America has been in a dark mood for a long time now and, frankly, I’m ready for some light at the end of the credits.
The history of America’s mood can be measured by Batman. He began in the comics just before World War II as a capitalist billionaire patriot crimefighter sworn to uphold justice in Gotham City against insane megalomaniac villains. This no doubt helped comfort young readers facing a world potentially overrun by Hitler. Just shine a beacon in the sky if you need his help, Batman promised. By the 1960’s, no one could take such one-dimensional altruism seriously and he was played for a joke by pudgy Adam West in bright Technicolor on national television. Crash! Boom! Pow! He was later reclaimed in the 80’s as a brooding, nihilistic vigilante in Frank Miller’s Dark Knight series, and that’s the vision our present culture chose to embrace in a trilogy culminating with The Dark Knight Rises last year.
But this dark virus hasn’t just infected Batman; it’s everywhere. The latest Star Trek feature is also subtitled; Into Darkness. Talk about a 180-degree attitude adjustment. It uses the loveable, benign, peace seeking, optimistic characters created by Gene Roddenberry from the original series in the mid-1960s, but recast under the pall of domestic terrorism overshadowing their every move or instinct. Dammit, Jim, we’re supposed to be do-gooders, not a downer!
Turn on your television and you’d think the world were more populated by mindless zombies, hedonistic vampires and serial killers than anything resembling your ordinary family, friends, or neighbors. Psycho serial killers Norman Bates and Hannibal Lector now have their own prime time network TV series. What’s next, The Charlie Manson Family Hour?
Don’t get attached to any characters on Game of Thrones because, as George R. R. Martin constantly reminds us; noble acts are futile, justice is blind, and everyone dies randomly without purpose or redemption (but we’ll cut him more slack than his characters get until we get to the final body count by Book Six).
Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan tells us the character arc that inspired his series was taking a mild-mannered teacher like Mr. Chips and turning him into a violent and maniacal Scarface. Congratulations, Vince, you did a brilliant job and certainly hooked me. But now that you’ve lead us into that dark abyss of Walter White’s mind, how about reminding us there’s also a way out? Rumor has it he wants to do a spin-off on the slimy, moral-free, self-serving lawyer, Saul Goodman. Here’s an idea for a twist: How about going the opposite direction with that show and taking this unredeemable ambulance chaser and transforming him into a respectable Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court by the end of his character arc? Couldn’t we believe that twist is possible?
I’m not suggesting our culture need return to the carefree optimism of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, Happy Days, or even the truth, justice and American way of Superman. Shit, even George Reeves, the original TV Superman, blew his own brains out for some dark-shrouded reason. But, Jesus, can’t we have a little bit of sunlight as a cultural trend for a while; heroes who aren’t mentally tortured more by their own self-doubts than by this week’s villain?
Yes, we get it; life is complex, we all have self-doubts, threats abound. But do we have to wallow in this dark, brooding cloud as the only self-reflecting form of entertainment that prevails… and goes on… and on?
When Batman became silly in the 1960s, the world was anything but. Our president had been assassinated, bodies of our young men were coming back from Vietnam by the scores daily, and Russia had more than 4,500 ICBMs with nuclear warheads aimed down our throats with both our countries only a hair trigger away from mutual annihilation. And yet we still had the ability to not take everything so damn seriously, and laugh at ourselves and our heroes.
The people who create our movies, television shows, and literature enjoy the rarified privilege of making big money doing something fun that they love. So why are they so fucking pessimistic? Shouldn’t their output somehow reflect their good fortune rather than projecting some deep, often misperceived, collective funk?
Are they afraid if they actually show us the light at the end of the tunnel it might inspire or illuminate the way for us to create our own entertainment that replaces the dark brew they keep trying to spoon feed us?
It’s been said before, and much more eloquently, but maybe we should approach what we consume with our eyes and ears the same way we take care to watch what we eat. Feed on pessimism and darkness and you eventually create a self-fulfilling prophecy of how you look at life and what you can expect. Most healthy stuff grows under the sun’s light. Mushrooms are the only thing I can think of that grow in shit and darkness.
It’s time to Lighten our diet.