autopilot—there are moments of sunlight and slapstick comedy, even a jaunty interlude scored to a Shins song. Yet that didn’t stop Sony Pictures from emphasizing Andrew Garfield’s emo brood, or the muted, reptilian sheen of Spider-Man’s suit in its publicity materials, or many critics from seeing darkness where it wasn’t. (“This satisfying reboot slings a darker Spidey,” said the Hollywood Reporter.)
As much as our appetite has changed, Hollywood still visually and contextually minds its limits. For all of their terror and violence, the Nolan films routinely cut away from moments of impact, implying but not actually showing, for instance, a double-thumb eye gouging. This has less to do with restraint or decorum than the imperative to receive a PG-13 rating, paramount for ensuring the widest possible paying audience for a film that cost several hundred million dollars to make and market. In other words, there is a limit to how much darkness the mass market can bear. Underlit allegories are one thing, but real evil, real depression and destitution is not as ready for prime time. “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne,” Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle tells Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Rises, auguring a financial collapse that will impoverish the billionaire playboy and humble corporate Gotham. Maybe that’s a ripped-from-the-headlines political statement, or maybe it’s a pandering to the 99 percent of ticket buyers who belong to the 99 percent. Is dark an apt metaphor or just marketable? Likely it’s somewhere in between.
As a tie-in to Nolan’s film, Mountain Dew has introduced a new line of soda, one with a much murkier shade than the brand’s classic petrol yellow. The name? "Dark Berry." What that means, tastes like, or has to do with a film about a homicidal anarchist threatening nuclear holocaust, I couldn’t venture to say. But I do know that these are very dark days.