On Realism in Fantasy, Part II: The Grit, the Dark, and the Edgy

In Part I of this post, we talked about credibility and “modernizing.” As much as we are nostalgic creatures, and as much as we say that we prefer our beloved fantasy franchises be left well and truly alone, we don’t really mean this. We can criticize James Franco’s new Oz movie and say that they should never have tampered with the original. The problem with this philosophy is that the 1939 musical Oz we all know is not only an “adaptation” of Baum’s novel–it’s already a high-tech modern “reboot” of the original Wizard of Oz film, this delightful one-reeler made in 1910.

Let’s talk about this in a purely Hollywood context for a few moments. We do need remakes and reboots, to a certain extent. We need to take the things we’re nostalgic for from the past and remake them in the present. To argue otherwise because there’s been a few bad Star Wars movies would also invalidate the first, better Star Wars movies, themselves an update/reboot/adaptation/plagiarism of everything from Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress to the 13-chapter sci-fi serials of the 1940s and ’50s. Remakes bring us the awful Schwarzenegger Mr. Freeze; they also bring us the Heath Ledger Joker, who has reminded us that the Batman franchise is capable of a little more “bottom end” and gravitas than we see here:

When we grouch about reboots and take authors and moviemakers to task for their lack of originality, what we are actually saying is that we have an extremely high threshold of expectations for such things, and the majority of franchise reboots come from a moneymaking place that doesn’t really satisfy those expectations.. We are not a fickle audience, but we are savvy, and we can be demanding when it comes to material we are already familiar with. It’s easy to convince us that someone’s “got it right” with a new, unfamiliar franchise, because we don’t yet know what they’re trying to imitate. Maybe they’re not trying to imitate anything. But when you make a new Batman, you are are now going toe-to-toe in the imaginations of millions with all the Batmen who came before.

[Cowboys & Aliens geeky digression] Why was Cowboys & Aliens such a disaster? It’s because we had old-franchise expectations, even if it was a new franchise. We’ve seen Daniel Craig at his blond-Bond best; we’ve seen Harrison Ford as the lynchpin of both tropes: the true original space cowboy, Han Solo, and a good dash of Indiana Jones, a thinking-man’s cowboy of sorts who’s had his share of fighting aliens and Nazis. How would this have performed if cast with fine actors who weren’t stars? Replacing Ford with veteran Sam Elliott and Craig with an up-and-coming English action-type–Jude Law, maybe?–and the movie wouldn’t have been any better, but test audiences would have enjoyed it more. Put Craig/Ford on the bill, and spend most of your marketing budget selling it based on that pair-up, and you have people hoping that the franchise is what it sounds like, James Bond meets Indiana Jones. That’s what we expect going in the door, and we’re disappointed when we don’t get it. [/end digression]

Maybe The Wizard of Oz was just such a good reboot that it shouldn’t have been followed, ever, or not for at least another generation. Maybe The Dark Knight was that good too– so good that even Nolan’s immediately following effort, The Dark Knight Rises, which was a good movie, didn’t feel very good because it wasn’t up to the standards he set in the franchise only two years earlier. In any case, while these speculations take us down an interesting spiral of Clerks-style standing around and talking about movie franchises, they collectively tell us only one thing, really: namely, that it’s more common to be dissatisfied than satisfied with “more of the same,” which extends not only to reboots but to sequels as well. Unless there’s an extremely anomalous jump in quality, what we get is a law of diminishing returns.

