Should Superhero Movies Be Light or Dark?

Spiderman Homecoming Dark Knight
Courtesy of Sony/Warner Bros.

The great ones hit the sweet spot in between. But in a universe of superheroes, is it too late to ask for greatness from this genre?

The answer, I hope we can agree, is obvious: Superhero movies should be light. And dark. And everything in between. There’s no rule or formula, no one-cape-and-spandex-suit-fits-all way to do it. Yet when I go into a new comic-book superhero movie, even though I know that it’s a franchise product designed to sell tickets (and toys) around the globe, and that it’s now just a small piece in a larger “universe,” I have a prejudice, or at least a stubborn desire, and it is this: I want it to be great. Not just okay, not just “a respectable sequel” or a diverting time-passer, but something that sweeps you up and leaves an indelible imprint, the way that the greatest comic-book movies have done.

A lot of people seem to feel that “Spider-Man: Homecoming” delivers on that promise. I’d say it’s a perfectly decent reboot/Marvel fable (though not as exciting as the first two Tobey Maguire films), and I hope it’s living up to a standard beyond “Wow, what an improvement on those pointless and machine-tooled Andrew Garfield movies!” If I focus on the part of the glass I think is empty, it’s not to be churlish. It’s because I wish it were even more full.

That’s where the light/dark dialectic comes into play. We’re creeping up to the 40th anniversary of the big-budget comic-book superhero movie (they started with “Superman,” in 1978), and if the years have taught us anything about the genre, it is this: When a superhero adventure is too light or too dark, it risks teetering into triviality. The great superhero films are unique blossoms, but what they have in common is a knack for striking the ideal balance, so that the ominous fate of the world and the pleasure of high-flying invincibility don’t fight each other, they reinforce each other.

Looking back, it’s easy to spot how certain entries in the genre, for all that they did right, also went wrong. The 1978 “Superman” is often talked about as a “classic,” and given the shadow it has cast over popular culture, I suppose, in some literal way, it is. Half of it is great: the amber-waves-of-grain momentousness of the origin story, the delectable screwball comedy of Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent and Margot Kidder as Lois Lane, a matchup that retains every bit of its sparkle once Clark becomes Superman. Reeve’s performance is still perfection: his glasses-adjusting, fake-nerd timing, and once he dons the cape it’s his charm that’s super.

Yet I’ve always had a problem with the movie: those antic low-camp villains! I’m sorry, but they’re not entertaining, they’re innocuous, and they cheese the whole thing up. Reeve’s performance is timeless, because even though his twinkly-blue-eyed Man of Steel charisma is light as a feather, he also gets us to take Superman seriously. (In the late ’70s, that was quite an achievement.) So why are the bad guys such a bad joke? Simply put: They’re not dark enough.

When “Superman II” was released in the U.S. three years later, it hoisted the franchise era into orbit, and the series’ new director, Richard Lester, corrected the earlier mistake. Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor and his bumbling brigade were back, but they had more gravitas this time, and Superman now faced a more vexing problem: existing without his superpowers. Many of the film’s visual effects have aged hilariously badly, yet its comic-book psychodrama has not. It’s still richer and darker and better; it compares to the first “Superman” the way “The Empire Strikes Back,” in 1980, compared to “Star Wars.” All of which is to say: “Superman II” was the first comic-book movie to strike a perfectly tasty light/dark balance, which is why it’s a film you can return to out of more than nostalgia.

But just when it seemed as if the superhero film had found its footing, the genre sputtered and shorted out. The next two “Superman” films were trash, and for close to a decade it looked as if the fad had fizzled. (It didn’t help that “Howard the Duck,” based on an offbeat Marvel character, was the most infamous debacle of the ’80s.) Yet it all came roaring back with a spectacular vengeance. The summer of 1989 was about more than reviving the comics of old. It was about infusing them with the shock of the new.

