Over the past decade, most Hollywood reboots can be described with two words: dark and gritty. It almost seems like an obsession for studios and filmmakers to market world-weary, nihilistic versions of classic properties to people of my generation.
While many critics have suggested that Hollywood has become less "creative" due to an ever-increasing lineup of films based on past productions, they're really just trying to give people my age — who grew up in the '90s and early '00s — the bleak edginess they think we want. But in reality, what we are really looking for in a film is somewhat different.
A Post-9/11 Tone For The Post-9/11 Generation
While films seem like where we go to relax and forget about what's going on in the real world, the truth is that the events of September 11, 2001, had a major influence on various cultural aspects of our lives, including cinema. It feels like many films that have been released since that day have dealt heavily issues of violence, terrorism, surveillance, and/or national security with a heavy dose of reality and skepticism. With The Dark Knight, these serious themes found their way into mainstream superhero movies.
I do not presume that these themes were never explored prior to the events of 9/11, but it definitely feels like they have been used more frequently since then.
When filmmakers use the words "dark" and "gritty" to describe their movies, especially in the superhero genre, it's often to suggest that the stories aren't silly, lightweight entertainment. Other genres have been affected by the post-9/11 themes, but superhero movies seem to be at the center of the darker-is-better reboot cycle.
Darker Is Not Always Better
A great film to kick off the discussion is Richard Donner's Superman: The Motion Picture starring Christopher Reeve from 1978. Superman is a character (and a franchise) that seems to be constantly getting rebooted and readapted, but Donner's film is widely considered to be the gold standard of superhero films.
Christopher Reeve was Superman brought to life, and John Williams's score was ingrained into millions of memories forever. My one critique of the film when I first saw it, though, was that in many ways it felt a bit campy and outdated. Nevertheless, even watching the film many years after its release, I couldn't help but feel a sense of optimism and hope by the end, which really fueled my overall enjoyment.
In 2006, Bryan Singer attempted to revitalize the character by making an updated sequel to the Donner films, Superman Returns. It was largely disliked, as many felt it unoriginal and too much of a love letter to Donner's version. I tend to agree with those critiques, but also realize it was meant as both a reboot and sequel to those films. I couldn't help but notice a dampening of the optimistic and hopeful feeling I got from Donner's film. Singer's Superman was more somber and depressed, which left me feeling a bit empty and unfulfilled by the end.
But with the release of Zack Snyder's Man of Steel and launch of the DCEU, Superman was now truly entering into a new dark and gritty reimagining.
Initially, as someone who had only experienced Donner's Superman: The Motion Picture much later than its original run, I appreciated the realistic tone of Man of Steel, but I couldn't help but feel like any sense of levity or joy was substituted for complete reality and seriousness. That was taken to the extreme in Batman v. Superman, where the story themes were extremely heavy and dreary.
While for me, the Donner film was a bit too campy, I also felt that Zack Snyder's reboot took itself too seriously and could have given Superman a bit of a lighter demeanor. Moreover, Man of Steel was adamant about emphasizing the "S" on Superman's suit as a symbol of hope, but the story was really developing a "P" for pessimism. It seems as though filmmakers sometimes mistakenly make a film darker in order to avoid camp when in reality, films such as those in the MCU are able to balance a lighter and fun tone, without being campy.
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More Of The Same
While Superman is just one example of the evolution of dark and gritty reboots, there have been and continue to be countless other reboots that boast such descriptions. More recently, the upcoming Power Rangers film has been described as having a similar tone to Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. While this decision would make sense if both properties had more in common besides the generic superhero label, for me, it only highlights Hollywood's obsession with making films unnecessarily dark when the characters were never originally imagined that way.
Hope: Needed Now More Than Ever
More films are being written with an underlying pessimism that can be felt throughout the story. That is why Man of Steel or Batman v Superman feel so dreary even though the script is constantly trying to spit out the word "hope." With all of the dreariness produced by our real-world current events, this is a time when we need an authentic message of hope in our films now more than ever.
This is especially true for the younger generation that has only experienced a post-9/11 world. Perhaps Hollywood feels that darker-and-grittier is the only way young people can take stories seriously during these times. But we want a brighter future, not just more of the bleakness that we've seen growing up.
It Ultimately Depends On What's Getting Rebooted
This does not mean that darker and grittier tones are wrong for all reboots or films in general. One only has to look to Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy to see his mastery of tone. I am simply saying that Hollywood needs to rethink its marketing strategy if it feels that darker and grittier reboots are what we crave for every single movie.
On the contrary, because of the times, more hope, optimism and fun in a film can go a long way with us. The new Star Trek series works because it feels optimistic about the future, just like the source material.
Of course, all film is subjective and there are probably others from my generation who completely disagree with me — and that's okay!
But it wouldn't hurt for studios to give hope and optimism a shot when marketing films to people of my generation. They could be in for an unexpected outcome.