I went to see a movie this weekend, and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. The movie I saw (I'm sure this will surprise no one) was Wonder Woman.
I'm not going to review the movie here--because I'm not sure how to frame all of my feelings about it. I thought it was great and enjoyed it, but there was, for me, an importance to it beyond the movie itself that I'm not sure I can properly articulate. What I really want to talk about today is tone. Wonder Woman, apart from being a really enjoyable movie, was something of a tonal departure from big-budget superhero properties (particularly DC superhero properties) in the last several years.
My overall enthusiasm for superhero movies and shows has cooled over the last few years. This isn't to imply that there haven't been cool things happening in superhero properties or that there haven't been recent superhero movies and shows that I've enjoyed (I thought Logan was a very well done movie, for instance). But superheros on film and TV have definitely started to feel a little bit like a slog.
Some of this is specific to trends within the superhero genre itself. DC and Marvel (to a somewhat lesser extent--though only somewhat lesser) have leaned pretty hard into the grim-and-gritty trend. It's understandable, I guess. The superhero renaissance we've been seeing over the last decade really got started with the wildly successful Nolan Batman movies, and part of the draw of those movies is that they don't treat the titular hero or his rogues like kid stuff. The stakes are high, the action is powerful--and we see the consequences to a greater extent than we have in the past. This all works within the context of the Nolan films. It suits what he's going for in tone, and (though angry-vengeance Batman will always be less interesting to me than broken-person-trying-to-fix-broken-people Batman) it matches his interpretation of the character. But, because entertainment is an industry that's really more about minimizing risks by replicating formulas that have worked before, the success of this film led to a slew of grim-dark superhero stories and reboots.
This isn't a trend that's limited to superheros. American media in general has jumped on the grim-and-gritty bandwagon in the last decade or so.
And this isn't necessarily bad. There are things that edgy, dark stories can do very well. Our lives and stories include moments of darkness and despair, and our fiction, films, and television should reflect these moments.
Here's where my problem is: at a certain point, "grim-and-gritty" became a proxy for meaningful.
Certainly, dark stories can be meaningful. Poignant moments are sometimes painful, and mediated version of these moments can be cathartic and help the viewer negotiate their experiences and emotions. But darkness is no inherently meaningful. That a story is grim, that a character suffers, doesn't make the story automatically meaningful. Killing off a character for the quick gut-punch to the viewer or reader doesn't necessarily make the work more powerful.
Wonder Woman had its share of darkness--the movie is set during World War I; painful moments are inevitable. But the powerful parts of the movie, the moments that were the most poignant, were the once that sprang from sincerity, not grit. The momentum didn't come from a thirst for revenge or anger or bloodlust. It came from a sincere desire to try to improve a bad situation. That was the motivation. That was the lens through which the action was framed.
I've found it hard to root for some of the heroes in movies in the past few years. I like a reluctant hero as much as the next person, and I like a redemption story--remember, the heel-face turn is one of my favorite tropes. But it was refreshing to see a hero that wanted to help people just to help people.
There's certainly still room for gritty and dark hero stories. But, at least to me, Wonder Woman speaks to the value of sincerity. We don't have to rely on dark, tortured heroes to create compelling, meaningful stories--we just have to tell stories that are true to the people in them. And, frankly, we could stand to see more stories about people motivated by their love for other people.