What had happened in between was a pop revolution as profound as the ascension of video games: the rise of the graphic novel. It began in the ’70s and gathered steam through the next decade — one bellwether being the extraordinary popularity and prestige of Art Spiegelman’s “Maus.” Yet the graphic novel that changed movies forever was, of course, Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” (with a nudge from “Batman: The Killing Joke”), because in addition to being a vision that presented itself, frame by kinetic frame, as a movie on the page, it used the character of Batman to dunk the entire universe of classic comics in an acid bath of pitch-black nihilism.

“The Dark Knight Returns” was vicious, seething, and existential; it was cool as hell. When it came time to makes his “Batman” movie, Tim Burton, the gothic prankster with a few (artistic) bats in his own belfry, now had a new template to work with. From the moment that Michael Keaton opened his terse lips from beneath that rubber cowl, “I’m Batman” became less a reassurance than a threat.

Tim Burton was essentially a funhouse artist, in thrall to the spirit of Halloween, and in “Batman” he struck an exquisite light/dark balance: the film had a loopy Wagnerian grandeur (it was spectacle that mocked its own spectacle), and Jack Nicholson, playing what came close to being the film’s main character, was funny and scary and inspired, over-the-top yet dazzlingly in control. His Joker took you over to the dark side, but once you were there he was waiting with a palm buzzer.

Flash forward to 2016. The superhero movies that took us to the dark side last year got a bad rap, and for good reason. They were slovenly, top-heavy, and, in their way, as disposable as comic-book cinema gets. They were drowning in “darkness.” I had some tolerance for the first half of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” because I thought the prospect of Superman as a troublemaker mutating into a fascist out of sheer boredom held a strangely plausible resonance (and God knows the film improved on the complete stiff that was “Man of Steel”). Yet taken together with “Suicide Squad,” with its insulting tossed salad of deadbeats who lacked even the courage of their own “edge,” “Batman v Superman” spelled a troubling trend: In the space of one summer, the joy of superhero movies had vanished. Which is sort of like saying that an amusement park no longer amuses. If so, what’s the damn point?

I think this all helps account for the borderline ecstatic response to the okay wholesome teenage heroics of “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” After last year’s double whammy, the film reminds you that a superhero movie can be, in a word, fun. (Oh, that!) Yet even here I’d say: Is this Marvel–meets–”High School Musical” concoction all that we want from a movie about a teenage geek trapeze-ing around in his digitized long underwear?

More and more, Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” (2008) looks like a fantastic anomaly: the moment when superhero movies got “real,” touching on anxieties about terrorism and madness, mirroring the gritty crime cinema of the ’70s. Nolan himself could barely sustain the mood — and little of the substance — in “The Dark Knight Rises” (why choose the banal Bane as a follow-up villain?). Perhaps “The Dark Knight,” with its scalding virtuoso performance by Heath Ledger, was a one-shot, but if so it was a one-shot with reverberations that inspired you to dream of more.

I’d argue that “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” with its labyrinthine spin through surveillance paranoia, demonstrated that a comic-book film rooted in the real world can mesmerize and excite us. And the pop sexual politics of “Wonder Woman” only confirm that: Gal Gadot’s winsome Olympian banshee performance made a liberating statement in every scene — though now that Wonder Woman is an established DC movie heroine, will she continue to resonate in a meaningful way, or will she get sucked up into the monolithic collective of the DC Extended Universe? I’d like to see her resonance grow even stronger, but maybe that’s a quixotic hope. Everyone is talking about Michael Keaton’s one-man-against-the-system rage as Vulture in “Homecoming,” but that makes me think: Really? Keaton is one of my favorite actors, and he’s in good form here, but he scarcely gets a chance to fill in the character in a way that would lend meaning to his menace.

Maybe, for the time being, it’s a “Spider-Man: Homecoming” world. Maybe, after last year, the light/dark pendulum needs to tilt toward the light. Or maybe that’s where the overseers of the Marvel Cinematic Universe would like to see it stay. But I hope not. If we’re going to be swimming, as a culture, in comic-book cinema, then we should be asking for greatness from comic-book cinema. And that means the lightness and the darkness elevated into something more than an escapist tic. It means the lightness and the darkness locked in a dance of destiny.

