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Should Superhero Movies Be Light or Dark?

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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