What Does Gritty Mean?

Catwoman gets in a vehicle with Batman and says “My mother always warmed me about getting into cars with strange men.”

“This isn’t a car,” Batman says, shooting the impossible hovercraft-helicopter-jet into the sky.

Everybody knows these lines. They were featured in virtually every trailer and tv spot for the film in the year preceding its release. A lot of information is given through this short exchange. We learn that Selina Kyle is a flirt, we learn that Batman is helping her, and we learn that Batman has a few new gadgets to play around with for the new movie.

This exchange, including its delivery and its existence, would not feel out of place in Joel Schumacher’s Batman films. However, Schumacher’s Batman has nipples on his batsuit. Schumacher’s Batman lives in a strange, neon-tinted fever dream filled with one-liners moral certitude.

How can Nolan’s Batman and Schumacher’s Batman even come from the same source material?

When Batman Begins was released in 2005, audiences and critics hailed Christopher Nolan’s “gritty” vision of Batman. Finally, somebody brought the character into a realistic setting! Finally, we get some darkness!

the-dark-knight-rises-batman

The word gritty is almost always used when describing Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. But what does that word mean?

“Gritty” has become something of a buzz word in Hollywood since Nolan’s films hit theaters, but the word itself has myriad meanings devoted almost completely to context.

Gritty used to mean dirty. Actual grit. Charles Portis’s True Grit plays off the phrase apocryphally used by cowboys to suggest a man’s courage and integrity. That courage and integrity were manifested by the amount of literal dirt he had on him at the end of his journey.

If a cowboy were moving hundreds of cows hundreds of miles, he’d get dirty. If he weren’t “gritty” by the end of the journey, then he’d obviously not done the job properly.

“Grit” became synonymous with toughness. Even though cowboys never used the phrase, we’ve retroactively attributed an alternate meaning to the word.

So now we have two meanings. 1. dirt, dirty, the act of becoming dirty 2. toughness, often associated with hard work

But neither of those meanings seem to contextually match the meaning of the word as critics use it for Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. 

What does that word mean for them?

Earlier this year, Square Enix released the fantastic Tomb Raider reboot, which boasted a more realistic, “gritty” experience for players.

In that game, it is possible to kill upwards of one thousand men, climb hundreds of feet of rock, make impossible jumps, and play wind mini-games on a magical island where the weather is sentient. All on one hearty meal. It’s possible to heal completely from gunshot wounds by standing still.

The game is obviously not realistic in the truest sense of the word, but there are attempts at realism. Like the Dark Knight TrilogyTomb Raider does feature a realistic sense of humanity. Lara gets scared. She gets angry. When somebody she loves is hurt or killed, she wants revenge. She isn’t perfect.

Nolan’s Bruce Wayne has a weird sense of morality that leads to an uncomfortable sense of ethics within the series. Why does Batman get to decide who is right and who is wrong? Isn’t he just as guilty as anybody else for breaking the law and endangering the public?

Bruce Wayne suffers because of his need for revenge. The majority of his tenure as Batman is spent trying to eradicate the void of his father by issuing violence against an abstract idea.

Lara similarly suffers in Tomb Raider. Lara’s mentor is put in danger, and she attempts to solve the situation by killing hundreds of men. We know she may not be right in her thinking, but she’s the hero anyway.

So if gritty doesn’t mean dirty or hard-working, then what does it mean? I thought it meant “realistic” for a while, but the more films I saw labeled as “gritty”, the less realism I found.

Take Iron Man 3 or Man of Steel. Both of those movies claim to be gritty takes on their respective heroes, but they’re also very much science fiction.

An alien comes to Earth and displays the powers of a God. A man creates an impossible suit of armor and jokes his way to saving the world with an army he built during his tenure as a PTSD-plagued depressive.

Neither of these movies ever claim to be realistic, but they do claim to be gritty.

Gritty doesn’t necessarily mean darkness, either, as even Iron Man 3 and The Dark Knight, the darkest of their respective trilogies, offer generous globs of levity and humor.

It’s a common mistake to assume that grit means darkness, but the evidence just isn’t there.

However, the only connection I can see between all of these wildly-unrealistic, sometimes silly movies being labeled as “gritty” is their attempts at finding humanity in previously-static characters.

But is that “gritty”, or is that “human”? And if so, then why do we use that word?

Of course, these titles do feature an awful lot of dirt anyway

Of course, these titles do feature an awful lot of dirt anyway

Around the time that word became popular, about ten years ago, we were in the midst of a horrific and highly-publicized war in the Middle East. We wanted to deal with the emotions that kind of real violences causes.

Before long, almost cartoonishly silly superhero movies evolve into films featuring “gritty realism” that isn’t at all real, but allows for the emotional catharsis we all need in a time of unrest.

Gritty realism is not a phrase we consciously associate with human complexity. We often consciously believe that phrase to stand for dirty darkness. Gritty realism, in our minds, is the image of Iron Man (featured, above) covered in water and, you know, dirt, and bending down in defeat.

That’s not what gritty realism truly means to us. It means humanity. We aren’t looking at a man covered in dirt. We’re looking at a man who is scared of defeat. An imperfect man. It’s the humanity that attracts us, not the visual murkiness of his gear. People don’t get interested in movies because they’re going to feature a lot of dirt.

“That new Batman movie. It’s got a lot of dirt in it, right?”

No, we look for personable characters. Relatable characters. We still want the big-budget spectacle and science-fiction elements, but we want that “gritty realism” that turns a movie into a film, for whatever reason. That special element we can’t fully explain, but we know when we see it.

Green Lantern didn’t have it, and it’s not because the movie looked like a car commercial. It’s because Hal Jordan’s character in that movie had no humanity. He was a one-liner machine no different from Schumacher’s version of the Batman character. Dark Knight Rises had similar jokes, but they were backed up by a character with human emotions and problems. That’s where the grit lies, and that’s why people perk up when they hear that particular buzzword.

We can learn a lot about culture by studying which buzzwords are popular when, and what those buzzwords ultimately mean to the culture. For us, “grit” is an abstraction characterized by human emotion through the lens of humanity as a dirty business.

The war has undoubtedly brought upon the popularity of that narrative convention, and now it’s perpetuating itself through human storytelling.

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  • http://culturemass.com/tech-science Nate Humphries

    Great article! I would’ve normally agreed with the “realism” aspect of “gritty,” but now that you mentioned it I’m really starting to see the humanity piece as the consistent factor.

    Or is it that our humanity is what’s real to us (existential movement, etc.), so in effect it’s both?

  • Jamie Parsons

    Gritty is just an overused buzzword Hollywood and fans use to refer to the newest reboot or ‘dark take’ on a franchise.