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  1. Timely Comment says:

    “”Light” or “dark” superhero™ movies: whether or not the people in the mask are wearing eyeblack or not?

    Batman looking like a racoon underneath his cape-and-cowl next to the not-eyeblacked (and even larger eyeholed) Flash in that new JUSTICE LEAGUE picture… versus Captain America non-darkened similarly in the movies— you can contrast how WARNER BROS and DISNEY treat their IPs here.

    Different approaches to how the DC Films Universe make their movies to how the MARVEL Cinematic Universe does theirs. 16 films, critical AND audience Box Office popularity of the latter against 4 films, mixed reviews AND underperforming receipts of the former. Maybe WONDER WOMAN’s success can show how the DCFU can “course correct” from here on out…

    Even in the CW DCverse tv shows you see the “light” series contrasted with the “dark” ones: ARROW v THE FLASH again. Luckily SUPERGIRL doesn’t wear a mask— is BLACK LIGHTNING eyeholes darkened in his?)

  2. Kevin says:

    When it comes to light versus dark, there are different standards to what makes a good movie.
    If the movie is light and makes fun of itself with humor and easter eggs, you tend to overlook some things and just enjoy the movie.
    However, when a movie is dark and serious, you focus on the details. The more that you focus on the details on a superhero movie, the worse some of the little problems look.
    Hence you need a “BETTER” dark movie to be decent than an average light movie

  3. Alex Krajci says:

    I Think Superhero Movies Should Be Light.

  4. Nameless Paladin says:

    Like the people below me have pointed out, I think the tone of the film needs to stay true to the subject matter.

    For instance Sam Rami’s Spiderman 2, which is one of my favourite superhero films, is really essentially a simple coming of age story – a film about a boy learning that sometimes he has to give up his dreams in order to do the right thing. I thought it was done beautifully and film was directed at just the right tone given the subject it dealt with.

    In the Dark Knight, Chris Nolan was channelling into a very dangerous and sensitive subject matter – America’s War against Terror and the film depicts Batman responding to the Joker’s heinous acts of terror precisely as America responded to 9/11 – extraordinary renditions (kidnapping foreign citizens), coercive interrogations, warrantless surveillance (and recall this is a film that came out right at the end of the Bush administration where these things were still being vigorously debated). And let’s be honest it would’ve ridiculous for a film that asks the question how do we fight terrorism to be campy and light-hearted. It needed to a bleak, all-emcopassing tragedy (as has been the story of the Bush administration).

    What I don’t like are films that have delusions of being dark for no thematic purpose other than to mimic Nolan’s Batman trilogy. The classic example of this is Man of Steel – a genuinely pantomime romp that’s been directed as if it’s MaBeth. I really can’t stand it.

  5. Ervin Mitchell says:

    I personally prefer a blend mainly. I like some dark super hero movies. Not a huge fan of the lighter ones but their are a few great ones. (Guardians of the Galaxy, Deadpool – very violent but I’d say it still had a fairly light tone and their are a few others I enjoyed) I just like to feel like the hero was pushed to the brink and had to really push their limits to win. The new Spider-Man movie was dope af but I never felt as though he was in any REAL danger. I kinda need that in my superhero movies. It humanizes the characters for me.

  6. Timely Comment says:

    Another “comicsratti” theorizing to fix all these films about superheroes™ SOOOOO popular today. Within-the-business inside blathering advise… that clueless suits ‘who don’t speak comics’ will take and decide publishing and movie versions that that comicbook creatives have to follow.

    (No comicfan nerds need apply, self-appointed ‘experts’ are here doling out recommendations patrolling the Comics scene, reporting on Hollywood comicbook machinations, or impacting insider superheroes spiel on YouTube.)

    “Darker” versus “lighter” comicbook movies? Just depends on “good” stories and script, imo: if the superhero™ character WARRANTS it, the film can be as “dark” or “light” as it wants. Yeah, Batman works for ‘darkness, no parents’… Superman a Randist uncertain about his role, not so much. Deadpool self-referential and ‘lippy’, yes… DEADPOOL with no lips, nah. Spider-Man a highschooler and learning to be a good guy in a suit, yeah… Wonder Woman changing her origins and now having her feminist agency because of Ares, not so much.

