Why Hollywood Needs to Ease Up on the “Grittiness” Throttle

I can’t remember the last week that passed by when I didn’t hear the words “gritty” or “realistic” attached to some movie that was probably not really either.

It’s a strange thing, really, that so much of what’s obviously fiction is preoccupied with making sure we’re taking it seriously.

Movies are tending towards the dark and the gritty, and those that decide to go in another direction seem to feel an obligation to make sure the audiences know they don’t really mean it. Not enough movies are content to simply be what they are.

This, I think, is one of the things that sank Speed Racer. It’s a movie that wears its silliness on its sleeve. With character names like “Speed,” “Sparky,” and “Pops,” an overly-intelligent chimpanzee, and a color scheme several leagues past “gonzo,” I’m not sure audiences knew how to handle it when the Wachowskis made this movie… and made no apology for it.

Audiences nowadays almost seem afraid to be entertained by whimsy, especially when that whimsy doesn’t feel a need to wink at the audience so they know everything’s okay. We’re totally cool with, say, Iron Man, because Iron Man isn’t even taking Iron Man seriously.

Remember the Star Wars Prequels? Remember Jar-Jar?

Yeah, probably.

Whether you find him intolerable or not, a lot of people make the assertion that such a whimsical character simply has no place in the Star Wars universe. But why? Because the Star Wars universe is such a… serious place?

This is the same universe that is introduced to us by an effeminate golden butler droid, by the way. Even the most acclaimed (often for its darkness) installment of the saga has scenes of people bickering over how to drive through an asteroid field, as well as aliens playing keep-away with said butler droid’s head.

Oh, and the original trilogy did just fine, both commercially and critically, despite the proliferation of wacky events from front to back.

Actually, earlier THIS summer, The Avengers actually did a rather nice job of embracing the fundamental silliness of its premise without feeling a need to apologize too much for it. Obviously, The Avengers made money hand over fist, so it’s not that people just can’t accept a fun lark of a movie. Why, then do we seem to keep getting self-serious films instead of fun flicks?


Seriously, just look what they’ve done to James Bond. This is a series of films based on a preposterously silly idea. An immortal superspy whose past enemies include a man named Dr. No who tries to kill him with a tarantula and another guy called Oddjob who has a lethal bowler hat and kills a girl by painting her yellow. And we’ve gone and made this character gritty? Why? We’ve got plenty of spy movies out there that play that card (like, say, the Jack Ryan or Jason Bourne ones).

I know there are a lot of people out there who will tell me the books are more low-key/realistic/whatever, so I’ll go ahead and admit that in the Dr. No book, it was a centipede instead of a tarantula.

Pretty sure he’s still a secret agent who tells everybody his full name, so… 

(And just for the record, the Bourne series? Pure fantasy. Good movies, for the most part, but nowhere near the combat documentaries they seem to present themselves as.)

We’re so hellbent on this trend that the studios are even using it as a marketing tool. I’ve noticed that if you make a movie that lacks for intelligence or believability, one of the best ways to get people to see it anyway is to make it “gritty.” Because hey, the plot may be fantastical, but there’s at least real violence and danger in it, right?

An entire genre being sucked under by this corporate-owned Grittiness ™ is fairy tales. Most recently, we saw Snow White and the Huntsman, but there’s a slew of these things coming out now under new, darker facades.

And they are facades. Know why?

Because fairy tales are already dark! Didn’t anybody see the Disney version of this Snow White thing? That’s the one where the Queen asks for Snow White’s heart in a box to prove that she’s dead. And then she tries to bury her alive, but winds up getting crushed to death by a boulder. PLENTY dark. But the new movie’s gotta sell tickets, so they make sure to point out how grown-up and gritty this take is.

(It should be noted that I’m not talking about the quality of the movie itself; only the pretense of finally getting around to making that “dark” fairy tale we’ve all been waiting for.)

Or, for a more acclaimed example, what about Slumdog Millionaire? Slumdog Millionaire is a fundamentally goofy story; the kind of tale that would never in a million years garner Oscar attention or massive critical acclaim. Unless, of course, you buried the core concept in layers of child abuse and poverty-stricken slums in a (remarkably successful) attempt to fool everybody into believing that they’re watching something deep.

Just look at this revealing urban drama.

I hesitate to remind everybody that this movie came out ahead of In Bruges and The Dark Knight, two movies that embraced dark and macabre elements that actually ENHANCED and REINFORCED the central ideas of their stories (let’s say “sin” and “chaos,” respectively).

In fact, I’m an outspoken fan of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, but I’ve grown tired of hearing how they’re a refreshingly “realistic” take on the genre as if that makes them better than, say, Burton’s more gothic take on the character.

Documentary or superhero flick? The answer may surprise you…

We’re talking about a stylistic flavor, in the end, and it’s really no more or less legitimate than any other. Part of the fun of the Bourne movies (silly though they are) is that feeling of “hey, this kinda looks like the real world.” And part of the charm of a satire like Robocop is the outrageous level the violence hits. We need grit just as much as glamour; darkness just as much as light.

Grittiness is fine, Hollywood. But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.


  1. Arkham October 16, 2012
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  5. Sara Clemens October 17, 2012
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