Why ‘The Batman’ Keeps Us Going Back To Different Versions Of The Same Story
As I dutifully walked through the cineplex to catch Matt Reeves “The Batman,” I thought about how this would be the fourth iteration of the Caped Crusader I’ve seen in a theater in my life.
Sidenote: I count the Keaton-Kilmer-Clooney movies as a single iteration despite multiple actors playing the lead role and I don’t count “The Lego Batman Movie” because, well, I’ve never seen it and it feels more like a parody than anything.
Either way, it made me wonder why I and millions of others keep coming back. Have we become so pre-conditioned to consume IP that we don’t even notice we’re being served the same gray porridge?
It’s deeper than that, I think – as if Bruce Wayne and his alter ego represent a uniquely American fantasy that revels in the two things our society loves most: money and violence.
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Let me start by saying that I liked “The Batman”. Stylistically, it sits between the realism of director Christopher Nolan’s trilogy and the absurd expressionism of Tim Burton’s vision while being substantially darker. “The Batman” is more like “Joker” in its narrative.
Batman/Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) is a man of few words, with jet black hair and a dour attitude. Its main villain is The Riddler (Paul Dano), reimagined as one of those 1990s serial killers who creates painstakingly artistic crime scenes. Too bad these people are turning to crime when they should be focusing on production design!
In this film, Batman essentially teams up with Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) to solve these murders and becomes what Batman creator Bob Kane envisioned for the character: a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Zorro. The mystery leads to all kinds of mob types you’ll remember from Nolan-Maroni’s movies! Falcone! – but ultimately the culprit is Gotham itself. The system of wealth and power is the real culprit. This is also the consensus reached by Nolan’s “Batman Begins”.
Still, even though the story is derivative, I dug it. The film even scrolls at three o’clock. (Yes, you read that right.) Reeves structures the film as a series of revelations that push the mystery and keep me from returning to the concession stand.
The cast is solid, with a special mention to Zoe Kravitz as Selina Kyle/Catwoman. In addition to having the most physical role, she reveals an emotional complexity that will – intentionally – remind you of the character of Faye Dunaway in “Chinatown”.
Plus, I’ll admit the movie sold me by incorporating my favorite Nirvana song (“Something in the Way”) not only as full fabric, but also as the melody for the movie’s score. Many call “The Batman” dark and brooding. But “grungy” is a better adjective.
While we’ve seen these stories before, domestic audiences lined up to a whopping $134 million this weekend. The simple explanation for this appeal is that comic book movies have captured the cultural imagination, for better or for worse. But the Dark Knight more than most. Why?
For starters, Batman doesn’t possess any superpowers other than being rich. Ben Affleck hilariously observes this in “Justice League.” Otherwise, Bruce Wayne is decidedly human and inevitably more accessible.
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With very human impulses and flaws. Driven by anger and grief, Bruce Wayne takes his family’s money and becomes a vessel of vigilance. Another staple of American culture, we yearn for the idea of a strong but benevolent force working outside the system for some version of justice.
The problem is that people tend to like due process when it comes to their rights, when such “niceties” shouldn’t be wasted on “common criminals” or the “poor”.
Take the law into your own hands. Guys, especially young people, love this idea and they are the target demographic for movies like this. If you have any male friends, you have at least one who planned what he would do to stop a mass shooting. Really. Maybe I’m hanging out with the wrong crowd.
I almost certainly do – I’m from the most gun-loving part of the state – but that shouldn’t be overlooked when considering Batman’s appeal. People fantasize that the ills of society can be solved with unchecked brute force and a few billion dollars to back you up.
Although this is a limitation of the main character. Vengeance and revenge are a means and an end. That’s all the audience sees with Wayne and why it’s so easy to swap actors. What we know about anger – especially associated with loss – is how quickly it turns into bitter sadness. That a spirit can be lost because of the hatred that grows in your soul.
But we never see that turn with Bruce Wayne. The closest these movies ever came with Affleck’s initial take in “Batman vs. Superman.” Older and more cynical, he sees the Man of Steel as an existential threat that must be destroyed. The neo-con dialogue in the first act of this film is taken directly from speeches given by Dick Cheney in the aftermath of 9/11. A sly and provocative political statement eventually forgotten instead of a hit show.
Even in Nolan’s trilogy, where we get a more human version of the character, there’s no self-enlightenment. Whichever way you interpret the ending of the horrifying “Dark Knight Rises”, Wayne escapes his existence by death or by smiling in a sunny cafe in Europe. As if the mission of coping with loss through violence was simply the result of a lifetime spent meaningfully.
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Without spoiling “The Batman,” it ends with suggestions of redemption. I suspect it won’t last in the sequel that has already been announced. I might be the only person who wants to see a crazy old Batman sulking in psychological funk. Affleck was set to direct a standalone movie with him as the lead, but that was canceled I guess for the same reason.
The public loves the revenge inflicted by the character, the shadows where he exists, the bad mood suggested by the sets and by these words of Kurt Cobain. This narcissistic misery as American as apple pie and baseball.
The Warner Brothers CEO, after pondering the most recent financial windfall his studio would receive, compared Batman to Hamlet. While her statement reflected what a good role it was for actors to flex their muscles, there’s irony in the comparison.
Hamlet can also be a brooding prince of privilege, but defined by inaction. “To be or not to be”, right? While Batman acts without any thought. We could use a little more tragedy in this story.
Batman in Hamlet? I would pay to see this, as it might give us the full character arc that seems to be required by the story. If there’s something people love too, it’s seeing someone get up and then fall with a thud.
In real life, James Owen is a lawyer and executive director of energy policy group Renew Missouri. He created/wrote for Filmsnobs.com from 2001-2007 before a long stint as an on-air film critic for KY3, NBC’s Springfield affiliate. He was named one of the top 20 artists under 30 by the Kansas City Star when he was much younger than he is now.