In "THE WAY WE ARE," a concise, razor-sharp book of existential musings, philosopher Allen Wheelis describes the "margin of terror." Just beyond the agreed-upon scheme of things, like the raw desert and wild places at the edge of the paved city, it's the territory where pain and grief and mystery are too much to reconcile. "We look away, pretend it does not exist, is of no importance, a deviation, a neurosis perhaps."
That self-deception, Wheelis contends, is the essence of the social pact, a matter of survival. You don't gaze directly at Medusa -- and, as a rule, you certainly don't do it in summer movies, those mega-escapist mass entertainments. But as a quick scan of current big-screen protagonists attests, mainstream filmmakers are not always playing by that rule anymore; not only are they not looking away from the margin of terror, they're sometimes setting up camp there. Even cartoon characters and those based on comic books are gazing straight into the abyss.
Darkness has rarely been the central subject of large-scale fare -- it might surface as a tone or stance or an intermittent generator of shock. To temper and defuse the horror, filmmakers -- ardently independent ones as well as those working for studios -- often have adopted a twisted, winking jokiness, the punch line a la Quentin Tarantino or the Coens having become all but obligatory. But to varying degrees, 2008's summer tent-pole titles are forgoing irony as they walk quite purposefully into the darker realms of storytelling, and critics are embracing that darkness, whether it's an undercurrent ("Iron Man") or a defining principle (a certain Batman movie).
In the 38 reviews of "The Dark Knight" by Rotten Tomatoes' "top critics," 90% of which are favorable, readers will find 40 references to the film's darkness, most of them admiring. Reviewers speak of the feature's "dark vision" (Christopher Orr, the New Republic) and the way it "turns pulp into dark poetry" (Richard Corliss, Time). In this paper, Kenneth Turan praised the film for its "darker-than-usual themes that have implications for the way we live now." Manohla Dargis of the New York Times observed that "Knight" "goes darker and deeper than any Hollywood movie of its comic-book kind," and Newsday critic Rafer Guzman called it "a dark and highly complex drama [with] more brains than any other movie this summer."
If "dark" is the new "smart," what do critics mean when they laud a film for its darkness? A number of things, to be sure, beyond aesthetic gloom to moral complexity and psychological depth; they're welcoming the material's serious exploration of primal impulses and clear-eyed depictions of corruption and amorality.
The oppressive, visceral power of "The Dark Knight" is rooted in such timeless themes but also taps into an urgent, of-the-moment despair that has resonated with critics. "Things are worse than ever," a nameless reporter in the film declares with no small amount of anguish. And the official response he receives -- "The night is darkest just before the dawn" -- echoes with all the hollowness of today's newscast sound bites.
Separating it from past incarnations, Christopher Nolan's Gotham is not a stylized, self-contained universe but a realistic contemporary city. "Hancock" too, a far looser-limbed fantasy than "Dark Knight" but one that shares its focus on vigilantism and the loneliness of the long-distance crusader -- the protector-turned-destroyer -- places its events quite clearly in the real world, a Los Angeles of dive bars, bus-stop benches and traffic-vexed commuters persevering under a pall of crime.
And though it uses humor to offset its fatalistic edge, "Iron Man" roots its comic-book exploits in such real-world matters as war-torn Afghanistan and the unchecked clout of the military-industrial complex. The title character's day job is, like that of Batman alter-ego Bruce Wayne, playboy/industrialist. He uses that all-American combo of fantastic wealth, technology, ingenuity and determination to transform himself into a superhero. But whether the setting is Wayne's penthouse aerie or the antisocial Hancock's hilltop trailer, these superheroes are essentially alone and misunderstood, and these films are more concerned with their isolation than with their dazzling deeds.