It is July, 1989, and I am watching a Batman film. It is his second year in Gotham City and his presence has led to the creation of a deranged supervillain who seems preternaturally good at elaborate death traps and manipulating the local media. Over the course of the film, Batman realizes he cannot be a mere symbol of vengeance. Intentionally or not, this will only create space for bad-faith imitators to act out their own bloody-minded vendettas. The Batman must instead become a symbol of hope to his depressed, and depressing, city – a symbol of protection, watching over those who still call Gotham home, in spite of all its horrors. A symbol telling all and sundry that someone, at least, still cares about justice. Watching this will lead me to a life-long love of superhero comic books, which in turn will lead me, inexorably, here.
It is July, 2008, and I am watching a Batman film. It is his second year in Gotham City and his presence has led to the creation of a deranged supervillain who seems preternaturally good at elaborate death traps and manipulating the local media. Over the course of the film, Batman realizes he cannot be a mere symbol of vengeance. Intentionally or not, this will only create space for bad-faith imitators to act out their own bloody-minded vendettas. The Batman must instead become a symbol of hope to his depressed, and depressing, city – a symbol of protection, watching over those who still call Gotham home, in spite of all its horrors. A symbol telling all and sundry that someone, at least, still cares about justice. By now I have read Batman: The Long Halloween, the 1996 thirteen issue limited series by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, and I can see the bones of Long Halloween sticking through The Dark Knight‘s flesh, as I will see the bones of Knightfall and No Mans Land on screen, four years later, sticking through the flesh of Dark Knight Rises.
It is April, 2022, and I am watching a Batman film. It is his second year in Gotham City and his presence has led to the creation of a deranged supervillain who seems preternaturally good at elaborate death traps and manipulating the local media. Over the course of the film, Batman realizes he cannot be a mere symbol of vengeance. Intentionally or not, this will only create space for bad-faith imitators to act out their own bloody-minded vendettas. The Batman must instead become a symbol of hope to his depressed, and depressing, city – a symbol of protection, watching over those who still call Gotham home, in spite of all its horrors. A symbol telling all and sundry that someone, at least, still cares about justice. By now I’ve seen the two-film, direct-to-Wal-Mart-and.or-Target animated adaptation of The Long Halloween, released in June and July of 2021, originally meant to coincide with the theatrical release of the unhelpfully-titled The Batman. I can see the bones of Long Halloween, along with many other things, sticking through this film’s flesh. “Well,” I say to an empty house “if you want to watch the last two Christopher Nolan movies in three hours instead of five, here you go.”
In 1986, DC Comics pressed their Cosmic Reset Button for the first time with the Crisis on Infinite Earths. Afterward, the writers, artists and editors of the monthly Batman titles figured, “Okay – new continuity, new origin stories for everybody.” So in 1987 they published Batman: Year One, Year Two & Year Three. Year One is a fondly remembered classic about the formation of Batman’s bromance with Lt. James Gordon, GCPD, as they unite to fight the old Gotham mob families. As such, it’s been the implicit or explicit foundation of many a Bat-continuity since. Year Three got adapted into a very good episode of Batman: The Animated Series called “Robin’s Reckoning” in 1993. The same year the bones of Year Two built the best Batman movie ever made, still, to this day: Mask of the Phantasm.
Other than that, no one wants to remember Year Two, since it depicts Batman violating several of the rules comic book nerds consider sacred to his character. Like losing physical fights, using guns offensively, and contemplating giving up the mask for the a hottie we’d never heard of before or since, named Rachel. Even we who love Mask of the Phantasm have to remind each other how much it owes to Year Two, despite that being pretty much the same amount Batman Begins owes to Year One, or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice owes to Dark Knight Returns.
Enter The Long Halloween, published in 1996. A thirteen issue version of Year Two that actually dealt with the transformation of Gotham’s underworld from a perpetual mob movie into the costumed psycho playground we all know and love. Aided, abetted, and physically embodied by the person Bats and Gordon bring on as the third member of their polycule: District Attorney Harvey Dent. Who becomes Two-Face by the end. Sound familiar? It should.
I never actually reviewed Nolan’s Dark Knight because I didn’t want to wade into the Batman discourse of 2008-12. All I really had to offer, that hadn’t been said a million times before, was this incredibly cold take: The Dark Knight is just Long Halloween without the villains Christopher Nolan couldn’t figure out how to do. Which turned out to be all of them except Scarecrow, Joker, and Two-Face.
