This summer, everybody is going into a very dark place. Superman is growing an underwater beard and getting angsty, Iron Man is getting his soul crushed, and Star Trek wants you to know that it's going into darkness so badly, they put that in the title. So if you're planning to film an epic story about a legendary hero, you better invest in some night-vision lenses, is what we're hearing.
But how can you make your hero's journey really really dark? Not just sort of fuzzy and gray but holy crap I can't see my hands dark? We dug deep and discovered some clues to the Ultimate Formula of Darkness.
So your first movie about a hero is usually the actual hero's journey, where he meets a crone, makes out with his sister and wrestles his father over a pit of chinchillas or whatever. At this point, thanks to Star Wars, we all know the hero's journey well enough to stumble through the oversimplified version of Joseph Campbell's one-size-fits-all monomyth in our sleep. But then what do you follow that with? Sequels tend to be either another spin on the same track, or some kind of unholy mess. But luckily, a few years ago, we had The Dark Knight — and everybody learned what comes after the hero's journey.
What did we learn from The Dark Knight? A few things. First of all, the only place to go after "epic" is "dark." (Quite possibly, a few people learned that from Empire Strikes Back, too.) And the villain in the first movie can be just sort of a random dude. Probably involved in the hero's origin story in some way, like he trained the hero or blew up the hero's father in a spaceship or whatever. But if you really want to go into the deepest, most light-starved regions of the soul, you need a Villain. Who can Act. And speechify, and mess with the hero's head. And get his Khan on.
But it's not enough just for the baddie to drag the hero into darkness, like by his hair or his armpits. The hero must have darkness in his soul to begin with, and the baddie sees the hero's inner spiritual darkness and decides to bring it out by surrounding it with more darkness, so that the inner and outer darkness will combine via some kind of spectral osmosis.
Also, the hero has either made himself a symbol of justice, or represents an organization that is a symbol of justice, or both. Because the hero represents America, in our vainglorious desire to clean up the world and fix the world's problems with our bare hands. He's America as Global Policeman and maybe also Global Superintendent, representing the America that unclogs the Third World's toilets and replaces the broken air conditioners of Democracy around the world, using like drone strikes and stuff. He's such a shining, spotless symbol, his dry-cleaning bills are the GDP of one of those Third World countries.
But being an epic symbol of heroism is kind of draining after a while, and the epic hero cannot scratch his ass in public. People are constantly telling him to respect his limits or to play by the rules or to obey the United Nations resolutions or not to launch drone strikes on civilian targets. He dreams about hanging up the uniform and going all Rabbit Angstrom on everybody, running off to shack up with a mysterious woman who wears nothing but sports sweatshirts around the house. Maybe starting a garden, or growing a fierce beard. Hand-fishing and spear-hunting elks.
So you have a hero who has gotten too good and garnered an outsized legend that he struggles to live up to. And meanwhile, he is constantly skirting the edge of the abyss because of the whole "not following the rules" thing. But if he goes too far over the edge, then he'll betray the legend he's created. Which is why the eloquent, speechifying, possibly poetry-quoting villain makes such a perfect foil — he crosses the lines the hero won't, and he represents the hero's dark side, and he also threatens to expose the hero as a sham. A bearded, hand-fishing sham.
The descent into the underworld does not happen because the hero has a free afternoon and thinks that darkness would make for a fun day trip. The abyss does not have a souvenir shop. Rather, the hero goes into darkness because he faces an existential threat that would make Jean-Paul Sartre want to lock himself in a windowless room with two lesbians.
All of the villain's deathtraps and mind games and massive explosions and so on are actually aimed at destabilizing the hero's ego and dramatizing the hero's tragic lack of omnipotence. The villain challenges the hero to be in like 20 places at once, and also to make impossible choices, and to answer riddles that are half in Sanskrit, half in Cajun slang. The hero arrives too late for a whole bunch of explosions, just in time to dodge some debris and pull some bodies out of the wreckage, and then ends up sitting in a dark room somewhere looking at his own hat, or maybe his own shirt if he's been working out.
But this is just the beginning — the tests only ramp up from there. There are decoys against decoys, there are holograms that self-destruct, there are mazes with walls that close in, there are possibly those 1990s posters where you have to try and see a dinosaur in the middle of a bunch of 3D colored blotches. The hero's pride is brought low. The villain does a variation on the Prisoner's Dilemma where there are 100 prisoners and they all have an incentive to cooperate but they're suspended upside down and force-fed Psilocybin and ipecac and nobody can find their own hands. What does it all mean? It means that nothing means anything. The villain, in the end, represents the audience's own secret longing for chaos and destruction, the crashing down of the social order that makes us have to go to work and sit in cubicles, yadda yadda. In the face of this personification of our own desire for mass destruction, the hero is a helpless giant.
In the end, the villain holds a twisted mirror to the hero's face, which makes it look as though the hero needs dental work. Even though the hero wore braces and slept with a retainer in his mouth throughout his entire adolescence, and now spends an hour flossing every day. This vision of dental abnegation is the ultimate challenge to the hero's mythos, the final cataclysm that pushes the hero over the line.
In the final reel, it all finally becomes too much. Our hero GOES ROGUE, or possibly cuts gluten out of his diet. There needs to be some kind of shocking final twist, to match The Dark Knight's "taking the fall" moment or Wrath of Khan's death of Spock. You haven't really traveled to the abyss if you walk out unscathed afterwards. There need to be terrible costs from descending into the pit, preferably at least some minor brain damage if not a few dead sidekicks. I'm hoping the new Trek movie ends with Kirk having a permanent facial tic every time someone says "John Harrison" or even mentions Harrison Ford.
Because when you sink all the way to the bottom of The Darkness, you find a cauldron of fire, that burns away all of your false ideals and facades, leaving something red hot and probably a little bit misshapen. Or maybe you just thrash around down there bumping into walls until you find a flashlight. I dunno.