I’ve wanted to tackle this topic for a while now, even as early as when The Amazing Spider-Man first came out in 2012. Still, despite trying, nothing panned out. And that worried me, as I knew what to say…yet couldn’t say it. What was wrong? Was I going about it the wrong way? If that’s the case, perhaps I needed to rework my argument about how people view dark and gritty storytelling.
See, it’s no secret that the term “dark” gets thrown around casually without being understood. On one hand, there’s been a push to make challenging and serious entertainment over the last decade. It’s popped up in pretty much every medium, be it books, shows, movies or video games. Target fanbases are getting older, and, as such, desire to see their childhood icons grow up with them. The entertainment industry is trying to capitalize on that, with classic characters and franchises being reimagined into dark, brooding, serious versions of their once sweet, innocent selves.
On the other hand…a lot of it sucks. For as much as there’s been a push for "dark", there’s been an equal push in the other direction for these “bastardized” properties to be fun again. This isn’t always the case, the Nolan Batman films have gotten a pass, but it seems to almost contradict the initial push into darker territory. It’s a tug-of-war between mature and fun, and so many properties are caught in the crossfire. Where, and how, do you draw the line?
I’m no expert in storytelling (I can’t even finish the novel I’ve been working on for two years,) but here are my personal, humble suggestions for what separates “good” dark from “bad" dark:
First, concept. It could be anything, original or adaptation. Be sure you have something compelling to say: is it political? Societal? Psychological? Or are you trying to make a generalized statement? Remember, all good ideas come from a message about something, it’s how good storytelling works.
Second, format. Before you even attempt style, recognize what it is you’re saying, and how you want it to be said. Do you think a book is good? Perhaps a show? A movie? A video game? Think carefully, as-while sometimes you can get away with this-last-minute format changes can be harmful to your original idea.
Third, once you’ve chosen concept and format, THEN pick tone and aesthetic. The big issue with a lot of dark stories is that they skip Steps 1 and 2 and head straight to Step 3. That’s a guaranteed failure. A good story and format doesn’t serve an aesthetic, it’s always the reverse. That’s why Robocop worked in 1987, why Nolan’s Batman Trilogy was successful, and why both of The Amazing Spider-Man films failed: the former two used “dark” as a vehicle by which to tell their already thought-out stories, while the latter only utilized it because it felt it had to.
Fourth, actualize your world and inhabitants. It doesn’t matter how dark, your idea can’t work without good environments and characters. In the case of Robocop, one of its reasons for success was that its characters were interesting. We knew and related to the lead character, Alex Murphy, his eventual sidekick, Anne Lewis, everyone from OMNI Corp and every baddie that Robocop shot and killed. When Murphy got massacred, we cared. When Robocop defeated the antagonist, we cheered. In both cases, it's because the characters, and world itself, were compelling despite the aesthetic.
Another example is Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies; true, you can spend forever and a day deconstructing them, and many people have, but why do they hold up? Same reason as Robocop: because the world of Gotham City and the characters of Gotham City, including Batman, are well-realized. Remember, characters and settings drive aesthetic, never the reverse.
Fifth, imbue levity into your work. This can range from jokes, to emotional moments, to even character depth. When Rachel Dawes died in The Dark Knight, you felt it. Why? Because although her death was horrendously graphic, the audience had a connection to her through two movies. She wasn’t merely a pretty face, even if she did get into trouble a lot, she was also Bruce Wayne’s moral centre. And that she had an authentic relationship with Harvey Dent, another character whose end-fate was tragic, made her eventual loss that much worse.
Additionally, Nolan’s Batman movies had some solid jokes. Remember the line “Nice coat!” from Batman Begins? Remember when Selina Kyle faked a trauma episode in order to evade police in The Dark Knight Rises? And who could forget any line that came out of The Joker’s mouth in The Dark Knight? All of these worked because they were, you guessed it, funny.
Compare that to The Amazing Spider-Man films, and the difference is shocking. Where as Nolan imbued levity in his Batman films, in these movies there wasn’t much humour. And the jokes that existed? Well, they fell…flat. Like, almost instantly. Couple that with characters I didn’t care about, and even Gwen Stacy’s death, which was sad, couldn’t overcome the hollowness of the films.
Remember, “gritty” is a tool. It needs to work in-tandem with characters and world-building. Because if they aren’t, why bother? You might as well be another Man of Steel. And we all know how that turned out, right?
Sixth, passion. In other words, actually give a damn. This is why even the MCU’s darker entries work: they have passion. How much is debatable, but it’s clear people cared while crafting Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This is despite being dark and gritty.
And seventh…have fun. Passion is important, but that can easily go sour when disassociated from enjoyment. A story may be dark, but it can’t work if it isn’t entertaining. Robocop may be dark, but it’s also entertaining. Nolan’s Batman movies may be dark, but they’re also entertaining. Even Captain America: The Winter Soldier, dark as it may be, is entertaining. In contrast, The Amazing Spider-Man films are incredibly uninteresting, hence they fail.
Well, there you have it: my seven steps for making “dark” work. I know I mainly used film for this, but it can apply to anything. As for Jessica Jones? Well, I haven’t dropped it, so that says everything, right?