For a number of years now, big tentpole Hollywood films have embraced a mood often described as “dark and gritty.”
Some trace the beginning of the dark and gritty reboot trend back to 2005’s Batman Begins, which was followed the very next year by Daniel Craig’s first 007 outing in the decidedly darker, grittier Casino Royale. But the latter film seemed to take inspiration from 2002’s The Bourne Identity, which itself felt like a grittier spy adventure than the Bond films at that time.
Regardless of where we historically mark the tonal paradigm shift in our blockbusters, it certainly didn’t used to be this way. To the generations of filmgoers who grew up before, movies today just feel very different while, to the post-9/11 generation, it’s like Hollywood thinks all they want is dark and gritty. Many might not remember there ever being a time when summer blockbusters didn’t take themselves so seriously.
The tragedy of 9/11 and the complex ethical questions raised in its aftermath are probably the most obvious reasons for this bleak and pessimistic direction. Those were certainly heavy influences on Ronald D. Moore’s 2004 gritty TV reboot of Battlestar Galactica, which also correlated with the era of the TV anti-hero. But many factors probably played a role. For instance, prior to Batman Begins, the previous Batman film was the much maligned and ultra campy Batman and Robin. So it’s easy to imagine Warner Brothers just deciding to go as far in the opposite direction to that as possible as an explanation for Batman Begins’ overall grimness.
Now of course not all our entertainment became depressing submersions into pits of despair. Aside from Christopher Nolan’s self-important Batman trilogy, most entries in the Golden Age of superhero flicks remained fairly light. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has maintained a consistent fun vibe for fifteen straight movies with no signs of that changing anytime soon, while the DC Comics movies went the other way. Seemingly based off the success of Nolan’s films and the failure of their goofier Green Lantern, the studio opted to bet big on relentless and gloomy.
But even regardless of overall mood, even 9/11 imagery became pervasive in both DC and Marvel superheroes. The Avengers staged its climactic city-destroying battle in New York City and later installments even refer to it as “The Battle of New York.” Star Trek: Into Darkness features a massive building-collapsing terrorist attack on Starfleet headquarters in San Francisco. And if there was any doubt they were going for 9/11 imagery in the climactic fight with Zod in Man of Steel, the opening minutes of Batman v. Superman showing Bruce Wayne saving a child from debris as Metropolis skyscrapers collapse around during the events of the aforementioned Man of Steel battle drives the point home.
Many of the dour blockbusters that permeated the era are quite good. Some are even fantastic. But there’s only so much somberness moviegoers and critics could take before many of us felt suffocated by it. After a while, everything just had a feeling of sameness. And after over ten years of darkness, it started to seem like this was more than just a temporary fad but the new normal we’d be stuck with forever. But then something miraculous happened.
The 2017 year in movies started out normal enough. The summer kicked off with Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which followed the fun tone set by the original and gave us another hip (yes, I’m going with “hip”) retro pop soundtrack from Peter Quill’s audio cassette collection. But unlike the first Guardians, the film didn’t waste any time getting to the fun parts and immediately gave us an opening titles that the Chicago Tribune called “one of the most joyous opening sequences in years,” as we watch Baby Groot in the foreground dancing to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” while the rest of the Guardians battle a giant creature in the background.
That opening seems almost like it set the tone for the rest of the summer’s films. At least two other major releases, Baby Driver and Atomic Blonde, similarly employed a heavy dose of retro pop often diegetically incorporated into the narrative. In the case of Baby Driver, director Edgar Wright even contacted Guardians director James Gunn to ensure their two films didn’t accidentally overlap in their musical choices.The use of pop music to build a propulsive energy is just one component, and in the wrong hands, could be a detriment to the films. But in the hands of Guardian‘s Gunn, Baby Driver‘s Wright, and Atomic Blonde‘s David Leitch, it’s a vital and carefully considered element of the art. In the case of Baby Driver, the music drove the editing choices. Though a cynic could easily dismiss these three films as mere exercises in style over substance, when the style is at this level, I don’t even miss the substance.
Then there’s Wonder Woman, the first of the DCEU films to have escaped the severe air of Zach Snyder’s influence. Patty Jenkins’ entry into the franchise felt like a breath of fresh air after all the broodiness of Batman v. Superman. Just the “No Man’s Land” sequence alone where Gal Godot’s titular heroine reveals her Wonder Woman costume for the first time gave me genuine goosebumps. The entire film just felt markedly lighter even when set amidst the backdrop of World War I.
But what about Justice League, the next chapter in the DCEU due at the end of the year? After critical and audience dissatisfaction to last year’s gritty Batman v. Superman, Snyder admitted the negative reaction inspired him to “make an adjustment” when he invited critics to the set of Justice League. According to Snyder, “I do think that the tone of Justice League has changed because of what the fans have said.” And after the massive box office success and praise of Patty Jenkins’ lighter Wonder Woman, the newest Justice League trailer treats the Amazonian princess as if she’s the film’s headliner. Combine that with Joss Whedon given the reigns over a sizable amount of reshoots and we might just get a less unrelentingly grim, even — dare I say — fun flick after all.
Even Spider-Man: Homecoming managed to rejuvenate that hero after Marc Webb’s two lackluster reboots. Not only was it a blast watching Spidey playing in the same sandbox as Iron Man, but the film managed to give us our first non-brooding Spider-Man. I love the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films to death, but there’s still something refreshing about a Spider-Man film that manages to not obsessively dwell on the tragedy of Uncle Ben and allows Peter Parker to be a kid who can actually find some enjoyment in his abilities while still maintaining the tradition of the character almost never getting what he truly wants.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is certainly a flawed film. I’m not even sure yet if I think it’s any good. I may need years to decide on that question. And yet I found myself enjoying the experience of watching it in 3-D because of its groundbreaking visuals and ability to capture an optimism and a joy that’s been lacking in summer movies for so long. Sure, Dane DeHaan desperately needed to be Chris Pratt, but just the first scene alone captured more of the spirit and ideals of the original Star Trek than probably any actual Star Trek movie in the last twenty years.
The most glaring exception this summer would probably be War for the Planet of the Apes, an undeniably bleak film. But it’s the third in a trilogy whose tone was set by its previous two installments. And, as such, I would argue it’s not subject to the same tonal trends as newer properties. If anything, the first in the trilogy, 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, is a quintessential example of the dark and gritty reboot era.
Is 2017 an anomaly or a sign that the clouds of the dark and gritty age are starting to lift, allowing for sunnier fare to break through? Are we finally ready to move on and stop inserting 9/11 allegories into Barney the Purple Dinosaur? I hope so because I had a blast this summer watching one incredibly well crafted, well directed, fun action adventure flick after another. And I’d realized I’d forgotten what it was like to go to the movies, forget about politics and the problems in the world, and just have a good time.