[Sequel digression]I’m fairly confident that the reason Hollywood is fixated on trilogies has less to do with a literary connection to Lord of the Rings or anything else, and more to do with its intuitive sense of how much repeat business a successful first film will provoke, regardless of the quality of the sequels, before there’s a chance they won’t at least make their money back.This formula has nothing or almost nothing to do with the quality of the film. The Lord of the Rings naturally supported a trilogy; The Hobbit does not. Nevertheless, we will have to sit through two more Hobbit movies, not for reasons of storytelling, but for reasons of business. We could not have made four movies, or six, from The Lord of the Rings, even though there was enough material for it, without risking franchise fatigue. To my knowledge, the Harry Potter movies are an extremely rare counter-example, I know of only two other franchises I know that made it to seven-plus film club are Police Academy, a fine example of diminishing returns at work, and The Land Before Time, which was an outstanding children’s movie followed by more than twelve (!!) increasingly derivative sequels, making Littlefoot the Drizzt Do’Urden of the dinosaur world (get the reference, win a prize. Not really; no prizes). I don’t count the Star Wars movies, which already number ten (the missing three are The Holiday Special and the two Ewoks movies), mostly because the break in between severs them. Everything New Star Wars is almost a reboot, rather than a sequel string, to Old Star Wars. After Lucafilm’s sale to Disney, we now actually have three distinct “periods” of Star Wars film narratives: the Early Lucas years, the promising but disappointing Late Lucas years, and the still-unproven Disney years, which might not be as bad as that makes it sound., [/end digression]

The law of diminishing returns that governs sequels leads producers to an interesting conundrum: how do we keep doing the same thing, and making money from it, without that thing getting tired and pointless? To producers, it’s okay of a movie is pointless, as long as it makes money. Writers, on the other hand, are an infinite source of imagination. Writers are Hollywood’s only source of originality. See Christopher Nolan, an excellent screenwriter as well as a director, re: Batman. He did other things first, then thought he could bring originality and meaning to a Batman reboot–and now that he’s done with that, being a writer and capable of originality he’s simply gone on to other non-Batman things. Writers, good ones at least, have the intuitive sense of when the magic is on its last legs. Better writers have this sense one mediocre project early, and get off before the fridge is nuked.

Now, after years have passed, and everything has changed, we run into Tolkien’s issue. We’re talking about the reboot, or the update, or a revisiting that allows us to “modernize the myths and make them credible.” This is an extremely important distinction. The Hollywood sequel is in the business of sameness: its operating principle is that the first project was very successful–usually in vulgar financial terms–and so the best strategy is to repeat as closely as possible the steps that were followed to produce that success, that we can be confident it will be achieved again. Better and better sequels are needed to keep the franchise alive.

Think of the reboot and the sequel then, as two different processes to prolong life. If you’re a producer, you’re prolonging the life of the profitable franchise. If you’re a writer, or a fan, you’re prolonging the life of the story you love. In both cases, these are processes we can describe metaphorically as different kind of medical processes.

The art of the sequel–of directly going ahead as long as you can–is like intensive care, which has a lot to do with being calm and calculating, and not doing anything too jarring or upsetting to the patient. If someone’s recovering from a serious cardiac event, you don’t crack the rib cage open and massage the heart with your hands. You don’t disturb things because everything is going fine and you want to keep it that way. Status quo is exactly what you want.

The art of the reboot is the art of resurrection, of resuscitation. it’s the art of Code Blue. Now you must be radical. You must crack the rib cage. The franchise is already legally dead. Whatever worked once upon a time doesn’t work now–if it did, they’d still be making sequels. You are now taking a thing that was previously not quite living (though it does not want to die), and forcibly changing it into something that can live again. To avoid a quick trip to the Hollywood morgue, sequels must be sufficiently similar to the original. Conversely, reboots must be sufficiently different.

[Firefly digression] Let’s talk for a moment about the recent hype to bring back Firefly. And by recent, I mean ongoing. That whole universe was aborted too soon; everyone knows that. The success of Serenity, of the spin-off comics, and to an extent the continued success of Joss Whedon and the original cast, come from the absolute love for that series. It’s been off the air for more than a decade, now: Nathan Fillion, who was 30 year old (younger than me!) when he first strapped on his tight pants, is now 42. Beloved pilot Wash, who was also 30, is now all corpsified and gross.

This brings us to the central conundrum of the Firefly reunion forces: they managed to get Serenity made, which was disappointing as a sequel largely because of the change in format, from fun and leisurely full-season TV to two hours–and only two hours–to gobble through the next four seasons of what-happens-next. The tone was off–everything had to be a little more “dark” and “edgy”–more on this below–and Whedon had to turn the absolute nameless terror of the Reavers into what what one wise reader has dismissively termed “space orcs.”