Regardless, Dark Knight‘s also the last Batman movie people can pretend was universally beloved, even though it wasn’t. All the haters’ voices were drowned out and their YouTube channels are all dead letters by now. So the executives at the WB – facing a DC movie universe they themselves have turned into a shambles – must’ve figured, why not do the last successful thing we did again? Only without Harvey? And swapping Joker for the Riddler? That way only the most annoying pedants – people who care about “themes” and “subtext” and other things for eight grade book reports – will say “You’re just doing Dark Knight and Rises again! We have Dark Knight and Rises at home, you damn rip-off artists”
Whenever I finish one of these movies, one of my favorite rituals is to seek out the biggest haters on my timeline and hear what they have to say. Having now heard a non-zero amount of snobs, hacks and frustrated independent filmmakers fail to find new ways to say, “This movie rips-off Se7en!” I plan to write my Congresscritters with a new legislative proposal. Be it resolved that henceforth, all self-serious cinephiles, cinests and cine-eaters shall keep no less than one (1) actual reader of comic books on retainer. It will keep you all from repeating yourselves as much. And you might come up with a criticism that actually sinks its teeth into what you’re biting.
For example, instead of saying “This movie rips-off Se7en!” someone whose actually wasted his time doing the reading might say, “This movie rips off Long Halloween poorly, rushes through Catwoman: When in Rome without even going to Rome, finally finds its own spin on an idea in its third hour, drops that for an action scene, and then sprinkles a little Aftershock on top at the end. Reading all those books in one sitting (not that you should) would take about as much time as watching this and would be better for your brain.” You think you’ve seen every scene in a Batman movie an annoying amount of times? Try reading this shit for thirty years and then watch the Gotham show – which pissed a lot of us off by trying to be Year Two and Year Zero at the same time.
Sorry. Every time a new movie’s coming out, Batman discourse gets as toxic as the chemicals that make Jokers, and I am not immune. But still, this feels like watching a Batman highlight’s reel. Oh, here’s the scene where a supervillain kills the mayor, destabilizing Gotham’s political machine. And here’s the scene where he kills the police commissioner, destabilizing its corrupt police force & opening space for Gordon’s eventual ascension. Here’s the scene where Batman and Catwoman flirt/fight. Here’s the scene where Batman fails to figure out a clue until its too late. Here’s the obligatory car chase, with no Superman to stop it this time. Here’s the scene where Batman confronts the villain in jail, only to be horrified to find out the villain’s a fanboy. Here’s the scene where Bruce Wayne talks to Carmine Falcone and uncritically accepts whatever he says, like that’s a good idea. It’s getting so you can even trust the word of Gotham’s Godfather no more! What’s this stinkin’ city coming to?
And here’s the scene that tries to cast dispersions on Thomas and Martha Wayne. This is the one relatively new wrinkle in live-action Bat-films…unless you’ve read 2011’s Flashpoint. Then this, too, is already old hat. But as the foundation stone of a new Bat-continuity, this movie doesn’t have the courage to go as hard as its soundtrack wants to, so it has to immediately walk that shit back via Alfred. At least Joker had the guts to leave its dispersions of Thomas Wayne hanging, their truth forever unknowable thanks to his and Martha’s death. But that might make people, including The Batman, uncomfortable. So here’s Alfred – Batman’s true daddy – to say what the rest of us have been yelling at the screen: “You don’t actually believe Carmine Falcone, do you? God, you’re a punk. A rank amateur. A costumed errand boy taking orders from Kurt Cobain’s ghost. Something in the way, indeed.” Okay, he doesn’t say all that, but you get the gist.
The use of Nirvana in the trailer and twice in the film is instructive, because modern Batman is suffering from the same malaise that killed rock music in general, and Kurt Cobain in particular. This post-Crisis Batman of the mid-80s rose to prominence as a reaction against, and an alternative to, the broadly satirical Batman of the 60s and the Scooby-Doo-and-Superfriends Batman of the 70s. But much like “alternative” or “independent” rock, to quote the Kurt Cobain of Dirtbag Leftist music and cultural criticism, Mark Fisher, in his book Capitalist Realism, modern Batman movies can now only “endlessly repeat older gestures of rebellion and contestation as if for the first time. Alternative and independent don’t designate something outside mainstream culture, rather they are styles – in fact, the dominate style – within the mainstream.” Much like this neo-noir vision of Batman has been the dominate style of Batman within the mainstream since 1989.
Fisher continues: “Cobain knew that he was just another piece of spectacle – that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV – knew that his every move was a cliché scripted in advance. Knew that even realizing it is a cliché…Like postmodern culture in general, Cobain found himself in a world where stylistic innovation is no longer possible, where all that was left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the mask and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum. Here, even success meant failure, since to succeed would only mean you were the new meat on which the system could feed. But the high existential angst of Nirvana and Cobain belongs to an older moment. What succeeded them was a pastiche rock which reproduced the forms of the past without anxiety.” And that’s this Batman in a nutshell – the form of past Batmen, reproduced without anxiety.
