This week, I’ve spent a lot of cumulative hours occupying “dark” superhero universes. The fact that they are supposed to be, for all intents and purposes, completely different universes that represent oppositional interests on every level would be easy to miss for the uninitiated. Marvel v DC, Netflix v Warner Bros, TV vs film, in-home v theatrical, long-form v feature — none of these supposedly core-deep schisms can alter the reality that I’ve spent roughly 14 hours of my past few days watching one dude in a mask punch, kick, and trade raspy philosophies with another dude not in a mask, at nighttime, in a dimly lit, vaguely industrial location. And what is it that hangs in the balance? Why nothing less than competing levels of right-wing Ubermensch ideology, that’s what!
The show is Netflix/Marvel’s “Daredevil,” season 2, and the film is “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” (I’m aware that some may still be watching the former, so no spoilers except that it finally gets good around episode 8, and few enough will have had the chance to see the latter yet, so there are no ‘BvS’ spoilers except that I think it’s pants).
Mashing these two different properties together to suit a thesis would be a foolhardy endeavor were it not for a few factors that actually make it inevitable. Firstly, of course, there’s timing — the second season of “Daredevil” was released last weekend in Netflix’s now-traditional binge-facilitating model, while Zack Snyder‘s ‘Batman v Superman’ is designed to pulverize the theatrical box office this weekend. None but the most naive would think that there’s any such thing as coincidence in the planning from their respective distributors. In fact, media site Inverse went so far as to characterize Marvel’s placement of “Daredevil” as an “expert bit of trolling against comic book rival DC, realizing that a TV show featuring what is ostensibly one of their junior varsity superheroes is worthy enough to go up against DC’s all-stars of Supes and Batman.”
But it’s not just propinquity that has us bracketing the two projects together. Both, we can now say definitively, feature a costumed superhero doing battle with another comic-book character (who’s had his own standalone projects in the past) and who, though an antagonist for at least part of the story, is not as much a villain as simply a hero with a different take on heroism. Perhaps this type of storyline is inevitable within a superhero landscape as populous as the one we now occupy — something brought amusingly to life by the fact that there actually appear now to be too few movie stars and too many tentpole franchise/comic book characters to go round. So watching ‘Batman v Superman’ may yield some odd moments of cognitive dissonance, not just when you remember that Ben Affleck, who is DC’s new Batman, once played Marvel’s Daredevil (and even, in a roundabout way, Superman in “Hollywoodland“), but also when The Comedian shows up as Batman’s Dad, and Captain Kirk is glimpsed as an old-timey compadre of Wonder Woman’s. But meta-digressions aside, it’s worth noting that the idea of internal schism between heroes who are ostensibly on the same side — that of truth, justice, etc. — is hitting everywhere at once.
The first season of “Daredevil” had Wilson Fisk, “Jessica Jones” had Kilgrave, “Man of Steel” had General Zod. But while “Daredevil” season two does feature other villains (eventually, and with debatable levels of effectiveness), the majority of its thematic heft is reserved for the contrast between Jon Bernthal‘s Punisher, who has one style of vigilante justice, and Charlie Cox‘s Daredevil, who has another. And in ‘Batman v Superman,’ the supposed main conflict is right there in the title, between Affleck’s Batman and Henry Cavill‘s Superman, relegating Jesse Eisenberg‘s Lex Luthor to a role about as related to the film’s “of Gods and men” themes as a mild case of pinkeye is to the bubonic plague. And pretty soon we’ll get “Captain America: Civil War” in which former best buds Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Cap (Chris Evans) tussle over how much oversight existing human power structures should have over the Avengers, as superhumans. It’s appropriate that we’re getting Spider-Man joining in the latter ding-dong — he, after all, is the original “with great power comes great responsibility” superhero and Power v Responsibility is the conflict du jour, much more so than silly old Good v Evil.
The final way in which the two big superhero releases of the moment seem inextricably linked is that, frankly, they feel the same. You may not have to squint quite so hard to make out who is repetitively punching whom on the big screen, but the vast majority of both is shrouded in literal darkness, the better to emulate the supposed metaphorical darkness of their storylines.
This, of course, is all Christopher Nolan‘s fault. His terrific ‘Dark Knight‘ trilogy opened up an alternate avenue for comic book films to take, and to make money and gain critical and fan approbation while doing so. Ever since, lesser filmmakers and writers have been mistaking the bathwater for the baby, shrouding their fight scenes in darkness, setting their actors to “brood” and upping the bloodletting as a shortcut to depth. But Nolan’s interpretation of Batman evolved as a natural result of an intelligent, serious-minded filmmaker taking on an already established mythology, resulting in a Batman that was smart and dark, not smart because it was dark.
Nor was it, and for the love of Jesus let’s stop saying this, more “real.” The Gotham City of Nolan’s trilogy may obey loosely understandable laws of physics and be grounded in complex psychologies that he was careful to enrich as time went on. But if it felt more grounded than the weightless, plasticky excess of the Joel Schumacher era, that is because of Nolan’s skill as a storyteller in creating a believable world of what is essentially just as outlandish a dystopia. Dystopic universes, we should remember, are just as unreal as utopias.
