As you have likely heard by now, Robert Pattinson is our next Batman. Which is fine. I actually like Pattinson and feel that he’s been generally underrated. I don’t feel super strongly either way about the casting yet. That’s going to depend largely on what version of Batman we’re going to get. And that is something I do have some strong feelings about.
Years ago, I saw this image shared online. I don’t remember who shared it, or who created it, so I apologize profusely for not being able to give it proper attribution. Because I think it’s absolutely genius and spot-on in the way it breaks down the many sides of the Joker and his on-screen depictions:
Each live-action iteration of the Joker has primarily focused on one dimension of his character: the clown, the gangster, the anarchist, the psychopath. The Joker is definitely each of these things, but he is also ALL of these things at the same time. Naturally, the medium of film, with it’s historically shorter running time, is inherently limited in its ability to depict villains and supporting characters in fully nuanced ways. As many more eloquent scholars, writers, and critics than me have written before, that is one of the benefits of an episodic narrative structure found in television and comic books. Viewers of television get to spend more and more time with each character, and have a chance to see them react to a multitude of varying situations and conflicts; including at times taking center stage as the protagonist in their very own stories. And if we’re talking about reading comic books, for some people that can be an accumulation of information about a character taken in over years and years – even decades! Gradually, they become increasingly multi-dimensional.
But that’s a lot harder to do within 90 to 150 minutes of screen time, especially when you can’t have the kind of internal monologue that is so crucial to understanding the deeper psyche of otherwise outwardly stoic characters like Batman and Wolverine. Inevitably, nuances are sacrificed. Multi-dimensionality is sacrificed. And, for the sake of consistency, plotting, structure, and other restrictions, characters – especially those in antagonist and “supporting” roles – become more one-dimensional, with one character trait (like gangster, psychopath, anarchist) dominating all others.
So what does this have to do with the new Batman movie?
Just like the Joker’s full dimensions can be broken down into Clown, Gangster, Anarchist, and Psychopath, so to can the Batman’s. I don’t know if I can break it down into the awesome single-word style of the image above, but here are some key things about Batman/Bruce Wayne as a character that come to mind right away:
- He lost his parents to crime at a young age.
- He devoted his life to training his body and mind.
- He spends his time as Batman ridding the city of crime.
- He’s a billionaire playboy.
- He’s got lots of cool super-high-tech vehicles and gadgets.
- He is the world’s greatest detective.
- He is a master martial artist.
We’ve seen 1 through 5 over and over again. Especially #1. I mean, how many more times do we have to see that poor kid watch his parents die right in front of him?? I think that was one of the best things they did with Spider-Man: Homecoming – not showing us Uncle Ben’s death. So let’s start with some of my smaller requests before zooming in on numbers 6 and 7, which are the two things I REALLY want to see, and the reason I’m writing this piece in the first place:
Thing I Want #1: To NOT See Mr. & Mrs. Wayne’s Deaths On-Screen. Ever. Again.
I’ve seen it. A lot. We all have. The folks over at Vulture even made a supercut of all their onscreen deaths back in 2014 and…it’s pretty grim:
With Pattinson in the lead, they’re clearly going for a reboot with a younger Bruce Wayne, and I’m hoping Warner Brothers acknowledges that most viewers will be going into it knowing the backstory of the elder Waynes’ deaths. I just hope they see that as a positive, because it gives them more time to flesh out other aspects of the characters and the world that could make the film more interesting and distinctive. Like, I dunno, a non-damsel-in-distress female character with some actual agency?
Thing I Want #2: A Truly Fresh Start
Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy was pretty fantastic in a lot of ways, but it also created a huge burden for everything that came after it, starting with Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. From the darker color tones to the title itself (see: “Man of Steel” instead of Superman, “Dark Knight” instead of Batman), Snyder’s film was doomed from the start because of the supposed continued – but vaguely described – involvement of Christopher Nolan. Naturally, the stakes had to build up from there, so that the Batman we see in Batman v. Superman and Justice League was pretty much inevitable. But if you’re gonna reboot Batman, then please fully commit to the reboot and reboot IT ALL.
