It's Time to Watch This Video Essay and Have Serious Thoughts About Gritty Superheroes

Robert Pattinson as Batman.
Robert Pattinson as Batman.
Image: Warner Bros.

Gritty superheroes. Are we for them? Are we against them? Patrick H. Willems, one of the best video essayists on YouTube, is mostly just confused.

You can’t fully blame him. After all, no matter how you shake it, these characters were initially for kids and the young at heart. Their transformation into mature, gritty, sometimes nasty characters has been an odd and storied one. And maybe it’s a story you’ve heard before, if you hang out at places like io9, but Willems tells it in a fascinating way and wrings a lot of interesting analysis about the way superheroes are (and aren’t) the way they used to be, and whether or not that’s a good thing.

The video also includes thoughts from none other than Gerry Conway, one of the superhero comic writers who guided the trends that led superheroes to becoming more mature in the first place. The video is everything Willems does best: fair and entertaining pop culture analysis, with high production values and increasingly bizarre running gags (hey, 2020 has been hard on everyone).


I don’t have very strong opinions about this matter one way or another. Dark superhero stories can be good, traditional optimistic superhero stories can be good. I largely just want good stories, however they’re aligned on the dark and gritty scale. But it’s a thought-provoking conversation, and feel free to hang out in the comments and chat about it further.

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io9 Weekend Editor. Videogame writer at other places. Queer nerd girl.

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The video is an interesting discussion on what it takes to do darker interpretations of superheroes well, even if it’s too steeped in the notion that characters that were and a genre that was initally created primarily for children should remain that way (which... no), but the big failure of the video is that it fails to, well, answer the question in the title.

Especially since the answer is so obvious. Why are there so many dark and gritty superhero works?

Because of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The MCU did the Superhero Shared Universe thing so well, and in such a traditional “Fun for the whole family in wholesome ways” manner that other creators didn’t want to step to that. They knew that they would always, always, always be compared to the MCU if they tried to be traditional superhero movie fare, and that a lot of the time it would be “This isn’t as good as (similar MCU film here)“. And the easy way to get a bit of distance between the MCU and your work is to take it away from the traditional superhero fare.

There’s also the legacy of the classics of the medium. Doing a Superman movie? It’s going to compared to the Richard Donner Superman. Always. And if its not clearly better or markedly different, it’s going to feel 10 times worse.

Doing a Batman series? Well, if its not slapstick comedy, it’ll be compared to Batman: The Animated Series, which is what made the “The Batman” series that launched in 2004 and ran for 5 moderately good seasons be... well, completely forgotten a decade later. Same thing for Teen Titans, you’re going to be compared to the wonderful Teen Titans animated series, so you feel like you need to do Something Different and go darker in order to compensate.

The video isn’t bad. But it’s severely hampered by not addressing the elephant in the room here...