Popular opinion seems to go in circles with whether or not it's good for fiction, particularly Superhero fiction, to be dark. With endless debates on whether or not it's good to make a dark version of something not dark before, or visa versa. Or whether some Darkness is just Dark for the sake of Dark without a real purpose. And my general thoughts are each scenario is different.
For this post however I want to focus on how a key factor in whether or not something Dark appeals to me comes down to whether or not there is still something positive and hopeful in there, particularly in how it ends. But I of course realize to an extent even that is subjective, Happiness is an emotion, and different people emotionally respond to different things differently.
Mirai Nikki aka Future Diary is an example of an Anime that gets written off as gratuitously GrimDark and Violent by people who didn't finish it. But it had a happy ending, a very happy ending, I remember watching it I felt about the happiest I had all year (I first watched it earlier this year, 2016) up to that point. It's happy even without the OVA but the OVA makes it even better and so I wish the OVA would get dubbed.
A Happy Ending can be made even better and more rewarding if the journey to get there was a dark and difficult one. The Book of Ecclesiastes can easily seem like the most depressing book of The Bible, but it's end is positive and uplifting. Romans chapter 8 has been called Paul's summery of Ecclesiastes.
Madoka Magica is another Anime franchise with a reputation for being "Tragedy Porn". Do I consider that reputation fair? It depends. The original 12 episode series takes us down a dark and emotional journey that subverts many expectations of the Magical Girl genre. But it ultimately ends exactly how a Magical Girl show should, with a positive ending. Then came Rebellion and did the opposite. It seems another Madoka Anime is coming, maybe this one will end happily again. But even if it does I fear it just means we're going to get an endless cycle of this franchise going back and forth.
In a way this is part of how Madoka parallels Evangelion. The original series of Neon Genesis Evangelion was a show who's central them was depression. But the final two episodes ended with Shinji deciding he wants to live. Then End of Evanglion comes to replace those last two episodes, and everything about it is debatable including if it was a happy ending. The thing is it's ending didn't make me feel happy and no analytical analysis of it will change that.
Now what I'm talking about here can itself fit into two categories.
First is that even a very dark story can still have a completely conventionally Happy Ending. Perhaps with something bitter sweet about it, some price had to be paid. But overall good prevailed and everyone lived happier lives from that point on.
A great example of this would be Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A's, the second Nanoha Anime series. Some might say that Anime isn't truly Dark but just very Dramatic. I suspect that argument would be based mainly on how no characters in the story are truly evil. But to me the key to a truly dark story is to show that someone doesn't have to be "evil" to wind up doing things that are harmful to other people. Morality isn't always that simple. It's been described (by Digibro) as a War Story that doesn't take a side, in a sense at least half of every great Dark work of fiction I've liked can be described that way. This series is an incredibly emotional roller coaster ride, one of the most brilliant I've seen. And I watched it even more recently then I did Mirai Nikki and it managed to top it on emotionally uplifting me. Anyone who can watch the whole thing and not shed a tear simply has no heart.
Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises could also fit in this category.
Second would be stories that do have truly Tragic endings, sometimes very tragic endings. But still with some glimmer of hope for the future. Maybe that hope comes from nothing more then clear evidence that the survivors have learned from the mistakes that lead them there, like how The Dark Knight (the film which provides the title for this post) ends.
Or maybe it's because it's a Prequel that essentially ends with the birth of the Messiah who we already know will fix everything in the future. Like Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of The Sith or Fate/Zero. Thing is though, in both of those cases I feel even when viewed by people not knowing it's a prequel, (which would be easier to test for the latter), the ending message that the seeds are already planted to set everything right in the next generation would still be apparent.
Now I want to talk about two films where my assessment on this issue would probably be much more controversial then every example discussed above.
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is a film I have very mixed feeling for. The balancing scales of my feelings towards it have fluctuated several times, which is amazing for a film that still hasn't been out long enough for children convinced on it's opening night to be born yet. My issues with it certainly come down in large part to feeling it was more dower then it needed to be.
But the issue of comparing it to the other big Superhero Versus film that came out a month and a half later is where I most consistently get defensive of it.
At face value Batman V Superman can easily be labeled a much darker and bleaker film then Captain America: Civil War. But Civil War certainly had things about it that were dark. And both films try to end on a positive note, but Civil War's positive ending feels inauthentic to me.
BvS earned it's Happy Ending. Bruce Wayne's character development makes sense, no matter how much you may want to mock a key plot device of it. And so does Wonder Woman's. All the talk about how many people are afraid of Superman adds more meaning to how he earned humanity's trust with his final sacrifice. The exact scenario that brought about why he had to use the Spear feels way to contrived, but emotionally it works. In the Crisis to Crisis DC Continuity Superman was once told "The last time you inspired anyone was when you were dead", but in this continuity His death is the beginning of him being an inspiration, and that is why I reject the idea that they should have held off on that story-line. Bruce Wayne goes from someone who is doing harm even though he's not Evil, to someone inspired by Superman.
Civil War however dedicates most of it's last act to subverting the same Versus movie trope BvS handled beautifully. But then wants us to buy at the very end that now Tony's going to cover for Steve. Well I don't buy it.