    Script, script, script. BUT…

    (And it’s the time of the year when they invade and infest SDCC to educate the non-comicbooky masses AGAIN.)

  7. Lorna C. says:

    There should be a good balance of both. Dark when the serious stuff kicks in but a big dose of humour thrown in as well because, let’s face it, we’re watching a bunch of guys running around in spandex! Superheroes/comics aren’t meant to be 100% serious all the time but a lot of films struggle to get the balance right.

  8. Whether or not you like your “meat” light or dark, all film work is generational. Fans of earlier versions of a comic-book based movie will chose WRATH OF KHAN as the best “Star Trek” and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK as the best “StarWars”.

    This, of course, is open to healthy debate; but the passage of time, newer technologies, and the next generation of filmmakers will also shape what the film-going zeitgeist view as entertainment.

    In addition, taking “a second look” at these movies (light or dark) down the road–say a few years from now–might chance one’s perception as to its value or even greatness. If you’ve only seen a movie once, really, you haven’t seen it at all.

    Let a little time walk on it, get some age on it, then watch “whatever” again. See what you think.

  9. Andy says:

    Either of them being light or dark, a good movie is what is important…i believe this will come in secondary

  10. Robert says:

    Interesting that you don’t mention Logan in your article which was a dark but successful film that came in the year that Spider-Man: Homecoming and Guardians Vol. 2 gave us more lighthearted movies. I think comic book movies will need to be first and foremost good movies if the genre is to continue. BvS and Suicide Squad almost singlehandedly (or doublehandedly) killed the genre last year but the 4 movies in 2017 gives me hope. Marvel, Sony, Fox and Warner/DC just need to make good movies. They can as we saw this year.

    • Cath says:

      “Logan” was my favorite movie so far this year and I’ve seen a lot of movies this year. It didn’t matter that it was dark. There were moments of humor which all movies should have but it didn’t take away from the essential heaviness of the theme.

  11. Jim says:

    I don’t see how you cannot label Superman 78 anything other than a classic. Batman 89 also a classic.
    There is nothing wrong with either of this films. By camp you must be referring to most Marvel films at this point. Cue a joke every 5 minutes. You will forget the (inert generic marvel movie) by the time you leave the theatre. Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is far and away the worst superhero movie I have ever seen. Since Avenger 1 it is has been going downhill except for Ant Man really. I am hoping Avengers 3 raises the game again. This is my opinion, but I don’t like their movies very much anymore. I am sure I will see the next Spiderman film. The changes to character’s the suit and Iron Man coaching him really goes against the character history. Cue the joke. Oh the joke’s on comic book lovers.

    • M says:

      Winter Soldier was camp? Ant-man was a “cue joke every 5 minutes” movie? “Generic” like formulaic such as nearly every franchise after the first sequel? How different is each Bond movie from the preceding ones? And why go see a movie if you’re already done on it? Seems like a waste of time.

      The lighter side of the MCU movies is in line with what Superman & Superman II gave us.

      It appears the witticism of the MCU isn’t something most people are used to in their daily lives.

      Although I’m not as high on GotG or volume 2 as most, sounds like you saved yourself from Catwoman, Green Lantern, Jonah Hex, Howard the Duck, Superman III & IV, and Batman & Robin.

  12. Alan Glaze says:

    It’s been my experience, for a very long time of reading reviews and listening to what most people want in Superhero movies, that a simple formula exists — Movie Critics love “Camp” and most of the others want what they experience in the Comic Books….Am I wrong?

    • Jacen says:

      Yes, you are. Critics look for what they think is good filmmaking.

