*[For maximum impact, every time you read the words “DARK” or “GRITTY” in this piece, say them in Christian Bale’s ridiculous Batman voice.]
Truly, this is the week of DARKNESS and GRITTINESS. The final chapter in the Dark Knight trilogy (which they really should have just called Batman Ends) comes out at midnight tonight, and the fifth and final season of Breaking Bad (subtitled Breaking, Like, the Badliest Ever) premiered on Tuesday. I didn’t watch Breaking Bad, and I probably won’t go see The Dark Knight Lights Up (as Rush Limbaugh tells me that this new movie is called), at least not right away. The fact is I don’t like either series very much, though it’s not for lack of trying. I went to the first two Dark Knight movies, and I sat through the first season and a half of Breaking Bad. (My wife in particular loves the latter series, so it was entirely in my interest to learn to like it.) The fact is, their excessive DARKNESS and GRITTINESS renders them close to unwatchable for me.
I’m still sorting through my reasons for this, but let me see if I can give you a few:
For the Batman series, I think this principle should be obvious. The source material is a comic book about a grown-ass man who wears a rubber bat suit to kickbox an evil clown. No amount of DARKNESS and GRITTINESS will ever get me to take that seriously. It doesn’t matter if Gotham City looks exactly like Chicago. It doesn’t matter if your villains do the most violent things you can possibly get away with in a PG-13 movie (which turns out to be surprisingly violent). It doesn’t matter if you try (way too hard) to comment on contemporary politics. You’re still making a movie about a dude in a rubber bat suit. That’s a cartoon, not a crime drama. Sorry.
In the case of Breaking Bad, the problem is a bit more subtle, but it’s still there. The guys behind Bad evidently think that being DARK and GRITTY means making every character perpetually morally ambiguous. This is an okay idea — no one in real life is wholly “good” or wholly “evil” — but what it means in Bad is that no one is allowed to be likable for more than five minutes. If a character does something altruistic, or badass, in the next scene he has to say something racist or attempt to rape his wife. The effect isn’t realism at all; it’s characters that are entirely predictable and entirely unlikable. The characters in Bad are slaves to a preconceived notion of a morally gray universe — not realistic people that I can relate to. There’s a huge difference.
2. Transparent bids for “relevance” are not the same thing as actual relevance.
The Dark Knight, again, got the worst of this problem, with its repeated insistence that See??? Batman is just like George Bush!!! The problem with that is that we root for Batman. Nobody rooted for George Bush. (Or at least no one will admit to having done so post-2004.) That aside, I don’t think anyone needed that movie to tell them that tapping phones (1) makes for effective surveillance and (2) is a gross invasion of privacy. It’s yet another bid for moral ambiguity, but it comes off as a ninth-grade civics lesson. It’s not at all interested in really making us as viewers think critically about the issues raised by the Patriot Act; it just lets us pretend that we’re civically involved for a couple of seconds so we can pat ourselves on the back and immediately go back to enjoying some more of that rubber-bat-suit-flavored homoeroticism.
Similarly, Breaking Bad has surprisingly little to say about the meth trade that it’s more than happy to exploit for a buck. Depending on what’s convenient for its storyline, it paints Albuquerque as either a hellhole full of scumbags or an existential suburbia full of rich people with pointless lives. It glamorizes drug culture when it’s convenient, and it condemns it when it wants you to think that it’s an important show. Saying everything is not the same thing as being insightful; nor is acknowledging the existence of the drug trade the same thing as having a social conscience.
This is really what it all comes down to, and I think it’s a problem endemic to the modern mass-media. Hollywood genuinely believes that they can take the stupidest idea in the world, and if they drench it in a ton of sex and violence, that will make it “serious” and “mature” (perhaps some exec took the euphemism “mature content” a bit too seriously?). It should be obvious that that’s not the case. You could bring a bunch of strippers with glocks onto the set for Barney and Friends, and it would be awesome, but it would still be insipid and juvenile. The DARK and GRITTY trend, after all, is nothing more than an aesthetic, a veneer. Shooting High School Musical in the style of a classic noir wouldn’t have convinced anyone to take it as seriously as they did The Maltese Falcon; it would have just resulted in a content-to-medium mismatch.
And that’s what we have, as far as I’m concerned, with both of these franchises. Batman is, fundamentally, a stupid idea. It’s a fourteen-year-old boy’s wet dream and nothing else. As long as the tone is light and comic (like the old Adam West series), or is surreal enough to subvert disbelief (like the ’90s cartoon series, which I will freely admit was awesome), it works. But bringing it into the “real” world for the sake of DARKNESS and GRITTINESS, as director Christopher Nolan tries to do, just draws attention to how ridiculous the premise is. Even with all the ninja training in the world and an infinite pile of money, Batman could probably evade discovery of his secret identity and capture by a SWAT team for about a week. And I can’t simultaneously suspend that much disbelief and take your movie seriously as a DARK, GRITTY crime drama. Sorry.
Breaking Bad? Again, same problem. The whole premise is something teen girls would giggle about at a slumber party: “I bet Mr. White is a drug pusher!” (Hmmm, now I really feel like rewatching Mean Girls.) And the hoops the show has to jump through to get there are so ridiculous that after the first few episodes, I just couldn’t take any of the characters seriously. (I can’t accept that a mild-mannered middle-class guy like Walter would be desperate enough to get into the drug trade, but too proud to take charity.) Once the first few episodes have established that the characters will do whatever the writers want them to do in order to get the plot points that they want to happen, there’s no way to enjoy the rest of the show. The Dark Knight characters are at least political symbols; Bad‘s are just hooks to hang plot points on.
I’m sure this post will bug someone, given how popular both of these series are. But all’s I’s sayin’ is, I can’t take them seriously, no matter how much you jump up and down and tell me I have to. If you’re going to catch The Dark Knight Rises tonight, enjoy, by all means. I’ll be at home, watching something that’s actually fun.