I’m not going to re-hash old arguments about grimdark or gory fiction or whatever. Originally, I had meant to respond to the question “can fiction be too gritty?” I’m not convinced that fiction has limits in any standardized sense. Some of us may not like gore or grit (or that grr feeling we get when an author kills a favorite character), but others do; the idea that fiction as a whole cannot have material for each of us on the basis of some arbitrary standard about what is “too much” seems preposterous to me. You like gory fiction? Great, here’s a whole bunch of stuff just for you (says Fiction)!
I think the more interesting question is “why does grit bother some of us?” There are a lot of ways to approach that question. Take Game of Thrones as an obvious example. (Spoilers ahead)
As a show, Game of Thrones is often violent and “unsafe” in the sense that its characters are always on the chopping block. People die painful, horrifying deaths when we least expect them to. The recent death of Oberyn at the hands of the Mountain is a great example. Most of us who had not read the books had a few expectations: either he would defeat the Mountain, he would die by getting quickly cut down, or he would survive long enough to be killed at some other time. Up to Season 4, I think most of us loyal viewers knew that Oberyn was too good to be true (or too awesome to live). What we got was one of the most gruesome death scenes in the show’s history.
Personally, I had two reactions to Oberyn’s death: one of absolute shock that a favorite character died (putting another favorite character, Tyrion, at risk) and one of horror at the imagery I was shown. Oberyn’s death was graphic. It was gory, it was “real,” and it was the kind of gritty realism we’ve come to expect from the show. And it shocked us (well, it shocked me). If you’re curious, the scene can be found here (I can’t watch it again… Warning: it is extremely graphic).
Perhaps what bothers us about these instances is a kind of subconscious longing for a fantasy — not necessarily for a world that literally does not exist (i.e., a fictional fantasy), but rather for a fantasy of action wherein some small piece of the good vs. evil dichotomy is maintained. Game of Thrones consistently shatters that dichotomy. Villains survive while our heroes fall. Villains become our heroes. Heroes become our villains. Everything is gray and messy. Gritty fantasy represents a kind of hyperreal that counteracts our everyday fantasies — fantasies we maintain for ourselves by selecting what we see, hear, and read (and in a totally meta way, reading/viewing Game of Thrones is a deliberate action on our part). Fantasies about right and wrong, good and evil, life and death. They make up life on this planet.
Those fantasies are, I think, partly why some hold onto the idea that Superman is a kind of adult boy scout. Man of Steel (2013) broke that — to a certain degree. It took what many have come to love about the character and shifted it ever so slightly to the side (in my estimation) so that what we saw was a Superman living in a world not unlike our own. A Superman who had grown up with the fantasies of everyday life tossed aside by the gritty truth of what it means to be an alien super being in a world that can barely handle its technological powers. Man of Steel never needs to talk about weapons of mass destruction, but the commentary is always there. Superman is a weapon of mass destruction. But he’s worse than that: he’s a weapon that nobody can seem to control, much like his Kryptonian counterparts. There’s a brilliant scene in Man of Steel where Superman willingly gives himself over to the authorities after the Earth is threatened with destruction by Zod; the military shackles him, but it’s all a show on Superman’s part, as he eventually breaks the bonds to make a point:
Let’s put our cards on the table, General. You’re scared of me because you can’t control me. You don’t. And you never will. But that doesn’t mean I’m your enemy.
In the context of the United States’ attempts to control who has WMDs, Superman is the ultimate threat — a veritable bomb waiting to go off in mankind’s backyard that nobody can control. And that bomb does go off in Man of Steel. Superman’s very presence serves as a flashing beacon that says “super beings can come destroy shit here.” And they do. Superman included. They destroy a lot of shit. It’s only a natural response on humanity’s part to try to determine where Superman lives at the end of the movie. That Superman tries to wave that away by saying “hey, no worries, I’m an American, dude” shouldn’t inspire any of us. After all, America is hardly the bastion of restraint.
The attempt to make Superman a grittier figure is, for me, a good thing, in part because Superman is supposed to exist in our world. It makes little sense for him to have developed a sense of morality and justice that doesn’t represent a reality that is accessible. But I understand why people disliked Man of Steel and Snyder’s/Nolan’s gritty reinterpretation. The film performs the same attack on the fantasy of everyday life as Game of Thrones. Worse, Man of Steel shatters the double-fantasy of the comics by discarding the Superman many have come to love in favor for a gritty alternative.
The idea that a fantasy pervades our everyday lives or that it can be supplanted by another fantasy property suggests, I think, the intersection between the desire for narrative depth and the relationship between grit and complexity. As television properties become increasingly more narrative-based and series like Game of Thrones or movies with the same agenda as Man of Steel pervade our screens, the more apparent this intersection becomes. Audiences are demanding more of this not-so-new thing because many of us enjoy having our everyday fantasies challenged, as if breaking apart our daily lives exposes us to the possibility of a deeper relationship with fiction, to our individualistic fandoms. Grit bears the traces of complexity (perhaps in its false form), but it is also condensed into “bite-sized” chunks of narrative. We can experience the complexity of life without living it. We can harbor fictive love for villains without sacrificing our humanity. We can infuse our shattered everyday fantasies with a new kind of gritty, gory, messy hyperreality that is itself its own kind of fantasy. And in doing so, we offer ourselves a new escape from the hopelessness of the actual. We don’t have to deal with unemployment or mass murder or war in the hyperreality of Game of Thrones, except insofar as we can become engrossed in a non-place.
That’s how I’m going to think about gritty fantasy worlds from now on: they are not utopian non-places; rather, they are non-places that provide a kind of catharsis.
What say you?