Why must every successive film in a series become darker? What is our obsession with creating and experiencing ever-darkening stories? Star Trek, Star Wars, James Bond, Batman, Spiderman, Superman, every single Marvel film – even reboots these days insist on creating darker versions than the original incarnation did.
If I have to sit through one more interview with another actor or director talking about how the next one will be darker I might just just give up on films ever being original again. Enough. Please. It has become the most overused, tired and redundant cliche.
It’s understandable how it’s come about, though. With more and more franchises spring-boarding off the Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings platform of the early 2000s, we’re seeing more and more films greenlit and created that have no intention of telling a complete narrative in two hours. And with the ever-present reliance on the classic three act structure that Hollywood has practically minted as its currency and erected a 100-foot statue to, we’re left with an increasingly formulaic trilogy structure.
The first film of a trilogy will always be the light and peppy Act One, an introduction to the world and to the characters and just laced with tiny hints of complexity and problematic horizons. The second film is the inevitable darker turn, When Things Get Serious, as all Act Twos are wont to do. It’s the film where the character must go through their greatest crisis, and where everything is at stake and appears utterly lost.
So, first film: good. Second film: dark. Here’s where the problem occurs.
The three-act structure works in a film because it’s one sustained story, to be ingested in one sitting. Things start okay, then get worse, before the triumph. We understand this, it works.
But the nature of films as separate entities, and the nature of box office reality, is that each film in a series must outdo the one that came before. It is the voyage of diminishing returns. Anything that occurs in the first film is less at stake than anything in the second film, which is still less than everything in the third film.
So if the storytellers have made the decision to go darker in the second film, the third can only continue on that path. And then we end up with an uneven narrative. And we end up with pointless darkening for the sake of it. Furthermore, it undermines the preceding films if each is only ever trying to outdo the elements of the story that came before.
In a sense, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films suffered from this. It became a victim of its own tropish success. Batman Begins was a darker, grittier take on the character than what had been seen previously – Tim Burton’s efforts notwithstanding. However, Nolan admittedly was hindered by relative conservatism in his first film, and its success allowed him to go for a much bolder, and darker, vision with The Dark Knight. And it worked. But hell, what do you do then?
All along, The Dark Knight Rises was billed as bigger, darker and better than everything that came before. Arguably, it didn’t quite make it. While elements were there, it suffered too much in comparison with the preceding film.
That doesn’t seem to perturb anybody out there in filmland, though, with a succession of quality directors announcing their intentions of matching Nolan’s three-card-dark trick: J.J. Abrams with Star Trek Into Darkness, Sam Mendes with Skyfall, Joss Whedon and The Avengers 2: Age of Ultron, Marc Webb and The Amazing Spiderman 2: Rise of Electro, Zack Snyder and Man of Steel. Really, that’s only a smattering of the collection.
Unfortunately, this is an ongoing legacy of two films: The Empire Strikes Back and The Godfather Part Two. Both followed the model, and both are regularly referenced by the above films and filmmakers. But it’s a fallacy to think this is the only way, and that going dark was what inherently made those films successful. Both films are more complex explorations of the worlds they established in their originals – both use the screen time to become introspective journeys through the inner motivations and conflicts of their central characters, an aspect that will always lead to more problematic storytelling. They are not dark for the sake of it.
It’s worth also adding that The Godfather films tell the story of a villain, not a hero, and therefore the constant referencing of it as a major influence (this is for you, Whedon), is clumsy and nonsensical.
The tone and narrative focus of films invariably mirror the age they are created in. There are the hopeful, carefree, wasteful films of the 50s and 60s, and the anti-establishment, morally ambiguous films of the 70s. And then there’s now: the endless franchising and amplification of images and stories, the atonal darkening in place of original thought, and the pessimistic view that things only ever get worse.
Give us hope, give us optimism, give us a story that tries to be something more than the obvious, that elevates itself about the lowest common denominator. Give us a story that develops according to the demands and nature of its characters, and not according to the stylistic cliches of the day. Just don’t say the next one’s going to be darker.