Thing I Want #3: An Embrace of the World’s Comic Book Origins
Comic books have a long history of being looked down on as being “just for kids,” or nerds, or whatever ridiculous word might be used to denigrate what millions of people of all ages love and adore. One of the things that I believe distinguishes the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the DC movies ever since Nolan’s trilogy is that the MCU unabashedly and wholeheartedly embraces the stories’ comic book origins. They don’t look down on that history. Instead, they embrace the absurdity, make it work to their benefit, and even find ways to add a lot of genuine heart and emotion to it. And, most importantly, they clearly love and respect it.
As much as I adore Nolan’s films, one of the things that always left a bit of a sour taste was this sense of the movie looking down on the fact that the original stories existed in comic book form. It’s almost as though Nolan – who’s got a bit of a reputation for being a Cinema with a capital C kind of guy – to feel comfortable making a Batman movie, he had to treat it like “we’re making this gritty crime thriller that happens to be set in Gotham City.” Which is different from saying “we’re making a Batman movie.” That distinction leads to creative choices like making the world feel and look “gritty” because it’s set in the “real world,” or whatever. And because WB was so bent on duplicating Nolan’s success with Snyder, those same pressures, assumptions, and frameworks for world-building carried right over to Man of Steel. Which is also part of the reason why DC has found it more challenging to naturally incorporate some of the more fantastical/galactical elements of the DC universe.
Thing I Want #4: To See Batman as the World’s Greatest Detective
Batman is the world’s greatest detective. THE GREATEST. IN THE WORLD. But beyond solving some riddles sent by Jim Carrey, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him do much sleuthing in the films. I mean this dude is supposed to be on par with characters like Sherlock Holmes in his detecting/crime-solving brilliance! I remember this one comic where Clark Kent was doing his best to be in disguise as a beggar or something in this part of town that was totally falling apart, and Batman spots him INSTANTLY because he noticed that the bottom of Clark’s SHOES were too clean. Not just his shoes. UNDERNEATH his shoes. Or that one episode of the animated series, where the Riddler is on TV with a phone number written on this board that he then flips over to show something else on the other side of it, but then Batman’s like “hmm…why did he FLIP that board. So then when he writes the phone number on a piece of paper and FLIPS it the same way the Riddler did on TV, it spells out an address or something like that. It’s been years since I’ve watched the show, but you get my point! This dude is a prodigiously genius crime-solver! Show me that!
Thing I Want #4.5: Batman Film Noir
How cool would it be to have a film noir-ish Batman detective story? Like full-on Maltese Falcon style of detective movie but with Batman as the hard-boiled detective. This could work as a standalone live-action film, or an animated feature like Sony hopes to do with Spider-Man Noir. Or, they could go with the aesthetics from The Animatrix episode titled A Detective Story. I can see it now, can’t you??
You can’t? Here, let me help you:
Thing I Want (the Most) #5: To See Batman as an Incredible Martial Artist/Fighter
If you’ve read my stuff before, this wish should come as no surprise. This element of Batman has always suuuuuuuucked. In fact, this was one of my biggest complaints about Nolan’s films: we were just told that he’s a good fighter because he worked out with Liam Neeson up in the mountains of whatever, but we were never really shown anything too special about his abilities. Take, for instance, his first real fight as Batman in Batman Begins:
What the heck happened?? I mean, credit to Christopher Nolan, the “point” is supposed to be that Batman’s so fast and skilled and League of Shadowsy that we can’t even see what he’s doing. But the problem is just that: WE CAN’T EVEN SEE WHAT HE’S DOING! This is very much a Stunt-Centric approach to Batman.
Interestingly, one of my least favorite Batman movies has one of the best depictions of Batman-as-martial-artist, as seen below in Batman v. Superman for comparison:
You gotta admit it, that is one cool Batman! He’s walking into a situation where he knows that he’s clearly outnumbered, so what does he do? First, he relies on cool gadgets and staying out of sight for as long as he can, taking out as many bad guys while he still has the element of surprise. But that can only take him so far, right? So he gradually moves in closer and closer until he’s forced to engage in hand-to-hand combat with multiple enemies simultaneously. And it’s here that we get a brief (but oh so sweet!) glimpse of what a martial-artist-Batman filmed and edited with a Choreo-centric aesthetic COULD look like. And it’s beautiful.
This. This shot right here. This is what I want more of:
Matt Reeves: can you make this happen, please??