F vs the Franchises: Superhero Fatigue (Part 4c - In the Shadow of a Man Dressed As a Bat)

Click here for Part A of my Batman discussion, covering Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy.

Click here for Part B of my Batman discussion, covering The Batman and Batman in the DC Animated Universe.

Tim Burton

Each of Burton’s Batman films have jarring scenes that needlessly break their illusions. In the first it’s when Batman homes in with guns and missiles on a defiantly stationary Joker, only to miss despite apparently sophisticated computer targeting. As if this isn’t bad enough, Batman manages to get shot down from the single shot of an implausible gun there’s no way the Joker could have been keeping in his pants. The terrible choreography of the scene makes for an empty and pointless spectacle. What good are tools that don’t work as intended? Granted, the film would have been over if Batman had successfully killed the Joker on that first pass with the Batwing, but that’s an argument for replacing that scene with another that actually works. Batman Returns offers a more puzzling than jarring scene when the Penguin’s goons use plans of the Batmobile to hijack the vehicle. Where did they get the plans? Ebay? The follow-up question is: who engineers a car with a skinny mode just in case it needs to squeeze through a narrow space? Isn’t that a cooler version of keeping shark repellant in the utility belt, just in case?

In the bigger picture, though, these amount to quibbles in films that are, in my view, the best live-action Batman films to date. Obviously, gloriously gothic and German expressionist production design is a contributing factor, as few films in or out of the comic book genre can boast such iconic visuals. But the films also succeed as Batman stories, offering a synthesis of the character’s various interpretations that is remarkably coherent both in itself and in relationship to the fictional Gotham setting. In Burton’s and screenwriters Sam Hamm and Daniel Waters’ Batman we see influences from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, and Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, which is to say that this version is quite brutal with hints of psychosis. Yet the character is kept from being overly grim by drawing on more classical depictions of the characters, such as his detective skills, engineering abilities, commitment to defending Gotham’s citizens from terrifying threats, and charmingly eccentric Bruce Wayne. From a narrative standpoint, the scripts by Sam Hamm (Batman)and Daniel Waters (Batman Returns) aren’t burdened by dead-ending topical references, as Nolan’s trilogy is. Both films keep it simple with Batman as a vigilante acting (reacting) in the absence of effective public institutions to confront rampant crime and corruption, notably oversized villains. It’s in the characterizations that we find material for rich interpretations, and the strength of both films, especially Batman Returns, is the extent to which the characters and the city of Gotham, itself a character, both feel like symbiotic extensions of each other.

However impressive Heath Ledger’s Joker is, within the limits I’ve discussed, Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Batman remains my favorite live-action interpretation. (Jared Leto’s version in Suicide Squad is more interesting than people give him credit for, but with so much of his performance and role in the story cut, according to David Ayer, it’s hard to form a decisive opinion.) Notably, he’s no less terrifying for having a biography of sorts, one that doesn’t give us a sob story about a bleak childhood or asks us to sympathize with him as a tragic figure. When we are first introduced to Jack Napier, it’s as the right hand to Jack Palance’s crime boss Carl Grissom. Later, we learned of his earlier role as a small-time hood mugging people, like Thomas and Martha Wayne, for petty cash and jewelry. Already established as ruthless and cold-blooded killer, his transformation into the Joker is chillingly believable: his disfigurement by the acid removes the thin layer of civilization necessitated by his position within an organized criminal organization. Without the restraints that comes from social hierarchy, Napier is freed to act out on his murderous impulses on a larger scale, and with a warped sense of humor, as the Joker. Although it doesn’t seem to me that Batman purposefully drops Napier into the vat of acid, and both screenplay and novelization apparently support the view that it’s unintentional, the scene itself has enough ambiguity that whatever actually happens, the outcome creates symmetry between Joker and Batman. Napier killed Bruce Wayne’s parents, leading to Batman’s creation, while Batman in turn has a role in Napier becoming the Joker. Stripped of ideological posturing and grandiose mythologizing, the antagonism between two classic opponents is refreshingly straightforward with, in my opinion, a greater visceral impact.

