“The Dark Knight will change everything.” This was the consensus among American entertainment pundits after Christopher Nolan’s groundbreaking 2008 sequel to Batman Begins destroyed box office records on its way to becoming, at the time, the second highest grossing domestic film in history (trailing only Titanic). The immense popularity of Dark Knight prompted many experts to declare the death of the “light” superhero movie, with a decidedly darker breed serving as its successor. Ostensibly, studios like Fox and Warner Bros. would adapt to the abundantly clear shift in popular taste by reorienting their focus from spectacle-driven action flicks buoyed by pithy one-liners towards grittier reimaginings of classic heroes. Rather than emphasize the fun of being a superhero, they would focus more on the burdens, and would depict their protagonists as fallible, emotionally tormented outsiders struggling in vain to protect their morally bankrupt cities. Tonally, this would mark a deliberate departure from the general spirit of their comic book roots.
While a few notable features like Watchmen and Kick-Ass managed to capitalize on the public’s newfound interest in bleak heroic dramas, the portended seismic deviation never materialized as expected. In short, the report of the blockbuster superhero film’s death was greatly exaggerated. Rather than submit to the potential sea change Dark Knight seemed to be ushering in, films like X-Men: First Class and The Avengers retained their upbeat and enthralling presentations without resorting to gloom and doom simply for gloom and doom’s sake.
Yet, right as The Avengers had seemingly driven the last nail into the myth of the Dark Knight effect, audiences were exposed to its first descendant, The Amazing Spider-Man. Released over the Fourth of July weekend, the decidedly mopey picture distanced itself from its Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire trilogy predecessor by tapping into a teen angst-fueled Peter Parker, who slinks through the sordid New York City alleyways and sewers while hunting mobsters and mutated beasts deep in the night. Amazing Spider-Man’s significance in the landscape of the superhero film lies in the way it reconceives its titular protagonist, for the first time, as an emotionally anguished figure, which is the antithesis of the character’s true nature.
While marked by occasional moments of rage and torment, Spider-Man has become a cultural icon largely due to his traditional depiction as a brightly colored, wise-cracking extrovert who confronts every challenge with equal parts optimism and humor. Reevaluating Peter’s plight, director Marc Webb took a backstory that informed his quest for justice and painted it in broad strokes of tragedy. Throw in the fact that Andrew Garfield spends the majority of the film one stiff breeze away from erupting into tears, and it’s clear that the film tries to reorient 50 years of continuity to the polar opposite tone.
Yet, for the seeming incongruous mixture of light and dark elements that Amazing Spider-Man exhibits (as most all somber scenes are mitigated by some overt attempts at humor), droves of moviegoers responded to the dreary reimagining of the icon with overwhelming positivity. This has lead us to wonder, what other superheroes (commonly considered light, moral figures) would benefit from being Nolanized, i.e. reconceived in shades of black and gray? Here are the top six candidates that would do best to tap into an unrealized dark side.
1. Captain America
Joining perhaps only Superman on the far end of the superhero righteousness spectrum, Captain America boasts a saga that is rarely depicted as tragically as it deserves. A star-spangled superhero, celebrity, and soldier, Cap helped ensure Allied success in World War II before being unceremoniously frozen (literally) in suspended animation. Revived in present-day United States, Cap finds himself stranded throughout time, with no way of returning home. While often played for laughs in comedies like Austin Powers, the realities of being dislodged from time and forced to assimilate into a grossly different society would be an unenviable curse.
While navigating through this foreign temporal terrain, Cap would be forced to confront the fact that the very thing he symbolizes, America, is a far cry from the optimistic burgeoning superpower it was in 1944. Now both the solution to and the cause of the world’s problems, America has developed into an often brash global authority defined by both its grasp and reach. Citizens have learned to distrust their often corrupt governments, leading to an atmosphere of political divisiveness that belies the spirit of unity exemplified during WWII. In addition, warfare has also changed drastically. The soldier has been superseded by advanced technology in the unconventional modern wars that are waged for dubious reasons.
Is Captain America, and the ideals he represents like integrity and justice, obsolete in such a world? Will he fight the darkness or submit to it?
2. Silver Surfer
The grand guardian of the cosmos, Silver Surfer has never been an overly popular superhero despite being widely recognizable. For this reason, even passionate comic fans have failed to appreciate the strands of depression woven into his narrative. In order to deter the celestial giant Galactus (who is not an amorphous cloud; can’t stress that enough) from devouring his home planet, Norrin Radd, a humanoid alien, offers to serve as the destructor’s herald.
Imbued with cosmic powers (making him the most formidable superhero in comic history), Silver Surfer eventually defies his slaver, thereby dooming himself to a life spent patrolling the macrocosm for his former master’s next planetary victim. However, such a noble duty is not without its sad irony, as in his course as protector, Radd sees his home world ultimately destroyed by his archenemy.
