‘The Batman’: The Ensmallening of Batman
If things get any more real in this franchise, it’ll basically just be ‘Columbo.’
I’ll admit it: I was never much of a comic book fan1. As a result, my understanding of Batman as a character begins with the 1960s TV show starring Adam West, which is to say that my understanding of Batman has always been that he’s a ridiculous character. And he is, but if you had any doubt about that it was dispelled in 1989 when Tim Burton released his Batman film, which doubled down on the weird campy energy even as it improved the design by orders of magnitude2. 1989’s Batman is an amazing looking, absolutely terrible film, but it’s significant because it established Batman as a character you couldn’t possibly take seriously: He was a superhero who had nipples molded onto his body armor, for joker’s sake3.
That set up an opportunity, of course, an opportunity paid off by Christopher Nolan in 2005 With Batman Begins and it’s superior sequel The Dark Knight (and the third film, which shall not be named4). These films are miles better than Burton’s mediocre outings, of course, but more importantly they changed the narrative and made Batman a character you could take seriously5.
This was accomplished through a combination of techniques. On the one hand, the films were largely shot on location, with the real, actual city of Chicago standing in for Gotham City, which gave the fictional universe loads more verisimilitude than the cheap 1960s TV sets or Burton’s Art Deco paradise6. On the other, Nolan and company scaled back the craziness and offered a superhero and villains who were just this side of realistic. Imagining that Batman had trained with a weird terrorist martial arts group and funded his military-grade equipment from his multinational corporation7? Crazy, but less so than previous iterations.
That proved to be the magic formula—the dash of realism made Batman Begins promising and The Dark Knight an enormous hit, gave Heath Ledger the chance to lay down a legendary performance, and changed the approach to superhero films forever. You could argue that 2019’s Joker carried the torch a little further, presenting Batman’s iconic nemesis as even less of a comic villain than Ledger’s version. And after a brief pit stop in the fantasy of Ben Affleck as a man willing to do the physical training required to be Batman8, we arrived at The Batman with Robert Pattinson, a story that virtually removes all of the “super” from the superhero.
Something in the Way
The Batman cribs from Nolan’s vision of Gotham (and the unnamed city in Andrew Kevin Walker’s Se7en)—it was filmed largely in Liverpool, once again giving it the heft and weight of a real city. There’s nothing overtly crazy about the universe presented in the film; the story is set just a few years into Bruce Wayne’s career as a vigilante dressed as a bat for some reason9, and the villains who occupy his attention have not yet morphed into their more fanciful versions—the Riddler, played by Paul Dano, is a tightly-wound sociopath, but doesn’t dance about in green tights. The Penguin, played by an unrecognizable Colin Farrell, is just a very ugly, overweight mobster. And Batman himself isn’t particularly fanciful: He’s just a traumatized young billionaire going around beating up criminals while wearing bulletproof body armor and carrying an array of nifty but not especially sci-fi gadgets10.
In fact, director Matt Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig have stripped so much of the super from their superhero the only thing separating him from regular vigilantes is the suit. Pattinson could just be a guy wearing Kevlar and beating the snot out of muggers and literally nothing would change about the story11.
This works especially well in The Batman, which is conceived as more of a detective story than a superhero story. Batman collects clues, has epiphanies, roughs up suspects and witnesses, and generally represents what a completely unfettered police force would be like: Grim, violent, and totally unconcerned about your so-called rights. And the lack of super in this version of Batman is disturbing for that reason: When characters are presented as super, it’s possible to accept that they are above our tepid rules. Superman, after all, cannot be compelled to obey laws or respect rules or, you know, fill out forms and wait in line. We accept that he might skip some red tape and cut some corners in his efforts to keep us all safe—the essentially fascist nature of superheroes is rooted in their super-ness, after all. And justified by the super-ness of the villains—when the bad guy is destroying whole cities, you can get behind the superhero doing whatever it takes to stop them12.
He’s Just This Guy, You Know?
This gets complicated when your remove the super. Pattinson’s Batman does all sorts of extralegal shit, but he’s not particularly special, is he? He’s not even a terribly good detective, relying mainly on beating the snot out of people until they tell him what he needs to know. And his villain, Dano’s Riddler, is also just a guy—an insane guy gleefully murdering his way through Gotham City’s elite in order to expose a conspiracy and gain some justice, but not doing anything that requires superpowers. There’s a chilling echo of Se7en in his little death traps, but it stops short of anything you couldn’t create yourself. We’re talking about devices with smartphone duct-taped to them: Not exactly Tony Stark building an Iron Man suit in a cave13.
What was refreshing about Nolan’s Batman in 2005 is now ripe for its own snapback, because if Batman gets any less super he’ll literally just be a detective out of a 1970s TV show, back in the glory days when a rough and violent approach to justice was welcomed. The costume will get less outlandish until it’s just a black leather jacket, the Batmobile will evolve into a tricked-out sedan (or maybe an F-150), and Gotham will get dirtier and rainier until everyone is reaching out instinctively to wipe their TV screens as they watch.
Am I saying digitally insert all the 1960s actors into new Batman movies? Yes, and soon.
Next week: Ozark and the making of the sausage.
Mom always told me I was too cool for comic books. Also: Friends.
No one will ever convince me that Jack Nicholson’s whole approach to his Joker performance was to inhale a shit-ton of drugs right before each scene and just see how it went. You will also never convince me his scenes took more than one take.
Life goals now include having a legit reason to wear a cape and having body army with molded nipples. No legit reason required for the latter.
Due to the fact that it literally imagined an entire police force trapped in the sewers of a major city for months, which made me very cranky.
Sort of. Christian Bale’s voice remains embarrassing.
In Burton’s films the setting is so airless and fake you don’t believe the actors are in the same space even when they’re literally standing next to each other.
I always thought the Iron Man approach, wherein a billionaire spends billions of dollars to develop a superman suit solely to avoid having to do all that tedious training is way more believable.
Every time Affleck is on screen as Batman I expect him to pull a handkerchief and a flask from his pocket, wipe his brow and exhale, then take a long, gulping pull.
Did I appreciate the lack of origin story in The Batman? You bet your ass I did.
The film is getting a lot of attention for merely glancing at the class issues involved with a billionaire spending his time and money on beating the snot out of criminals and violating an entire city’s civil rights, but I’m not sure a few arch comments by Catwoman counts. Bruce Wayne is still terrifying.
Yes, that is fundamentally what Batman is, isn’t it? Except for the ludicrous gadgets, infinite resources, incredible martial arts skills, ability to recover instantly from grievous injury, and complete lack of chafing despite spending his time sweating inside body armor.
I do not imagine for one hot second that I would be anything less than abjectly polite to an actual Superman. I would kiss some serious Kryptonian ass.
This is what stops me from becoming a supervillain: A lack of supervillain-esque apps available in the App Store.