Surpassing Batman and, indeed, all other live-action films is, of course, Batman Returns. With greater freedom, Burton and screenwriter Daniel Waters craft a film whose story is operatic in scope and delivered with even more expressionistic gothic design. What makes the film stand out is the extent to which settings and characters reflect and influence each other, painting a dystopian urban portrait with its own insular, grotesque logic. We have Danny Devito’s Penguin embodying the outcast as both victim and threat, the alienating and atomizing effect of a city without community. Representing the corrupt business elite, we have Christopher Walken’s Max Shreck to encapsulate the failures of capitalism. Michelle Pfeiffer’s iconic Catwoman presents a radical feminist revolutionary bucking both system and social order as defined by patriarchy. And in the volatile mix is Bruce Wayne, an uneasy and problematic counterpart to these antagonists, especially when acting as Batman. Literal realism is far from the point to the film, and the story – simultaneously thrilling, disturbing, sublime, and silly – is all the better for it. By recognizing the inherently fantastical notion that is a Batman story, our ability to layer interpretations on the film is all the freer for not having to quibble with attempts at social commentary beyond the abstract.

If there’s a question that hangs over Burton’s films, though, it’s that of Batman’s frequently deadly violence, sometimes purposeful (as in his blowing up a Red Triangle gang member), sometimes oblivious (setting a Red Triangle thug on fire with the Batmobile’s fiery exhaust), and sometimes as collateral damage (e.g. from blowing up Axis Chemicals). The famous “no kill” rule clearly doesn’t apply. In fairness, the rule isn’t consistent across all versions of Batman, as Mark Hughes explains in his overview of the subject at Forbes, and if there’s a trend it’s that the moral use or rejection of lethal force is not so much an argument but the outcome of storytellers manipulating scenarios to make whatever argument they want to make. For example, if you want to justify Batman killing, make him choose between saving the lives of innocents or preserving the life of a villain, out of a principled commitment to avoid any killing, at their expense. But there are cheats. You could make kid-friendly fare in which villains aren’t sufficiently homicidal, sadistic, or generally dangerous for Batman to consider a deadly approach to foiling them. You could also draw on Batman’s engineering brilliance to give him gadgets that let him effectively stun his opponents. However you manipulate it, the question of Batman’s use of lethal force is inextricably tied to the question of how Batman actually deters crime and prevents recurrent threats? Hughes might be satisfied with the idea of a Batman who perpetually fights villains he refuses to kill out of principle, but I have to ask what good it does when public justice and mental health institutions are incapable of resolving the challenges of crime. It’s one thing if Batman catches the villains on behalf of an incompetent/corrupt police force and the public system helps confine and/or rehabilitate them. But when nothing works, Batman’s fundamental purpose is, to me, dissatisfying and pointless. The comics don’t tend to address the repair of public institutions, of course, focused as they are on keeping Batman in perpetual conflict with one antagonist or another, and the movies follow suit.

My own view is that, realistically and without resorting to tech gimmicks, while Batman shouldn’t murder people when he can avoid it, the reality is that in life and death situations someone is bound to be seriously injured if not killed. And seeing that it’s not going to be Batman, that means his criminal opponents. However, if Batman is to be a credible perspective on crime, stories also need to pair Batman’s vigilantism with Bruce Wayne’s ability to influence Gotham for the better.

Insofar as Burton’s films are concerned, I can’t help but wonder to what extent Batman’s deadliness is the product of glib choreography rather than purposeful characterization. It doesn’t really matter, though, since we get what we get. So in my view, Batman’s disturbingly cavalier violence does work in context of Gotham’s overall character. Burton’s Gotham is fundamentally a capitalist dystopia in which social dynamics are mediated (and corrupted) by money and violence, not public service and civic engagement. However much Batman is committed to protecting the innocent, and however ethical he is in his business dealings as Bruce Wayne, Batman is ultimately as much a symptom of the city’s dysfunction as he is a reaction to it – the projection, like its villains, of a damaged urban psyche. With lethal violence arguing for Batman as antihero more than hero, it serves to distance us from him even as we root for his success against destructive terrors like Joker and Penguin who are far beyond common street crime that, by the film’s logic, getting killed is an unsurprising outcome. Burton’s films are almost a deconstruction, since without being able to unreservedly romanticize Batman as a hero we are made to ask whether we want Batman so much that we’d also want the nightmarish Gotham that gives him life.

Ben Affleck & the Snyderverse

Michael Keaton delivers a singularly distinct interpretation of Bruce Wayne and Batman, one so tailored to the universe Tim Burton creates, that he can be argued to be in a class of his own. But among the Bat-actors who aren’t Michael Keaton, my favorite is Ben Affleck. His ability to blend charm and dry humor with intensity and pathos not only gives him an assertive screen presence as Batman, but also as Bruce Wayne. It’s unfortunate that he didn’t get the chance to have a story to himself, instead of existing on screen in relationship to Superman, the Justice League, the Suicide Squad, or the Flash. At least Snyder’s vision for his Batman was a redemptive one and a highlight in his films. If all we had gotten was Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the missed potential would have been much worse.

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