Mesmerizing viewers as a lone rider venturing through the awe-inspiring expansive void of space, Silver Surfer contains a core brimming with misery. Due to guilt and obligation, he will remain a perpetual stranger, doomed to his solitary travels for eternity. Such a tale, with its expansion of classical Western themes of journey and remorse, would be best presented as a screen amalgam of The Searchers and 2001: A Space Odyssey, thereby producing a uniquely delicate, ethereal masterpiece beyond anything committed to celluloid.
3. Moon Knight
While never confused for a Marvel hero A-Lister, Moon Knight has retained limited popularity in large part due to his arresting visual design and a conceit dripping with grimness. Marvel’s attempt to make their own Batman (don’t believe a word they say to the contrary), Moon Knight is distinguished from other costumed crusaders by one major element: he’s bonkers.
Highlighting and expanding the themes of madness and identity that permeate the tales of all vigilante heroes, Moon Knight wrestles with at least three major distinct personalities, each desperately fighting for authority. One of the few Jewish superheroes, Moon Knight was born Marc Spector, a CIA operative and mercenary who, after being possessed by the Egyptian moon god Khonshu, obtains powers that supplement his peek human athleticism.
Garbed in a stark white cloak, Moon Knight gradually begins to feel the effects of being a divine avatar as he loses himself to his alter egos (which include a millionaire playboy and a taxi cab driver). As a result, Moon Knight has become a mesmerizingly unstable and erratic character that is prone to fits of confusion and excessive violence. Far more than Sybil in Spandex, though, Moon Knight is a uniquely tragic figure, as his powers kick-start an erosion of his psyche already damaged from years of paid killing. Forever straddling the line of insanity, Moon Knight would provide the blueprint for the disturbed hero.
4. Swamp Thing
Having already graced cinema screens in the groan-worthy 1982 schlockfest directed by Wes Craven, Swamp Thing has developed a cult following based largely on his value as a recognizable monster. Introduced in 1971, the character only found popularity after comic maestro Alan Moore (V for Vendetta, Watchmen) reinvented him from the ground up with subject matter that, for the first time in comic history, appealed exclusively to mature readers.
Swamp Thing was initially presented as a scientist (Alec Holland), who, after diving into a bog while doused with chemicals as a result of a lab explosion, began to mutate into a botanical beast. Moore breathed life into this tired genesis by reconceiving Swamp Thing as a sentient earth elemental that, due to the accident, absorbed the thoughts and memories of the real deceased Holland.
This redefinition of the character as non-human elevated Swamp Thing from a mere pulp icon to one of comic’s ultimate cursed heroes. Alienated from a sense of self, Swamp Thing grapples with the division between what it identifies as and what it truly is. It must occupy both the realms of nature and culture, without ever being truly part of either.
One of comics’ oldest superheroes, Sandman (not to be confused with Neil Gaiman’s Dream King) remains an iconic figure despite modest popularity. Donning his trademark green suit, fedora, and gas mask, creative genius Wesley Dodds silently patrols the streets with his only protection being in the form of an ingenuous gun that shoots sleep-inducing gas at his foes. Slithering in the shadows, Sandman’s clandestine crime fighting methods mark a departure from the rest of his superhero brethren, who more often resort to overt displays of force. Lacking the supreme abilities of Superman and physical skills of Batman, Dodds is a rare weak superhero who must overcome his mortal shortcomings with cunning and stealth. Helping keep Sandman’s story grounded in the grim realities of the world are his nemeses, who, unlike the flamboyant members of other heroes’ rogues galleries, consist of simple murderers and rapists. If given a proper 1930s’ film treatment retaining a film noir emphasis on shadow and suspense, Sandman could prove to be a hauntingly mysterious superhero picture unlike any of its predecessors.
Stop laughing! Perpetually one of the most underrated and maligned superheroes in history, Aquaman has become more of a cultural punch line rather than a serious contemporary to Batman and Superman, due largely to his Ken Doll appearance, goldfish scale outfit, and ability to communicate with aquatic animals.
Despite being overlooked, Aquaman’s saga proves to be a sprawling, operatic narrative anchored by a brooding and reluctant hero, beginning with his early years as the adoptive son of a lighthouse keeper who found him abandoned in the sea and continuing to the formative moment when he discovers he is the son of the Queen of Atlantis, and thus the rightful heir to kingdom of the seas (which encompasses three-quarters of the world). Enslaved upon his return, Aquaman must claim his rightful place on the throne, while warding off a myriad of contenders, including his half-brother, Sea Master (ehh . . . they probably want to change that name).
Migrating to the land, Aquaman begins serving as both superhero and king, duties he struggles with considering humans’ continued efforts to pollute his domain. Highlighted by a character arc involving the gruff loner gradually overcoming his solitary nature to rule effectively, Aquaman’s story would befit the silver screen if infused with the intrigue that has made Game of Thrones the phenomenon it has become, with an emphasis on the sovereign’s efforts juggling a multitude of challengers and allies in order to maintain his kingdom.