We've got a long, dark year ahead of us. Not the weather, but rather this season's biggest movie franchises: From Star Trek: Into Darkness (May 17) to Thor: The Dark World (Nov. 8), it seems as if every sci-fi universe will have a darker storyline. Now, I get that a movie isn't dark simply because it says so in the title (e.g. Darkwing Duck). I also realize it's natural to capitalize on the success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy by throwing some filters on the camera and adding that foreboding "woooooobbb" sound to your trailer. But I'm a little skeptical that every franchise needs to go dark to win at the box office.
James Mangold, director of The Wolverine (July 27), recently said he was excited to "go a little darker and a little deeper than they've gone with this character." A darker Wolverine? Isn't Hugh Jackman scowling enough already? What I enjoy about his performance as Logan is his humor. For me, no amount of ass-kicking will top the way Jackman told us he was a professor of "art" in X2. Watching a downtrodden character come out with a great punchline can feel as cathartic as seeing him survive torture or beat the villain. Mangold has promised a tougher, more violent Wolverine, but darkness doesn't necessarily add depth.
Wolverine is already a dark dude going darker. But what about a darker Superman? The trailer for Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (June 14) reveals a self-doubting Superman sporting what I can only describe as a breakup beard. This Superman is so dark that even his costume is muted. Perhaps even more telling, when young Clark Kent asks whether he should have let a busload of children die to keep his powers a secret, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) says "Maybe." And you thought Midwesterners were nice people!
The line feels like an over-the-top effort to subvert Superman's pop-culture identity as a wholesome guy who loves humanity (and a smooth chin). Nolan, the franchise reboot’s producer, promises that writer David S. Goyer has made Superman "relatable and relevant." Is "relatable and relevant" now code for "morally ambiguous and dark"? We live in dark times, but it's disappointing to see directors turn to the same well again and again when remaking popular characters for "a new generation." I'm part of that generation, dammit, and I could use a break from the dark!
Star Trek movies from previous decades have offered action and adventure over gritty realism, so it's a little worrisome to see the franchise go Into Darkness this summer. Granted, The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine had some successful dark storylines, but when the films have tried to dig deep, the results are often mixed (as in Generations). I would be more skeptical of a dark Star Trek if it hadn't been for the previous installment, which set up alternative origin stories for Kirk and Spock. Both men have now lost a parent (just like you-know-who in Gotham), and their new, grim origins as heroes may give writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci enough emotional oomph to give us a bleak, but compelling, vision of the Star Trek universe. Star Trek has always dealt with "haves" and "have-nots" -- those with access to fun replicators and go-go boots, and those living under oppressive regimes. Today that theme does appear more relevant and relatable than ever before.
I'll try to withhold judgment on the Summer o' Darkness, but if we end up with The Hangover Part III: Dark of the Darkest Dark, I might just have to quit.