When, two days ago, news broke that Veronica Mars is being reborn as a fan-funded, crowdsourced project, the natural inclination was for the same die-hard fans to lean expectantly toward Joss Whedon, who must be able to get the ball rolling again, right? To an extent, the crowd-funded world of Kickstarter would be kinder to Whedon than to anybody else: he’s now both written and directed a $220-million film, filled with both real actors and tons of CGI, and turned it into the third highest-grossing box office movie of all time. That proves he can work on the big scale. On the other hand, his successes from the web-spawned Dr. Horrible to this summer’s Much Ado About Nothing are a clear sign that nobody works the small, indie-scale like he can. He’s got a large, dedicated fan base that now stretches back more than twenty years to his original-Buffy days, and he’s literally shot better Shakespeare with a couple of friends in his own back yard than most filmmakers could with all the engines of California industry behind them. Joss Whedon is made for Kickstarter projects, and his crowd-funded films would probably outsell, on spec, more than a few real films already in release.

So why not Firefly? Whedon’s response has so far been this:

“I’ve said repeatedly that I would love to make another movie with these guys, and that remains the case. It also remains the case that I’m booked up by Marvel for the next three years, and that I haven’t even been able to get Dr. Horrible 2 off the ground because of that. So I don’t even entertain the notion of entertaining the notion of doing this, and won’t. Couple years from now, when Nathan [Fillion]’s no longer Castle and I’m no longer the Tom Hagen of the Marvel Universe and making a giant movie, we might look and see where the market is then.”

That response is not “no.” It’s maybe much savvier than “no.” In three more years, Fillion will be turning 45. That’s 15 years older than he was when he filmed his Firefly episodes. That’s old enough for Zoe & Wash’s kid to be a significant character. We’re literally talking “next generation” at that point: more specifically, Whedon has the ability to wait out the awkward too-late-for-a-sequel, too-soon-for-a-reboot window, and bring us something new and different in the Firefly universe. At worst, it’ll be a reboot on the order of Stallone’s recent Rocky and Rambo revivals, which are billed as sequels–but all sequels twenty-five years later are basically reboots. Think, if you remember, of The Hustler and The Color of Money–a film and its “sequel” which fall into the same category.

I can’t predict how much of this Whedon has thought through, how much of it is conscious and how much of it is intuitive. But he’s navigating a repetition-friendly genre not only with restraint, but with an eye to a fairly long game in mind. After the groundbreaking but short-lived success of the original Star Trek, sci-fi was virtually redefined in the 1990s by the extraordinarily ambitious–and very different–Next Generation series. I’m sure that in part, the long wait in between was responsible for its ability, once more, to be groundbreaking. The follow-ups of Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise, have all overlapped or immediately followed each other without even a moment’s breathing room. Maybe the wait, until a franchise is in need of modernization, is sadly part of the magic. After the first Trek, a sudden reboot/spinoff series in the early 1970s wouldn’t be good for anyone:

.

[/End digression]

One of the things that seems to satisfy our sense of difference is encapsulated in three vastly overused tonal descriptors: Dark. Gritty. Edgy.

Hollywood has completely ingested, absorbed, and got stuck in its colon the idea that what the public wants more than anything is these three things, darkness, edginess, grittiness, and that these things all amount to realism. The delusional fantasy present among a sad majority of studio executives is that the public, by and large, has no appetite for the fantastic, save for a very few fringe geeks–those outcasts on the edges who liked comic books before they were made into major franchises, for instance. In order to find mainstream success, the philosophy finds, we must cloak our fantasy in the disguise of pretention to “realism” so that people who claim not to like sci-fi or fantasy will still go and shell out for the next
big-budget superhero flick,


or the next action-blockbuster rehash of a public-domain fairy tale:
.

