There is a gag from The Simpsons episode ‘Mr Plow’ that I’ve always adored, even before I fully understood what it was about: Homer, Bart, and Lisa run into Adam West, the ‘real’ Batman, at a car show. Bart and Lisa are nonplussed, only being familiar with the ‘new’ (Tim Burton) Batman movies, to the chagrin of West, who asks: ‘how come Batman doesn’t dance any more?’ then proceeds to dance ‘the batusi’ to the shock and horror of the kids and Homer alike, who backs them away, saying ‘just keep moving, don’t make eye contact’.
It’s a great goof, but not one I ever thought I’d sincerely empathise with. But, while watching Matt Reeves’ grimdark neo-noir take on the caped crusader, The Batman, my inner child whispered up at me:
How come Batman doesn’t dance anymore?
I grew up at an interesting time for Batman, the brand. Born in 1990, I arrived into a world struck by a new strain of Batmania, one spurred on by Tim Burton’s radical interpretation of the character in his 1989 and 1992 films, respectively. On the back of that came Batman: The Animated Series, Bruce Timm’s genius synthesis of the old and the new Batman, and his various comic book, TV and film incarnations (this remains, to me, the purest representation of the character in any medium). Joel Schumacher’s incredibly camp and cartoony Batman films hit me at the age of 5 and 7, were marketed hard to the snotty boy demographic, and had my hero Jim Carey and my fav, Arnie, in them—I still remember my dad taking me to see Batman & Robin at Hoyts Queensgate (RIP) in Fremantle and absolutely losing it when Arnie gurgled: ‘what killed the dinosaurs? THE ICE AGE!’ before blasting his ice laser as Dr. Freeze.
This is cinema, I thought, this is art.
My young media devouring only-childhood was barraged with Batman merchandise, video games, costumes, and TV shows at all stages. I was never too into superheroes, other than the queer weirdos of The X-Men, and the big weirdo who’d always been there for me, Batman. When I was 14, I read Frank Miller’s seminal Dark Knight comics, the comics that forever dragged the character out of his colourful pop-art adventure romps and threw him into the cold hard world of contemporary geo-politics and gritty Reaganomic aestheticism. By the end of that year, Christopher Nolan would release the first film in his Dark Knight trilogy, Batman Begins, and Batman would be freed forever from the fife of geekdom, and relinquished to the world of the cool, the smart, and the serious.
As with 1997’s Batman & Robin, I vividly remember my first viewing of Batman Begins. I had rented it on DVD from the Video Ezy (RIP) around the corner from me not long before someone put a firebomb down it’s return chute. I remember watching Liam Neeson sternly barking at Christian Bale and thinking: wow…this kinda sucks!
I never came to love Nolan’s take on Batman. As much as I enjoyed Heath Ledger’s Joker (I am a Perth boy, my Ledger loyalty is mandatory) and the silliness of Tom Hardy’s Bane, I always found the films themselves somewhat lacking. It wasn’t so much Nolan’s gibberish plotting, or his neo-liberal politics (you love the surveillance state, we get it!), or Michael Caine’s hilariously on the nose Idiot’s Guide-style monologues to the movies’ themes, so much as it was this one niggling thought:
Isn’t Batman supposed to be…fun?
By the time the final film in the trilogy came out, I was almost 18. What struck me at the time was how thoroughly these films were for me: a young adult so thoroughly a product of a post 9/11 world that I almost couldn’t remember a time when collapsing skyscrapers weren’t a key set-piece in a Hollywood blockbuster. It struck me again that Batman himself seemed to have been tailored to me my entire life: that his various post-Burton incarnations had struck just the right tone and style when I was just the right age, that they had been marketed at me as something for young kids, then something for tweens, then something for moody brooding teenagers.
Now, by the time of Dark Knight I had spent a brief time working in a comic book store, and had witnessed firsthand the mind rot that comes with projecting yourself onto comic book characters (whenever someone came in wearing a Deadpool shirt, I’d hide outback) or thinking you could relate to them in any tangible way. That said, it did feel like Batman was being dragged with me out of boyhood, and thrown violently into a world that demanded that I take It and Him incredibly seriously, lest I remain a little Jim Carey’s Riddler-loving baby forever.
In the interim years between then and now, superhero content has come to dominate everything. But, having done my best to avoid most of it, my only experiences with the Bat in this time were the brilliant Arkham games (Hammill = best Joker [sorry Heath!]), the so-so Lego Batman, and Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman and Justice League ft. Ben Affleck’s family-court dad Batman, which I watched while held hostage by a 30 hour international flight, and which are two of the better Hollywood comedies this past decade, truth be told.
Such was the limits of my Batman consumption prior to attending the Perth premiere Matt Reeves’ The Batman.
If you couldn’t tell from its almost three hour runtime, Reeves’s Batman takes itself very very seriously. A mix of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure, Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low, Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (and The Departed), Fincher’s Zodiac, Villeneuve’s Prisoners, and of course Nolan’s trilogy, The Batman sets out to deliver on the promise of a Batman purely by and for big boys. Its violence is grungy and stark (if M15+ safe), its soundtrack is as a doggedly moody as a 14yo goth kid’s soundcloud page, and it has taken the modern blockbuster’s dislike for any semblance of colour to an extreme degree, draining itself of all of it except for the odd neon-red of a flashing sign.
The cast, particularly Dano’s Riddler and Kravitz’s Cat Woman, are all brilliantly suited to their roles, and Pattinson haters will hopefully be forced to accept the fact that the man can do a brilliant distillation of the sad-boy energy that are innate to the conceit of the character, and that his Ambien haze delivery works within the film’s imposing Zoloft withdrawal vibes.
