It’s always darkest before…well, you know.

I had originally intended to write this entry about The Dark Knight, which I just saw this evening, until…well, until I didn’t see it, for a host of unimportant reasons involving a six month old. 🙂 We’re going to check it out next week instead. But while moping around the Internet (and really, what better way is there to feel sorry for oneself than to surf the web?) I ran into this: a description of the upcoming movie Watchmen, fresh from the fanboy fest that is Comic-Con. Now I must admit to only vaguely knowing about this movie before now–it’s directed by Zack Snyder of 300 fame, which suggests that it’s going to be visually striking, and the original graphic novel was co-written by Alan Moore, which suggests that it’s going to be horribly depressing. (Yes, and very compelling…Moore can really write.) I’m not one hundred percent sure it’s my cup of tea, but it certainly looks to be a worthwhile project. But what really got me was this comment by Snyder: “What is darkness? If someone is psychotic in a movie, is it a metaphor or is it real?”


It doesn’t mention this in the article, but I assume this was an answer to a question about how dark the movie is, and if that’s the case I suppose I can’t blame Snyder for his reaction. Everyone seems to be on the “wow, this is so dark!” train lately with various movies and books, including (most notably) the aforementioned Batman film, and after a while it does start to get a bit old…especially when it’s such an unhelpful metaphor. What exactly does “dark” mean in this context, anyway? Too depressing? Not uplifting enough? Contributing to the moral collapse of society? Not enough light to see some of the scenes, can you turn up that lantern for me a bit, please?

I imagine it means some or all of these things at once, but ultimately the problem with the term is it doesn’t lead anywhere, and it isn’t subject to the same evaluative process that other movies are. When’s the last time you heard about a movie being too “light”? “Gee, honey, this story was way too uplifting. It’s irresponsible to get people all excited about an unreal world of sunshine and caramel sundaes.” (If you have ever heard this, please let me know…I’d love to find a contrarian view.) It’s especially irritating when people profess shock at the “darkness” of a subject which is quite obviously going to be rough from the get-go–say, a film entitled The DARK Knight. Were they expecting Adam West in ridiculous blue shorts?

In other words, if it’s dark, it’s dark, and it shouldn’t be something to wring one’s hands over. Yet I still find myself troubled by Snyder’s answer. Part of that might be because it’s not really answering the question; even if a psychotic movie character is intended to reflect a real person–hardly a stretch–I don’t see how that addresses the “darkness” charge. (There are lots of real, non-psychotic people, none of whom either Moore or Snyder chose to focus on in their respective works. If you focus on the darkest parts of the human heart, people have the right to ask why.)

But beyond the question-dodging, I think my issue with the quote has something to do with darkness as the default position for “serious” speculative art these days. “Dark” has become the new “meaningful” or “sophisticated”; find any description of the old Harry Potter books and then a review of the most recent one, Deathly Hallows, and you’ll see the word “dark” applied repeatedly–and glowingly–to Rowling’s progression in the series. As Harry grows up, the books have gotten darker, and thus (so goes the logic) more mature and adult. And this is a common refrain in all forms of art: light is childish fantasy, dark is adult reality. Somewhere along the line we’ve gotten the idea that the world is a sad, terrifying place of never-ending despair and grief, and the movies/books/songs which reflect that despair really are the more mature ones. Because, as we know, adult life is always about sackcloth and ashes, with a nice dose of wailing and teeth-gnashing thrown in.

Er, wait a second. It is?

Because this really is the problem: I’m sorry, but all of adult life in the aggregate is not dark, at least not all the time. I would hazard a guess that there are some people for whom misery and tragedy are daily companions, who never catch a break, who live quiet or not so quiet lives of desperation and pass away in sadness; I am deeply, deeply sorry for these people. I would also guess that there are an equal number of people who live largely charmed existences, happy, hale and healthy, with barely a blip on the always rising barometers of their life paths; I’m very happy for (perhaps even a touch jealous of) these people too. But it’s pretty clear that the vast majority of us live our lives somewhere in the mushy middle, and that’s where this “darkness as truth” metaphor falls apart.

Think about it for a moment–for most of us, we have good days and bad days. For most of us, things are sometimes positive, sometimes negative, and sometimes plain old boring neutral. For most of us, life is just life–the good, bad, and indifferent, meted out in roughly equal portions. This doesn’t mean we don’t have bad stretches…but I would bet that most of the time we also have some good stretches. This doesn’t invalidate the stories of people who are always getting stepped on, but it does put those stories into perspective, I think: not everything is awful, just as not everything is good. The latter’s Pollyanna, but the former’s got no more of a claim to truth than she does.

None of this is meant to disparage Moore or Watchmen. I’m sure it will be great, and it’ll be on my list of movies to see. But I do wonder a bit about why we’ve become so enamored of the dark and dreadful, and why we’ve invested those worlds with the authority of a “mature reality” when they’re no more realistic than a world of chocolate kisses and gumdrops. Fantasy can work either way, and I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice by forgetting the sunshine which, despite all claims to the contrary, does occasionally appear on the horizon.