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Batman, The Millionaire Superhero, Dark Comics & NRx

By Bee Beardsworth

Photo: DC Films

If you haven’t yet seen The Batman (2022) and don’t want spoilers, then you should rather not read this article.

Having been fortunate to have been invited to a preview of The Batman, I think it’s definitely worth a watch. Is it the greatest film I have ever seen? No. But it’s definitely one of the best ‘blockbuster’ films I’ve watched in a while. I exited the screening in that strange post-cinema twilight zone, my mind itching to understand why I felt such a level of melancholic affectation for what I had been prepared to discard as yet another naff superhero film.

The seventh Batman film since 2005, writer/director Matt Reeves steered this latest rehashing of the DC comic into a fresher, trendier and more artistic direction. It’s worth watching for the cinematography, cast, and sets however, I would also argue that these same elements are what was leaned on, to try and obfuscate the overstretched and under developed plotline, Along with a reliance on aesthetics that substantiated a lack of humanity of which I felt acutely aware but, whose specific root I have found it hard to put my finger on. The detective-noir cinematography encouraged the film to fall into oft-drawn out, rain-sodden shots of the impeccably constructed Gotham cityscape and dimly lit, eerie scenery. However the plot’s momentum felt like it never fully reached the climax that our little rat brains have been led to associate with a DC or Marvel film. The lack of conclusory drama was married with a pervasive sense of nihilism and despondency that filtrated Gotham and Pattinson’s emo Batman. No doubt a film for the times, but also a reflection of the dismal state of the neoliberal self in the late capitalist world. This film wasn’t about escapism so much as magnification of the modern epoch of fear mongering, oligarchical leadership and hypernormalised societal corrosion.

This is a film that everyone has an opinion on and reading the reviews and op-eds has led me to a conclusion that The Batman (2022) was in many respects thwarted by the expectation preceding it. It’s hard for a Batman film to be viewed objectively when the franchise spans decades and oscillates between cinematic genres, directors and cast members. Like the discography of Lady Gaga, getting a clear gauge of what makes a Batman film a Batman film is at best a murky endeavour.

I grew up with Christopher Nolan’s films (Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012)) which shifted the franchise from the cartoonish films of the 90s into the sphere of the pseudo-arty studio film. The Batman franchise has also become entangled in the realm of cinema lore. Heath Ledger’s tragic death in 2008, shortly after finishing filming The Dark Knight, saturated Nolan’s Batman with an aura of tragedy and permeated the film with a sense of disjointed temporality and obsession. Cinematic rubbernecking, if you will. The loss and tragedy of Ledger serendipitously tunneled alongside the increasingly sensationalised and depressing socio-political trajectory of the last two decades, effectively giving the franchise a bridge with ‘reality’ (although this ‘reality’ being one based solely on our perception of what reality is simulated to be, formed on the construction of ‘reality’ consumed through fictional media). The fictional world of Gotham became a metaphor for modern American metropolis; an alternative universe, imbued with a psychic tangibility that absorbed into our psyche like a coffee spill soaked into a napkin.

Growing up watching cartoons, I learned that there were good guys and bad guys and that the bad guys often wanted something. This thing - be it money, power, love - would satiate them and whether they achieved it or not, was an element in the plotline that would humanise the evil character, showing that they could ultimately be redeemed. Ledger’s tyrannical and harrowing depiction of the Joker fulfills the classic villain role whilst violently veering away from the traditional narrative that a villain can be appeased. When I think of Ledger’s Joker, I think of the line that Michael Caine’s Alfred says to Batman in the film: “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Inspired by artwork of Francis Bacon and Alex in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Ledger’s anarchistic Joker birthed a villain that, although theatrical and cartoonish, is potently imbued with the chaotic energy of a very modern psychopath. His character is the reactionary product to a world where there isn’t a beginning, middle and ending; no origin story, redemption arc and/or resolution. In post-9/11 2000’s America, all villains are terrorists. In a world of the decaying nuclear family, underfunded welfare systems and lack of faith (moral or religious), there isn’t much to encourage redemption.

