The phrase ‘dark and gritty’ usually inspires groans among fans of superhero films. The Dark Knight and Logan may have proven you can craft fantastic grounded stories, but the fact remains that superheroes come from colourful, zany worlds. Marvel’s dominance of the industry has partially been due to its family-friendly house tone, peppering action with quips and levity to huge success. So when Todd McFarlane, perhaps best known for his work as an comic artist on Spider-Man and Venom, announced the upcoming R-rated Spawn reboot will have ‘no joy’ and ‘no fun lines’, he was right to compare it more to a supernatural horror than the sunny Marvel films ruling the box office.
The origin and plots surrounding Spawn certainly fit into the horror genre: the titular hero, Al Simmons, is a deceased black ops agent resurrected by the devil to find his wife and take revenge on his killers. The 1997 adaptation of the character is also horrific, though not in the way intended. Spawn is so abysmal that I can’t recommend it highly enough; from the horrifically outdated CGI to the cheesy lines and edgy nu-metal tinged soundtrack, it’s a hilarious watch, even if it intends to be a gripping supernatural thriller. It’s the perfect example of ‘dark and gritty’ done bad, comparable to the dull bleakness of Fant4stic or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Given the mixed response to Venom, I’m not sure another grim avenging anti-hero is what the world wants.
“I think it’s a mistake to treat being optimistic and being one-dimensional as interchangeable”
Darkness in superhero films is often made synonymous with serious or important storytelling, and the brightness of many superhero stories subsequently treated as flippant and weightless. Marvel’s creative monopoly is definitely one that threatens to grow tiresome, but not for their tone. I think it’s a mistake to treat being optimistic and being one-dimensional as interchangeable. Whilst Captain America, Iron Man and Ant-Man might all be clean enough to fit into a 12A-rated film, their personalities are all nuanced, and all wildly different from each other. I’d also suggest that darkness isn’t lacking in the colourful modern superhero flick – the behemoth Avengers: Infinity War is a bleak tale of death and defeat. The genre could certainly benefit from some freshening up, but we should look to work like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse as an example of how to do this. Spider-Verse eschews any sense of gritty realism in favour of revolutionary vibrant animation and thoughtful character work, resulting in a family-friendly film that also runs deep thematically. McFarlane’s new Spawn film could end up being fantastic, but there’s a key reason it would fit better as a horror. Hope and optimism are integral to the idea of the superhero, and there’s no reason joyful stories about the best of us can’t be treated seriously.