I’m not quite sure where this attitude comes from. I like to imagine it’s still the echo of Tim Burton’s Batman, which pulled this off in 1989, and had the kind of runaway success with it that every bad fantasy or comic-book film-maker has been chasing ever since. It must have been about that time; only two years earlier, Superman IV: the Quest for Peace was the last pretty-good comic-book movie you could take a young child to. The writing was by then pretty awful, but Christopher Reeve’s nerdy innocence never got old. It was what gave the genre its heart for a long time; after that, superhero movies went in two directions–garbage like Kazaam, which worked way too hard to be “cool” and instantly dated itself, or “dark and edgy” stuff like the animated Spawn. Even Disney cartoons took a decided swing to the Gothic around 1989-90: among their usual cartoon-duck offerings, Ducktales got shelved and the decidedly Burton-influenced Darkwing Duck took its place; their late-80s answer to medieval fantasy, Gummi Bears, gave way to their mid-90s answer to medieval fantasy, Gargoyles.

Again, I’m not writing to review these series; I’m sure you have better things to do than listen to me waffle on about what made each of them great. I’m more concerned with the trend that starts to be revealed by these changes–changes that, in fact, mirror the Gothic explosion of the late 18th century (but that’s a big ball of digression; we’ll leave that for another time). What we see in our fantastic narratives is a gradual darkening of both palette and palate: pallette, because the colours on-screen are darker and the characters are “more complicated,” by which I really mean they’re overpainted with an angst that I can only call proto-emo. Palate, because the taste of audiences seems to have shifted to support this neo-Gothic veneer. As usual, of course, the movements were visible in novels and fringe works far before they became prevalent in mainstream Hollywood entertainment. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon was already exploring the gritty, psychologically deep, dark-fantasy reboot-of-franchise (in her case, the Arthurian cycle) as early as 1983. The 1980s were an interesting time on the fringes of comic books, too: Art Spiegelman’s Maus came out and shook things up, of course; but “dark” guys like Alan Moore and Frank Miller surfaced too.

[Frank Miller and Alan Moore digression]I hesitate mentioning these two in the same sentence as if they’re part of a team. You could not find a more diametrically opposed set of comic-book writers. They hate each other, for one. Alan Moore, aside from being a wizard, is a radical anarchist. Frank MiIller is radically right-wing and accused as a racist, misogynist, homophobe by smarter people than me and with better evidence on hand. What they share in common is a precocious darkness and edginess, a capacity for outrageous violence, and a history of working for mainstream superhero comics while pursuing their more personal ambitions on the side through other presses. [/end digression.]

Miller and Moore represent a number of artists from the period who worked by day for the big companies, Marvel or DC for example, then pursued their darker work on the side. Todd McFarlane is probably one of the others, who did some Spider-Man work while developing Spawn (which eventually was written, in places, by both Moore and Miller too). All of this, no doubt, was what Tim Burton had on his mind when he turned to Batman, and the dark-edgy-gritty train pulled out of Mainstream Station shortly thereafter.

Fast-forward to the last few years, to Superman Returns, and to Tobey Maguire’s blue-eyed, round-faced Spider-Man being replaced almost immediately by Andrew Garfield’s brooding, yelling, emo-kid Spider-Man. Fast-forward to the last three Star Wars movies, all of which had cool moments but all of which were terribly written: fans widely and wisely panned them, with some giving Episode III a “pity pass” just because “at least it was darker.” Rebellious emo-teen Hayden Christensen had to murder all those Jedi Younglings. We never would have known how really bad he was otherwise. Fast-forward to the new Willy Wonka, a pseudo-pedophilic perpetual adolescent with deep-rooted emotional trauma and daddy issues (see the pattern?). Fast-forward to every one of the Twilight films, which are about vampires and werewolves only because vampires and werewolves are “dark” and “edgy.”

The aesthetic language we’ve all learned to speak is that it’s not real if it’s not dark. But Hollywood has forgotten two important things: first, they’ve forgotten that darkness and edginess have nothing to do with realism–and neither does grittiness, except in a very specific way. Second, they’ve forgotten what “darkness” really is or how to play it. Colour-correcting the red of Superman’s boots to burgundy doesn’t do the job and has nothing to do with darkness. Superman Returns tried so, so, so hard to give us a dark Superman; all they managed was a caricature not unlike the unshaven, drunken “bad Superman” in Superman III:

[Geeky Superman digression:]How does Superman get drunk? And if he grows a beard, how does he cut it? With a Kryptonite razor?[/end digression.]

