Last night I watched The Dark Knight on DVD. I found it to be entirely loathsome. I won’t bother you with the plot, which did not make much sense to me. The movie is dark and malevolent, a world of nihilism and pain. It had the sense of life of Metallica lyrics or what I imagine the Saw movies are like, though I have not seen one. It’s a horror movie that makes Frankenstein and the Wolfman seem like Anne of Green Gables.
This ghastly sewer is what naturalism has done to the superhero story. It used to be about heroes for children; now it’s a celebration of evil with tormented heroes who are Byronic at best, psychotic beasts at worst.
If this is the end, I put the beginning of the end in 1969, when Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams, two young men with tremendous talent, were given Green Lantern, whose sales were sagging. Green Lantern was paired with the second-rate hero Green Arrow. O’Neil and Adams were given remarkable creative freedom as DC searched for ways to compete with the juggernaut Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were creating over at Marvel.
O’Neil and Adams brought “social conscience” to superhero comic books. As with Zola in serious literature, naturalism in comics began as a sort of stolid, left-liberal propaganda. Their brief run culminated in a story in which Speedy, Green Arrow’s teenage sidekick, gets hooked on heroin.
This series marked the end of the Silver Age of Comic Books and the beginning of the Bronze Age. The age of innocence and sunlit heroism was over. It’s been downhill ever since. From then on comics would be increasingly dark, adult, tormented and violent. Heroes and villains would more likely have an ambiguous “shades of gray” morality instead of clear-cut good and evil.
That a movie such as The Dark Knight and music such as heavy metal can be as popular as they are today gives me pause. This art of nihilism and madness would not have been popular in America in 1969, when the Silver Age died.