Of course, Zack Snyder et. al. tried to stylistically innovate by giving us a Batman who’d aged with us in real time – a Batman who’d been alone for twenty years, as his movies had been the lone standard-bearers of DC comics at the theaters (as long as you don’t count Shaq’s Steel or Halle Berry’s Catwoman, or Ryan Reynold’s Green Lantern, which you shouldn’t). A Batman warped by these twenty years of peer-less social isolation, into a shape that could only be straightened out again by a Man of Steel and a Woman with a pair of Brass Balls. A Batman who matured, over the course of two films, into a symbol of faith in humanity and a hope for a brighter future, not just in spite of, but because he is still haunted by apocalyptic nightmares.
But why continue that character arc when you can just remake it? It one film? With an actor you haven’t knocked off the wagon yet and a director who doesn’t have a toxic, internet-based Anti-Fandom? Not that I blame anyone involved. They’re all fine. Some, like John Turturro’s Carmine, are clearly phoning their “fine” in, while others like Andy Serkis’ Alfred and Collin Ferrell’s Penguin, were fine enough to leave me wanting more. I can’t wait until Jeffery Wright’s Gordon meets the rest of the GCPD cast, or whatever pretty boy they wind up casting as Harvey Dent. And this may be, purely by default, the best live-action Catwoman movie to date, both because Zoe Kravitz is perfect for the role and because Catwoman’s role is expanded to something comparable to her role in modern comics. No longer the mere villainous love interest, here she is elevated to full partner in Bat’s war on crime, without the need Rises felt to gesture towards her villainous past. No Sudden But Inevitable Betrayals here, only sincere arguments between the Batman’s virtue ethics and the Catwoman’s utilitarian survivalism. The inciting incident that actually draws Bats into this case is not Riddler’s murder of the mayor, but the corrupt Gotham Establishment’s murder of the dead mayor’s mistress, who also happens to be Catwoman’s roommate. A murder Batman could’ve prevented if he’d stayed on surveillance detail, rather than let his dick think for him and follow the hot motorcycle-riding cat-burgler.
It’s not the fact this Batman’s young, dumb and full of cum that I object to, it’s the fact this movie pretends this is some revolutionary new story, rather than the default mode of Bat-movies since 2005. A friend of mine gave this movie a 2 out of 4, which is perfect, because this really is half a movie. Might be odd to call something so long “half a movie,” but that’s because it’s a perfectly serviceable, inoffensive, middle-of-the-road movie that takes no chances until the last hour. And even then, it’s only major innovation is to move past Dark Knight‘s ending and do a twenty-minute version of Rises, right down to Bats and Cats saving each other during the climactic battle. People seem to like that. And why wouldn’t they? It’s familiar. Comforting. Exactly what you’d expect. I can now see a future where, much like Spider-Man, we get one of these every two-or-so years until we die. And that’s a grimer, darker future than anything in any Gotham…except maybe Batman Beyond.
But we’re all living in Batman Beyond‘s world now anyway. A fact even this film acknowledges by opening on one of Beyond‘s best ideas: street gangs of dispirited urban youths copying the Joker’s aesthetic. In this Gotham, it’s only taken one year to happen, instead of fifty or sixty, but that just reflects the acceleration of everything evil in our own dimension. Riddler’s small army of I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-4Chan followers do a similar copy-paste job with his aesthetic when they go offline for the climactic battle.
Some bemoan this as silly and stupid (even as they, with the other side of their mouths, wish Adam West would return from the grave to reclaim the role that made him famous), but I’m fine with it. It’s totally in line with my one-and-only-decent critical thesis: that villainy is far more alluring to modern America than heroism. That in a shithole country such as ours, far too many people have made the calm, informed, and unfortunately rational decision that it’s better to be a monster than monster’s victim, since those are the only two choices on offer for us non-billionares. Even Bruce Wayne, the one Good Billionaire, made a similar choice when he decided to be a giant bat.
What I’m not fine with is the fact this movie’s answer to that problem is far more pat and cliched than a twenty-three-year-old literal Saturday morning cartoon’s. Yes, it says, all the civic institutions of society are hopelessly corrupted and broken, their radioactive decay throwing off monsters the same way plutonium throws off neutrons and gamma rays. But don’t become disillusioned with those institutions, oh no – you have to double down on them and trust them even harder. This time, the surviving mayoral candidate says in what little of her campaign rhetoric we see, the union of Good Politicians, Good Civil Servants, and the one Good Billionaire in town will totally save us. We promise. As if the joke-that’s-not-a-joke, “Another villain made possible by a grant from the Wayne Foundation,” isn’t also almost thirty years old.
And so it goes. Another “meh, it’s alright” superhero film brought to you by the WB. And so it will continue to go, forever…unless they restore the Snyderverse.