This is no fault of Brandon Routh, I think: this is exactly what you get if you take a decent actor and bark “darker! more edgy!” at him until nothing like a real performance remains. This is not an actor playing a character realistically. He’s playing a stylized character. A dark, edgy, stylized character, whose realism is in service to his darkness–not the other way around.

I’ll make exceptions for Christian Bale’s Batman, who is a psychotic reclusive millionaire whose only memory of childhood is the murder of his parents in front of him. His psychological problems are legion, and he barely keeps them at bay by beating up his fellow criminally-insane Gothamites. Tim Burton was right to recognize the darkness of that background and remind us that this, in fact, a genuinely dark story. But Tim Burton, above all pretenders, recognizes that darkness does not equal realism. His Batman movies were stylized period pieces with art-deco sensibilities. They were romances. His Sweeney Todd, which I’d consider his most successful and ambitious movie in years, works because he doesn’t treat his famous black paintbrush like an instant-realism generator. His characters have deep-rooted psychological problems but wear them like opera characters. The film is a romance, in the old sense of the genre; it doesn’t pretend to be a realist novel. Compared with virtually anything else he’s done in recent years (the Wonka reboot, the Alice in Wonderland reboot, the obscure 70s vampire-show reboot, his own reboot of his own early Frankenweenie), Sweeney Todd isn’t narcissistically obsessed with its own darkness. To an extent, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was. To an extent, the new Oz is. And the Twilights, of course. And even the new Star Trek or Spiderman and most of the related novels and comics and narratives we’ve surrounded our young adults with.

No wonder there are so many school shootings these days. Yes, we fetishize guns and shooting, but no more than we did in the 1950s in the heyday of the cowboy. I don’t think there’s a picture of my father between the ages of 5 and 13 without his Have Gun, Will Travel licensed double-revolvers strapped to his hips. No, we’ve always fetishized guns. What we fetishize now is psychological darkness. When you sit down and think of it, The Joker’s only super-power is being a pathetic man in need of real help (if you’re too liberal) or swift execution (if you’re too conservative). But that’s not we get from Heath Ledger. From Heath Ledger’s joker, we get a darkly fascinating monster, a delicious devil’s advocate against the “oppressive fascism” of basic human decency,

[Real-life tragedy digression]I’d go so far as to say that this fetishization does damage to us, beyond the dearth of original, challenging stories. When Colorado shooter James Holmes dubbed himself the Joker, insane or not, I’m sure he didn’t have in mind the pathetic, damaged freak with no self-control in bad clown makeup. I’m sure was actually imagining the terrifying-yet-compelling monster, the charismatic aberration, the shouted challenge to all of mankind. In every mugshot and court picture since, he looks as completely baffled surprised as we are that he turned out to be the former, and not the latter.[/end digression]

Somehow, for no real substantive reason, the darkness of this Joker makes him more “real” to us. I’m not sure this should be the case. I’m not saying that it wasn’t powerful or affecting. Of the dark fantasies and “dark” fantasies we’ve generated in the last ten years, there’s a wide range of quality. I’m just starting to wonder if it’s the only colour we know how to paint in–and more specifically, I’m wondering if it’s causing us to think strange and wrong things about realism–and through it, about reality. Fantasy

Fantasy and science-fiction, escapism aside, have always been a “tool of isolation” that helps us think about reality in a control-lab kind of way. Physicists sometimes create artificial vacuums or noble-gas inert environments in which they do stuff to particles, to observe how they react in that space, and thus learn more about how they react in the “real world” of physics. No one every criticizes them for doing it on the grounds that “whole tanks of argon don’t actually exist in the real world.” I’m not sure why the literary equivalent of this, observing the interactions of characters in the infinitely variable “control box” of fantasy, is treated any differently. In any case, fantasy tells us about reality; correspondingly, faulty thinking about things in a fantastic space can lead us, quite dangerously, into faulty thinking about the real world.