Watching any of Nolan’s Batman trilogy, the films contain echoes of dark overtones that would come to dominate the later vision, however Batman himself remains very much emblematic of a comic book hero. Christian Bale’s Batman upheld the illusory narrative of a millionaire playboy who could (almost) seamlessly slip between the worlds of glamorous socialite and caped crusader, with souped up cars, cool gadgets, and a visible public life as a playboy philanthropist (somewhat disturbingly adjacent to his infamous portrayal of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho). In 2022, Rob Pattinson’s Batman is firmly rooted in a sullen and rarely sexy underworld of a city on the brink of collapse, wading chest deep in organised crime, poverty and corruption. He is shrouded in gloom, trapped in a cage of self-loathing and all-consuming obsession.

Pattinson’s Batman reminds me of Jeremy Strong’s Kendall Roy in Succession. As Louis Staples writes in his (reductive but pointed) essay Why men will never give up on Batman, a dominating element of Batman's allure is that he is essentially a normal guy who possesses the real superpowers of the modern age: “wealth, masculinity and celebrity status”. Pattinson’s Batman and Strong’s Kendall have inherited insurmountable wealth but are crippled by their loneliness, lack of interpersonal relations and are emotionally devoid and disconnected from the real world. Both characters exhibit glimmers of self awareness; Batman with his acknowledgement that he may just be making Gotham’s crime worse and Kendall with his pathetic but somehow endearing attempts at wokeness. These somewhat tragic leading men show us that even with money, fame and power, a fragile male ego and desire for validation and attention will always overpower good intentions, resulting in martyr-like actions being centered on attaining personal acclaim. No good deed goes unpunished.

The eerie and slippery dichotomy of the wealthy trust fund baby burdened with irrevocable existential suffering is confronted in The Batman through the film’s villain. Paul Dano’s Riddler is a quasi-incel whose mysterious identity relies as much on a use of dark-internet and social media to carry out his crimes as it does his opaque identity and Zodiac-like encrypted murders. Josephine Armistead’s essay ‘The Silicon Ideology’ offers a genealogy of the alt-right that highlights a relationship between Neo-reactionary politics and the fictional worlds of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986). Heralding the Dark Age of Comic Books, Miller’s misogynistic and right-wing leaning comic is emblematic of the role that seemingly innocuous media, such as V for Vendetta or The Matrix, ends up playing in substantiating the belief systems and imagery of NRx-ers. The aforementioned works are, like The Batman, powerfully depressing and overwhelming in their nihilism, seeming to bring to the surface an illusion of life’s apparent futility.

However, The Batman’s Riddler cleverly embraces the inherent danger of prescribing a character rooted in reflecting (and thereby acknowledging) NRx culture. Firstly, instead of being framed as some sort of freak living in his mum’s basement, Riddler is powerful - especially in the penultimate scene when the white male followers he has gained through dark web chatrooms come close to murdering Batman, Catwoman and hundreds of civilians. The harrowing power underlying the rise of NRx and incel-adjacent societal inflammation is acknowledged as opposed to being ridiculed. Secondly, Riddler openly displays his admiration for Batman. He tells him directly of the affinity he feels with him, as an outcast and orphan. The Batman succinctly interweaves the mission of the suffering millionaire with the demented everyman who sits behind his computer all day - both lonely, lost and perceive themselves to be without a place of belonging in modern society as it moves from cis-gender patriarchal leanings to one of perceived liberality and empowerment.

Source: Polygon

The modern comic book hero cannot be one that heralds free will and the hyper-individualised self. We do not need to see millionaires running around in disguises, displaying their privilege and need for an ego-boost through “taking matters into their own hands”, especially when those matters are usually dealt with by beating the shit out of someone. The modern comic book blockbuster needs to be aware of the damage that media representation plays in establishing and reinforcing narratives that uphold violence within the fringes of society. The Batman, depressing and lengthy as it may be, at least seems to get that right. We need films that intentionally display the tricky nature of being motivated by convoluted morality in a world where bureaucracy and systemic oppression obfuscates it.

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