I'm no film buff, though I’ve haunted my share of movie theaters. In recent years—notably since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001—I’ve sensed a trend in films toward darker themes. That’s not necessarily bad, but what happens when the darkness encroaches upon what was once uplifting?
There lies the controversy over the recent Warner Bros. blockbuster, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Director Zack Snyder delivered a film that lifted many of the dark notes well played in Christopher Nolan’s earlier Batman trilogy and applied them to a smackdown between the Caped Crusader and the Man of Steel.
Full disclosure: I’ve not seen BvS, so I can’t speak to its particulars. I did see its predecessor, Snyder’s Superman movie Man of Steel. I’ve also read reviews by critics who panned BvS—sometimes viciously—for a variety of reasons.
But what interests me are the comments I’ve seen on social media. Most seem tolerant of a dark Batman—though he’s particularly vicious in BvS—but they’re upset that Snyder painted Superman with the same brush. Superman, they insist, is the eternal optimist, a counterbalance to the brooding Bat. Not so in the new film, where it’s apparently tough to decide who’s the most morose.
This isn’t a new controversy, by the way. In Man of Steel, Superman battles the Kryptonian Zod in an epic clash that destroys half of Metropolis, no doubt at the cost of thousands of lives, and ends with Supes snapping Zod’s neck.
“Superman doesn’t kill!” the fans cried. Anyone who has read Superman comics knows better, but their point is a good one. Killing is Superman’s last resort.
Compare either film to the classic Superman: The Movie (1978) or its spiritual sequel, Superman Returns (2006), and it’s easy to understand the criticism. Both movies feature Clark Kent/Superman facing real threats and dark circumstances with perseverance and underlying optimism—even Returns, which pummels the Man of Steel with emotional downers till the final minutes.
But here’s the rub: BvS has scored over $800 million worldwide so far. Its subsequent box office fall-off was profound, but by financial measures it’s a booming success. And the folks at Warner Bros. insist Snyder’s morose path will continue winding through his upcoming Justice League films.
All this raises an important question: If audiences in general want dark movies, is it wrong to give that to them?
I won’t pretend I can answer that definitively, but my gut tells me “It depends.” It could be that, even 15 years after 9-11, after a decade and a half of related wars and terrorist acts and economic upheaval, we’re still working our way through the grief cycle. We may yet need to deal with disillusionment before we can turn hopeful again.
The danger in wallowing in our sorrow, of course, is that we might never find the strength to climb out. Even Superman can’t seem to break free of that particular kryptonite these days. And he must, preferably soon. As must we.
All this plays as something of a metaphor for communicators. Sometimes we’re called upon to deliver dark news because that’s the reality. Other times we serve as the champions of perseverance and optimism. Always we must be honest, transparent and engaged in the dialogue. It’s important that we understand “want” and “need.” If we’re lucky, they’ll align. But it’s always crucial that we deliver what our audience needs.