      You seem to be making the DCEU fanboy mistake of thinking that love for Marvel films is born of a love for what you’ve posted (camp etc). But the trouble here is that the DCEU flicks prior to WW have aped the angst-filled trash that dominated so much of the Liefeld-infected junk of late ’80s-early ’90’s Marvel books, as well as subsequent Image, Awesome, and other lesser publishers’ books. Basically, they and their fans misunderstood what made Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns good, so they crafted a batch of poorly written, poorly drawn books full of sullen, grimacing man-children fighting with or yelling/grimacing at other sullen, grimacing man children (something brilliantly mocked in What the–? #24). DC at the time had more variety to their output, and the MCU today, strangely enough, mimics that. (And in case you want to argue that the DCEU reflects today’s DC comics, take a look at their Young Animal imprint or the crossovers with the Loony Toons characters (Wonder Woman versus Tasmanian Devil?!).)

  13. At least the writer had the decency to balance this piece with an acknowledgement that there are many who feel that this film is in fact better than just goods, not to mention the best Spider-Man film.

    Nothing wrong with hoping every film will be great…nil it saps your ability to enjoy films that commit the crime of just being good fun.You won’t always get Aliens, Godfather 2, Ran, 7 Samurai, Raiders, Seven etc. but that doesn’t make the good films a waste of time does it?

  14. Ken says:

    Best superhero (or superhero origins) movie? For me, it’s M. Night Shyamalan’s “Unbreakable”! It’s subtle, dark, low-key, fiendishly clever, and psychologically intriguing. The movie owes everything to established comic book mythology…and yet it has its own original voice, its own compelling storyline. The supervillain-in-the-making featured in the recent “Split” (a surprise sequel [of sorts] to “Unbreakable”) makes me impatient for Shyamalan’s 3rd film in his trilogy. Will Jackson’s “Mr. Glass” or James McAvoy’s character from “Split” be back to do battle with Bruce Willis’s “David Dunn”?? Sure hope so! In any discussion of the superhero genre, “Unbreakable” (which is arguably Shyamalan’s finest film) usually gets overlooked in the mix. How do other readers feel about “Unbreakable”? Thank you.

  15. loco73 says:

    They can be both and everything in between. It need not it be one at the expense of the other. But first and foremost they need to be good movies. Unfortunately this genre has settled, with a few exceptions, for a kind of safe mediocrity by committee when it comes to vision, originality and creativity.

  16. John C says:

    “When “Superman II” was released in the U.S. three years later, it hoisted the franchise era into orbit, and the series’ new director, Richard Lester, corrected the earlier mistake.” Stopped reading this nonsense after this. The movie was 70% already filmed by Donner before he was fired. Superman 3 is Lesters movie and look how that turned out.
    Topic of the article is great and movies should be aimed at quality not tone but your opinion on the quality of the movies stated is baffling and on a verge of senseless ranting.

  17. Nick says:

    Why not BOTH? The misguided notion that making them more “dark” makes them somehow more “edgy” or “adult” is rooted in their wish to be taken more seriously. How silly. But if they’re just garishly cartoonish, that’s silly, too. The best balance, and the best, most believable superhero movie so far is still The Incredibles.

    • K says:

      If anything the Donner cut of Superman II (on dvd) is darker than the released version. His supervillians are almost scary.

  18. Prime says:

    They should follow the intention set by the people that created them. Anything else is a hijacking of the hard work and creativity of others by people less capable.

  19. GodShake says:

    They should be whatever the script needs. There’s no problem with Batman being dark, and there was no problem with Man of Steel being dark. The problem with BvS was a weak and bad script, not the film being dark,

    • jo says:

      everyday i wonder if the word dark has been redefined over night.
      Se7en was dark, the crow was dark. Man of steel? Is this in contrast to something or have people just gone zaany.

      • Jacen says:

        Yeah, people looked upon Man of Steel and its dark palette, somber Supes, and need to kill Zod and concluded it was dark, whereas Se7en is truly dark not just because of the palette but because of the themes developed over the story and the investigation of evil that the story focused on. That said, I don’t consider the Crow any darker than Man of Steel, primarily because of the constant and trite “gosh we were so darned happy happy happy” flashbacks.

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