I bring this up in light of an that takes fantasy to task on one very specific aspect of its “darkness”: specifically, rape. The first one of these is an impassioned and well-thought-out, if not completely precise, entry in Sophia McDougall’s blog, “The Rape of James Bond.” Among other things, she takes to task George R.R. Martin’s gritty, edgy, dark A Song of Ice and Fire series for the wall-to-wall rapefest it is. This doesn’t necessarily invalidate the series as “good art,” any more than the unavoidable racism of Heart of Darkness means it’s of no value and shouldn’t be read. It does change the way we should talk about the series, to a point.

In truth, Martin doesn’t stay as her target for longer than is appropriate. What’s more interesting, both to McDougall and to me, is the amount of rape she unearths in other things, functioning in everything from the new extra-rapey origin-story of perpetual-sex-object Lara Croft to the very scant-by-comparison, yet wonderfully discomforting, sexual assault on Bond in Skyfall. If “extra-rapey” is a term you find slightly discomforting itself, that’s a good thing. “Dark,” by which I mean this superficial faux-dark people have come to associate with “realism” for no reason in particular, is like an overused flavour, like “savoury” or “salty.” And sexualized violence seems to be one of the main spices we’re now using to get that flavour. Hm, new Lara Croft backstory. Interesting, tastes pretty good, but it’s not quite dark enough. Add a little more rape and stir. There we go.

This has reached such extremes that TVtropes has identified a trope subtitled “Rape is the new Dead Parents,” which is interesting in the wake of all I’ve been saying about Batman. It’s fundamental to the origin story of the female Hawkeye in Young Avengers, though interestingly not to the male grown-up Hawkeye (VERY ironic, given the Hawkeye Initiative), and is just one of the many devices by which we naggingly and defensively assert the “darkness” and “realism” of our fantasy.

There are more problems to this approach than I have time to outline, so here is the most problematic formula:
1) Rape = “darkness”
2) “Darkness” = realism
3) Realism = cool, credible, fun, good writing.

I’m not really dealing with sexualized violence here, other than to touch on it. Read MacDougall’s blog for that. Mostly, I’m trying to point out that #2 is a false assumption, a false crutch on which a number of bad writers depend, and on which a lot of really awful work is being marketed. But I’m sure the conclusion of these three false assumptions, when taken together, is an equal or worse cause for alarm.

I haven’t finished A Song of Ice and Fire yet, and when I have time I will, and I strongly predict I’ll like them. I’m very impressed by Martin’s writing style, and his world-building; the soup leaves a bitter aftertaste–maybe it’s just a bit to rapey–but it’s nourishing in spite of being over-spiced. I did love and will always love Tolkien, though he doesn’t exactly know what to do with female characters either.

[Snarky aside.]Well, at least he knows what not to do with female characters.[end aside.]

As a writer, though, and particularly as a writer aspiring to some kind of gender-fairness, I’m going to take these false principles as a challenge. I’m going to see if I can write my entire fantasy saga without any rapes at all. It shouldn’t actually take much confidence to stand up and say, “I’m such a good writer that I can create darkness and realism in my work without falling back on sexualized violence.” And yet fewer and fewer people seem able to do this. More and more are perfectly willing to let whatever generic dark paintbrush is en vogue to do their thinking for them. In answer to the first half of this piece, they are willing to let sexualized violence be the source of their credibility. And if this post by Seanan McGuire is any indication, audiences are coming, more and more, to expect it of them, and even to demand it.

I probably make a few dozen solemn vows a year, so I don’t really expect many of them to be too momentous. For one thing I’m not going to vow not to write about rape, or not to write one. Silence is sometimes worse than expression after all. But I do vow that I ever need rape to make my writing good, I’ll stop writing then and there forever. Instead, I’ll reprint my very favorite Hemingway story…

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

….and say that real darkness, realism, edginess, whatever you call them, doesn’t come from a can, or from a prescribed set of go-to devices. Anybody who says otherwise is taking shortcuts. And shortcuts like that lead to forgettable, useless storytelling.

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