Why Gritty Realism Isn’t Realism

Realism (noun): The quality or fact of representing a person or thing in a way that is accurate and true to life.

So Nolan took Batman in a whole new dark and gritty direction and everyone loved it. The age-old darkness of Batman and the Gotham in which he resides was taken to a whole new level. Batman just got real. And it does make sense to claim that these films are more realistic than the previous ones, at least aesthetically. There is no flash to The Dark Knight. The best example of this is of course the Joker.

before-after-joker

Left: Unrealistic person. Right: Normal, everyday person.

Nolan’s trilogy gives everything a reason. Batman’s backstory is carefully explained in Batman Begins, right down to why he chose to dress up as a bat, in an attempt to cover up the insanity of the premise. Batman’s gear is also being explained away, not only how they work, but also how they came to exist and why Batman gets to access them. Of course this was done before, but Nolan takes extra measure to make it as logically coherent as possible.

And as already demonstrated, the Joker is just so much more realistic in Nolan’s interpretation. His makeup is all messed up. No real person ever wears makeup that isn’t messed up. And he doesn’t rely on laughing gas and such silly things anymore. Nolan’s Joker uses a different kind of gas, namely gasoline. We all know this gas is a real thing, so obviously that makes his Joker realistic.

two_face

In fact everything even touched by gas is instantly realistic.

I do think that The Dark Knight is a masterpiece, but it’s also a film full of darkness, isolation and threats of anarchy. Batman’s suit is grittier. The buildings around Batman are grittier. Batman’s home is grittier. Everything is grittier. Everything is darker.

It’s not realistic.

The gritty world of Nolan’s bat-universe suits batman perfectly, as he himself has always been a superhero of the darkness. And especially The Dark Knight uses this darkness of both aesthetics and narrative to make some great philosophical points about anarchy and human nature. But at some point all of this darkness and horribleness got equated to realism, and suddenly some people started to want for Marvel to do the same thing, and the same thing has been done to Superman. It’s spreading out in all different directions. It seems to become a thing of our time. Audiences want “realism like The Dark Knight”.

Honestly, calling these films realistic is so unfair to reality it isn’t even funny. Real life isn’t nearly that bad. When you say that The Dark Knight is a realistic movie you consequently ignore all the joy and the laughter and the love we have in the world. There is no pure love in The Dark Knight. There are no happy endings. Yes, Hollywood tends to overdo the whole love and happy-ending thing, and that’s not realistic either. But life does offer happy endings from time to time, and many, many people find love. At least way more so than in Nolan’s bat-universe. What The Dark Knight is doing is… I don’t know how to put it…

Okay, so remember those old-fashioned 3D glasses?

Those.

Those.

So imagine you’re sitting in one of those old 3D theatres where they show very short 3D films which are all about trying to make you believe stuff from the film will actually hit you in the face.

Got it?

Good.

So you’re looking at the film through two lenses. One is red, and the other one is blue. While you’re looking at the film, the inputs to your brain from the two lenses complement each other and makes the screen in front of you, well, “come to life”.

If you only look through the rose-coloured lens you will only see half of the picture. And that is indeed the lens that colours most of Hollywood’s movies, especially romantic comedies like You’ve Got Mail and Holiday and pretty much anything with Jennifer Aniston in it. But if you look at The Dark Knight you’re only looking through the blue lens. I can see why that may seem like realism, because it’s so different from the romanticism we’re used to. We’re not seeing things the romantic way, so it has to be realistic, doesn’t it?

No, we’re just using the other lens. We’re just seeing the other part, the dark part, of reality. And while it’s refreshing to give the blue angle a go, I don’t think it should be termed as realism, because as I already said, that sort of becomes an insult to reality. The real world is part rose-coloured, part blue. The Dark Knight is just blue.

And now they’ve made a “realistic” Superman movie.

Pictured: Realism.

Pictured: Realism.

Which is essentially just a darker, grittier Superman. I haven’t seen it, so my opinion in this film is a bit limited, but I’m really only trying to cover the concept, and the concept is ridiculous. Superman is inherently unrealistic. That’s what he’s about. That’s the whole point with Superman. He’s a flying alien. He represents ideals. Don’t try to push him down to some twisted kind of realism.

Superman is like God: he’s above realism.

Man of Steel cannot be realistic. Changing the colour scheme of his suit to a slightly more toned down one isn’t realism. People wear flashy colours in real life. And no, taking away his external red underwear thing so that his alien genitalia is more visible is not realism, although many took it as a refreshing change. I’ve heard people crying out to see what’s underneath those red panties for years. Finally the mystery has been unravelled.

MAN OF STEEL

Man-parts. Underneath Superman’s panties there are man-parts.

Taking a completely unrealistic concept like Superman, or Batman, and then proceeding to tone down the colour palette and take away all joy is not reforming it into something realistic. I haven’t seen Man of Steel, so I can’t account for that one, but Batman Begins was a great film, and The Dark Knight was just amazing. They’re incredible movies, without being realistic. Films don’t have to be realistic to be great, and realism doesn’t automatically make films great either. There is no correlation.

I know I’m not going to change the whole term apparatus we’re using to describe these things, but I’d at least like to give a little shout out, just to point out how much more there is to real life than there is to life in Nolan’s Gotham. It’s an amazing ride, but the world in The Dark Knight is also a lie. And that’s fine.

And I have purposefully avoided mentioning The Dark Knight Rises so far, and would just like to acknowledge its existence with this picture:

DarkKnightRises

Cheers!

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4 responses to “Why Gritty Realism Isn’t Realism

  1. Very cool, and very true, most of the seriousness they’ve added, and that Zak Snyder added, was just by giving the heroic suits (among other things) a ‘honeycomb’ affect, by altering the aesthetics of the costumes slightly, such as that which you mentioned within the Joker images.
    Although, the films are approached with a sense of just achieving verisimilitude i think, so if someone did combat crime dressed a inflated super-bat this is what it would look like, in lieu of striving for complete realism.

    • Yeah, but that concept quickly reaches a point of ridiculousness, especially with Superman. “If Superman existed” is a premise so completely unrealistic that following it up with “this is what it would look like” is meaningless.
      Nolan going about trying to create a Batman the way he thinks it would look like is fine, and would naturally result in a lot of darkness and grit. But when people starts confusing that more verisimiliar approach with realism things start to get wrong: the Batman universe and Gotham city are both inherently dark and gritty, but they are also utterly unrealistic. So when Nolan makes a more “realistic” version of Batman, he just makes it realistic within the context of that universe, which means that his Batman is still completely fantastical.

      • True, but, you can’t disregard to purpose of a verisimilitude universe when attempting to establish a story such as this, everything has to retain that level of believability unless it is intentional unbelievable; that’s the fun in Superheroes. It’s a necessary approach to an unnecessary product, and yes, the realism-focal aspect of it is a bit silly; but it can be unrealistic whilst retaining a level of verisimilitude.

        So, I half agree with you and half don’t sir!

      • I guess I should specify that the only superhero I want to be unbelievable is Superman. As I said in my post, that’s kind of part of the point of Superman to me. This is why I specifically mentioned Superman in my comment, but I can see how it seems like I mean this about all superheroes. I do agree that trying to make the superheroes believable within their own context is desireable with most of them – but I don’t think so about Superman.

        Which is just a matter of taste, really.

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