Grimdark is Overrated: Optimism in Hero Narratives [Part I]

One of our site moms gave a talk entitled Grimdark is Overrated: The Importance of (Flowers, Sunshine & Rainbow-sh*tting Unicorns) Optimism in Hero Narratives. She delivered this during the May 28, 2017 Gamers & GMs Philippines event “May Day: Calling All Heroes!”. In a similar vein to our article version of this presentation, she’s put together this article version of the talk! Due to the length, we’ll be dividing it into two parts.

For the record, she feels like this thing is much more eloquent than her flail.


Introduction

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In the slide above, the picture on the left is art by Alex Ross. The one on the right is one of the promotional posters for Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Suffice to say, the difference is startling.

Ross’ use of vibrant colors and emphasis on motion and life paints four of DC’s most iconic superheroes in a majestic light. They are powerful characters. Living symbols of hope that all can look up to. They are also a superhero team, rising to the challenge as one. It is also telling, that he cast the faces of the most iconic actors for all four: Christopher Reeve for Superman, Michael Keaton for Batman, Lynda Carter for Wonder Woman, and John Wesley Shipp for The Flash.

In contrast, you have a dark, polished palette awash with the tail end of a storm for Dawn of Justice‘s scene. Batman is the imposing shadow to Superman’s left; Wonder Woman is the battle maiden to Superman’s right. Superman himself gazes directly at the camera, as though he is ready to challenge anyone who dares to face him. The body language between the three is stiff, giving the impression that they were tacked into place by no real effort or desire of their own. Whereas light and brightness fill the first image, the primary source of light in the second is the sun on a faraway horizon.

The city is another intriguing contrast. In the second image, it is a distant backdrop to the characters involved. Furthermore, our three heroes are positioned far above. It is as though they, as protectors, are not actually a part of the teeming masses of “regular folk” that dwell in it. In the first, we find the city centered around the four heroes. As they rise up towards something unseen (a new threat? The next big fight?), they are simultaneously bathed in and powered by the light of humanity.

 

I think the messages of both images are very clear.

Ross wanted to communicate hope. Dawn of Justices‘ entire aesthetic, on the other hand, was – excuse my 4chan – Edgelord as Fuck. Ross presents the heroes as majestic and larger than life, yes; but inasmuch as human beings are inspired by them, they too, are inspired by human beings. The heroes of Dawn of Justice, on the other hand, are gods that happen to be benevolent enough (for now) to protect their lesser brothers and sisters.

What makes things worse is that many filmmakers seem to think that it’s perfectly cool to constantly kill our heroes. It’s almost as if they’re convinced that heroes and what they stand for are outdated – a belief that Wonder Woman (2017) completely blew out of the water last June. The film earned so much – and the craziest part about it is, one of the scenes that pretty much made the movie because of how inspiring it was nearly didn’t make the cut.

Imagine if Wonder Woman had never been greenlit.

Consider the implications behind the way Patty Jenkins had to fight for the things that made her movie what it was – or that she even had to fight for the movie at all. It took this long and a whole lot of mistakes for us to HAVE Wonder Woman in the first place. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch for me to say that the acceptable standard in our hero narratives now is Grimdark, full of pessimism and tragedy and ~*gravitas*~.

How did we let this happen?

Why are we okay with it?

 

The Questions & the Approach

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My talk aimed to answer the questions presented above.

The use of Lisa Frank images for this and for the title slide was deliberate, of course. Lisa Frank is the absolute queen of sparkles and rainbows. How ever could anybody ever be unhappy with Lisa Frank anything? The same could be said about French Script font. Nothing screams Disney Princess like cursive!

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I was transparent with my approaches so that the framework of my discussion was clear. Truth be told, though, I only touched upon some of the basics for each during the talk. Things will get elaborated on a little better in this article.

For the record: I picked this particular image of Wonder Woman for further emphasis on the direction that some lines of DC’s comics have been taking, versus what the DCEU has been trying to do. Wonder Woman looks absolutely stunning in that shot; brimming both with youthful beauty (“innocence”?) and power. Everything is, once again, made of light.

I am also going to have liberal pictures from DC comic images as glaring proof of how the movies are Doing It Wrong.

Ahem.

Let me provide definitions for some of the less familiar approaches.

 

Narratology, Deconstruction, Cultural Studies

Narratology, as defined by the Encylopedia Britannica, is…

…the study of narrative structure. Narratology looks at what narratives have in common and what makes one different from another.

Like structuralism and semiotics, from which it derived, narratology is based on the idea of a common literary language, or a universal pattern of codes that operates within the text of a work. Its theoretical starting point is the fact that narratives are found and communicated through a wide variety of media—such as oral and written language, gestures, and music—and that the “same” narrative can be seen in many different forms.

Folks who are interested in reading a little more about this can check this link out.

Deconstruction, according to the Internet Dictionary of Philosophy, attempts to do this:

To deconstruct is to take a text apart along the structural “fault lines” created by the ambiguities inherent in one or more of its key concepts or themes in order to reveal the equivocations or contradictions that make the text possible.

Cultural Studies is the hardest thing to define. At its core, it’s a cultural analysis that constantly cribs several disciplines – namely history, sociology, philosophy, and literary criticism – in an attempt to read culture the way you’d read a text. There’s a nice, user-friendly breakdown on it over here. There’s a slightly more scholarly one over here.

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Pammu

Female, bisexual, not in Narnia about anything. Games, writes, DMs, watches shit, reads shit, loves cats. Answers to Kae, Pamela, Pam, Pam-Pam, Pammy, Pammeth. Pamera, and Pammu. Also part of the admin team of What’s a Geek, over at http://www.whatsageek.com!


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