The story is as hole ridden as Jason Todd’s blown up corpse (RIP), but it is as suitably sensible as an incredibly serious film about a man dressed like a Bat punching a man called ‘The Penguin’ can probably be.
All these elements swirl around The Batman in a way that’s both exciting and appealing and yet none of them manage to converge in a way that is, in the end, very good. Rarely in a film I dislike can I point to any one thing and with certainty lay the blame at its feet but with The Batman, it’s faults are all Reeves’.
Having slogged through his similarly dour Planet of the Apes films, I’m aware that Reeves is a man that has the sense of humour of someone shovelling irradiated cement dust at Chernobyl, but I think that lack of mirth speaks to his incredibly technical weaknesses: the man has no sense of timing.
The Batman, length aside, is an oddly paced beast. Scenes stutter and drag for no good reason, as we are left to wonder why it is Reeves has chosen to make cinema his medium if he does not seem to grasp, or appreciate, the very basic magic of its storytelling capabilities. I felt the low hum dread start up inside me within the first five minutes of the film, as we are made to watch a character watch a news story about himself deliver some vital context and exposition. Not an uncommon trope, if rarely an interesting one. But here, it seems to go on for an interminable length. The scene has its reasons for lending this TV viewing moment a certain level of fly on the wall banality, but as the film moves on to do this exact thing beat for beat (I really want you to think in terms of rhythm here, or lack there of) over and over you’re left thinking that it’s more because Reeves’ doesn’t know how else to communicate what is happening and why other than through these borderline hilariously tedious info dumps.
Alfred, here played by Andy Serkis (I must say I liked Jeremy Irons’ GILF Alfred, maybe too much) is used in a similar way to Michael Caine’s in the Nolan films: all but staring down the camera as he, at length, spins the movies none-to-subtle subtext into literal text for the benefit of those left behind by the screenplay’s blunt force trauma approach to dialogue.
Still, I told myself that all of this can be discarded by the fact that I’m really just here to see Batman scowl and knock heads together, but there is something in the base level filmic grammar of Reeves’ directing that continuously distracted me throughout. I am usually inclined to find such choices more interesting than frustrating, but combined with the film’s looming self-seriousness and it’s reverberating insistence that it is cinema, the way it lingered where it needn’t and rushed through where it could (and should) have allowed itself to breathe had the ironic side-effect of making this super serious superhero flick kinda comical.
Which brings me back to Batman’s and my parallel maturation. Again, I had the creeping feeling that this film was, in its way, for me, a 31 year old adult who leans geek.
Batman has spent the post-Miller/Moore years grappling with the fact that Batman himself is emotionally stunted. He is, in the modern parlance, a man-child. This has been the tension point for much of the character’s development and conflict in various arcs, iterations, and stories throughout my life time. Alan Moore, it could be argued, was the only one to underline this fact and use it as a mirror for Batman’s (then) ageing stans, who had, Moore posited, made the mistake that Batman the character and Batman the text was in someway, cool.
He isn’t, Moore concluded, and neither are you (note to reader: Moore is now a literal wizard!)
For that sacrilege, Moore would eventually be run out of DC like a public masturbator (no comment). But it feels as though that from Miller’s reimagining of Batman in the comics, and Nolan’s in the films, some grand force has conspired to hammer home the idea that Batman, who once danced the Batusi, is destined solely to be taken incredibly seriously, or else.
I say or else because we should all be aware of the rabid nature of the DCU’s stans. The Joker-fied toxicity of online nerd culture, which, let’s face it, is now the dominant culture in film, TV, and just about everywhere else, is a force that now shapes the films themselves, none more so than The Batman.
2019’s Joker took the maladjusted geek incel overlooked by an uncaring society and all but deified him. In The Batman, he is back in the shape of Dano’s Riddler, who streams his murders like certain mass shooters, replete with discord style live chat and acolyte like followers. This bitter, obsessive, maladjusted loser is given the requisite level of sympathy afforded to the modern comic book villain until Batman arrives to point out that he’s nothing more than a psycho and that he is, indeed, a total loser. Here, the Riddler, somewhat shocked, points out that he was just trying to be like Batman, who, to him, is the coolest guy there is. He is, it could be said, a Batman stan himself: the endpoint of fanatic geekdom.
Here, The Batman briefly suggests that they are both man-children, locked in an eternal struggle over their fundamental lameness. A poignant, if unoriginal, point for any Batman story to make. But Reeves pulls back in the final act, as he must, as many have before him, lest they turn Batman himself into a pillar of salt, concluding instead that Batman is, actually, a total badass. He is, at the end of the day, pretty darn cool. And here in lies the fundamental dilemma of the ‘who’s the man-child, really?’ struggle that has fuelled Batman for over three decades, the one that Alan Moore eventually walked away from, and Frank Miller leaned into: the man-child is you, the Batman fan. And what creator of a Batman text—in any medium—is not a Batman fan?
And so, the scab can never truly be picked, the bruise can barely be pushed. Batman’s maturity crisis can’t be satisfactorily interrogated because doing so would cause the whole house of cards, Jokers and all, to collapse—maturity can only be eternally edged, never realised, or else! If you drag true adulthood into this universe it will implode, keep it away before you realise that big sad truth at the heart of all superhero franchises, especially this one: Batman wasn’t growing up alongside you, he was stagnating with you, holding you still in a perpetual boyhood of your own keeping.
What’s the fix for this? What’s the fix for this stasis? Are we to live out our days like Nora Fries, frozen in place, or are we to let the past melt, and let boy wonders grow up?
Tell me, what moves, but only in circles, and sucks, but totally blows?
It is, perhaps, the one riddle that Batman, and more importantly, Hollywood, can never solve.
Until then, Batman will keep up his sad dance, and I’ll have no choice to back away, and not make eye contact.