Misunderstanding that fact is partly what has led to two such unsatisfying superhero properties hitting our screens in the same week. “Daredevil” and ‘Batman v Superman’ miss the mark often for very different reasons — the former takes way, way too long to get good, and even when it does, around the eighth episode, the bad elements remain central to the show. The latter is just plain incoherent from roughly its second scene onward, in which not one of the main characters seems to make a single logical decision over the course of its two and half hours. But more striking are the ways they fail alike. And that comes from the idea that darkness equals real, and real equals good.
It’s particularly pronounced in the contrast between seasons one and two of “Daredevil,” because here the darkness-is-everything approach does not just affect the storylines, it leads to ploddingly by-the-numbers filmmaking too (arguably the same is true of ‘BvS’ but there the sheer pizzazz of its bloated budget at least makes it look expensively bland). In “Daredevil” season one, the violence felt fresh and shocking — much of it staged in a dramatic and original way, often telling us something new and surprising about our hero, or our villain. And the remit of “Daredevil” season two was clearly to not fix what wasn’t broken. But there simply is not the same underlying intelligence to the design of the show anymore: where making another “hero” the ostensible antagonist should have lent subtlety, actual nuance is ignored in favor of endless repetition of the same wildly simplistic philosophical conundrum: killing bad; not-killing good (maiming, torturing, presumably paralyzing is apparently hunkydory too). Everything from the “homage” to the season one hallway fight to the endless ill-lit dust-ups on rooftops and in warehouses, to the many skull crackings, gunshot wounds, throat slittings and more, feel like going through the motions. None of it, with the exception of one sole high point of gore-nography during a prison fight, has any reason to be there except to be dark, graphic, gritty… and so on.
What does is say when Marvel’s flagship new-phase TV show feels like it fits with the DC cinematic universe better than it does with the MCU to which it ostensibly belongs? No amount of framed newspaper clippings in the background, or vague allusions to “The Incident” make Daredevil’s Hell’s Kitchen feel like the New York City that was invaded by aliens and where a God, a WWII supersoldier, a spy, an Iron Man, an archer, and an erstwhile gigantic-green-rage-monster went for celebratory shawarma afterwards. It’s not simply about the lack of those natty little easter egg crossovers: yes, it was always going to be more difficult to maintain the illusion that all these fictions exist in the one unified fictional space as they multiplied, but there’s a fundamental disconnect between the style of “Daredevil” and that of the big-screen Marvelverse. For all the stakes invoked, Marvel’s films so far have been unapologetically escapist entertainments — quippy, wisecracky, disposable. And enormously lucrative.
Despite that, it seems the “gritty” take is here to stay, for both comics titans. In fact the Russo Bros promising that ‘Civil War’ will be the most “aggressive” and darkest Marvel film yet, suggests that if anything the Cinematic universe is going to hew a little closer in tone to the new-look TV one (“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” and “Agent Carter” being the less prestige-y workhorse end of the Marvel TV brand) than vice versa. What’s more, is DC have basically painted themselves into a corner and have little choice but to double down with this approach, having already sunk so much cash into the Snyderverse that it’s kind of too big to fail.
“Tone, to me, is the number one aspect of a film that I’m really interested in. We take it heart-attack serious, but at the same time there’s a self-awareness to the movie that I think you have to have, in order for the movie to resonate on any kind of second level beyond just ‘Oh look, these two superheroes are fighting and that’s cool.’”
That Zack Snyder can say that and then turn in a film as tonally deaf and sludgily self-serious as “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is pretty funny. Because self-awareness (outside of the hilarious air of injured martyrdom over the “Man of Steel” controversy in the film’s repeated assurances that the major battles take place in unpopulated areas, at night, when no one’s around to be killed) is one of the many things that ‘Batman v Superman’ and “Daredevil” season two both lack in large amounts, and a surfeit of which made the only fractionally as expensive “Deadpool” such an unexpected box office hit. It’s a sorry day when we’re holding up something as juvenile as “Deadpool” as a shining example of anything, but as evidence that not everything has to look the same to be successful, it’s a useful paradigm, no matter how objectionable we might have found it in other ways.
“Dark” does not equate to “smart.” “Gritty” does not automatically come with its frequent bedfellow “realist.” “Graphic” does not mean “grown-up.” Treating those cues as a kind of a Pavlov’s bell by which audiences are expected to suddenly take these comic book properties very seriously indeed has a twofold negative effect: it legitimizes the shockingly conservative politics of both “Daredevil” and “Batman v Superman” which both move the narrative away from whether it’s right for anyone to take the law into their own hands and toward a viewpoint in which ideological differences are simply a matter of degree, and/or body count. And even more problematically, we lose sight of the fact that these comic book worlds — places of unbounded imagination and infinite possibility, remember? — are supposed to be fun.