“Why so serious?”
We have all heard that line, brought to fame by the acclaimed performance of Heath Ledger as the Joker. It seems it needs some examination, though, in this more modern adaptation of the four-color world where, as fans, we became familiar with the massive list of characters we enjoy. Superhero stories are getting darker — not just in tone, but in shade.
Recently, we saw the release of the first group picture from DC’s “Suicide Squad”.
See anything interesting about the image? The only thing that stands out is the body of Harley Quinn and the shirt of El Diablo. Everything else blends in. It hides. Even the reds of Deadshot and the bits of blue here and there are muted.
Look at the pictures for “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”.
More BvS imagery HERE
The bright blue and red of the iconic Superman costume has been toned down. Wonder Woman has gone to a dull bronze tone for her armor. Batman…Okay, so there’s not much change there since the modifications after the Adam West days. At least Batman can claim that his raison d’etre has pretty much always been to vanish into the dark and emerge to terrorize his foes.
Rest assured, I am not simply throwing DC under the bus, as it were. Marvel’s characters, in their various incarnations, are being modified as well. The brilliant shades made famous in the comics are being replaced by black leather with subtle team indicators. X-Men, I’m looking at you here…
Set and costume design has gone black. Colorful costumes? Not so much. They don’t offer the same tactical advantages as a dark grey for urban use to help blend in with the concrete, or black to hide in shadows. Realistic looks at the genre have prompted the change to more accurate examples of what would constitute a good costume choice. Why should a character stand out, when that’s only going to put him in the crosshairs that one extra bit?
Why? Because they’re superheroes (and villains). They are — for the most part, at least — supposed to stand out. These people are larger than life. Their position alone demands that they stand out. The costumes were a way to announce their presence. They were a part of the personality of that character.
Wolverine in bright yellow? That’s someone who is telling you, “I’m coming for you, and there’s no need for me to hide it. You’ll see me coming and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Daredevil in the deep blood red with the horned mask? Personification of the demons that infest all humans and have come to life within Hell’s Kitchen.
Realism has taken hold. Writers who “reboot” the characters look for more and more plausible methods of creating them, for fear that an audience might say, “Well, that doesn’t make sense.”
So we can accept a talking tree and a raccoon with a machinegun because they’re aliens, but might have trouble believing that whole radioactive spider thing? After all, we know that radiation doesn’t grant superpowers, right? Suspension of disbelief is a requirement for the big-name supers. Sure, we can all see how a vet with a history of excelling at special operations might one day become Punisher, but what of those with origins most unrealistic? Plastic Man. Swamp Thing. Doctor Strange. Flash. Remember, kiddies: Lab accidents don’t make you a hero, they just make you disfigured…and frequently dead.
So we carry on and we keep retconning the characters to make them somehow more believable. We change the lab accident to a previously unknown genetic mutation, with three or four levels of scientific theory to add plausibility. We make collapsible flight suits. Cybernetic implants are replaced by weapon-mounted targeting systems. We take out the raw humor that came from characters that are vastly different from the humans with whom they are interacting. TV and movies have taken many of the characters we have known and loved for decades and made them simply members of the “Trained by ninjas” trope to describe how they achieved superhuman proficiency.
In the process, we rob a little more of that brightness and elation that came from cracking open the pages of a comic and reuniting with your favorite character for a while.
“Exposure to cosmic rays” was good enough to make Reed Richards turn into Mister Fantastic, while simultaneously giving every other member of his party different abilities. We smiled and turned the next page, waiting to see what the rock-hided Thing would do next.
Lightning strikes a rack of lab supplies and showers Barry Allen in them. He’s the Flash now. Interaction between the electricity and various chemicals is all the explanation needed. Note to true fans: Yes. I left out Jay Garrick and the Hard Water. I went with the origin that was repeated to make Kid Flash. Someone get that lab a lightning rod. Seriously.
Stephen Strange and his post-accident Muppet hands meet the Ancient One and study hard, becoming the most powerful Sorcerer on Earth.
Don’t even get me started on Cable.
Movie folks: We can just accept it. You need not spend 45 minutes of a 90 minute movie telling us how Captain Cuttlefish came to be the hero that he is. Let him be that hero! We came to see a superhero story, not to be behind the scenes in a CSI documentary. For those of you who prefer that behind-the-scenes element, my apologies for having a different stance.
My point is simply this: Don’t be afraid to embrace the outlandish. Superheroes, supervillains, and all the associated super-stuff can be wild and different. Let them wear brightly-colored suits — and yes, even have capes. When a man can fly around the world fast enough to stop its rotation and reverse time, I think we have already decided that realism is not necessarily point number one.