Will The Batman Force Marvel Into Changing for the Better? I Hope So

IMAGE Warner Bros.

Superhero films have dominated cinema for over a decade. You can rock up to an Odeon at any given time, safe in the knowledge that you’ll be able to chug an Ice Blast and watch an actor called Chris save the world with his massive arms. That’s comforting, in a way. Reliable, like a morning ritual or a Tesco meal deal. Outside of their die-hard fan bases, though, audiences are becoming bored – and more openly critical – of Marvel monoculture.

It's common knowledge at this point that superhero franchises start filming their CGI scenes years in advance – sometimes before casting – and then construct the rest of the production around them. Marvel’s fight scenes are disconnected and choppy, cutting to a different frame every second; an arm pulling back to throw a punch one second, a close-up of their fist hitting someone’s jaw the next, while DC tends to go for color grading so dark that it absorbs half of the detail. The dialogue is typically front-loaded with clinical or obvious detail about what’s going on, peppered with WWE-type trash talk and comedic one-liners. None of this is to say they’re bad films – at the very least, you know what you’re getting: 120 minutes of well-made, popcorn-friendly action – but the more they’re churned out, the more formulaic and dispassionate they feel. And when they make up the majority of what’s on in cinemas, it inevitably narrows the parameters of pop culture.

Famously, Martin Scorsese said as much in a 2019 interview with Empire, when he compared the MCU franchise to a theme park. After some backlash, he clarified the point in an op-ed for The New York Times: "For me [...] cinema was about revelation – aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation,” he writes. “It was about characters – the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves."

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Obviously you could argue that this is true of films like The Avengers, just as you could argue that some of Hitchcock’s classics could equally be described as “theme parks”, but it’s overwhelmingly the case that superhero films prioritise special effects and soundtracks that heavily feature that noise that goes ‘BWOOOOOOOM’ over emotional substance or aesthetics. Lately, though, we’ve started to see a change. Perhaps Scorsese’s comments shamed big studios into taking more risks, perhaps audiences are showing a greater demand for range (it’s significant that independent companies like A24 have risen to prominence as this exhaustion sets in) – but it feels like we might be hitting a turning point for superhero films. The conversation around them is often reduced to blanket statements arguing the case for them being ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but the third – and more interesting – option is to push the envelope of what they could be.

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Over the last few years, there have been several examples of superhero films becoming more ambitious and experimental. The first was 2018’s Into the Spider-Verse – a genuinely innovative and moving film completely unlike any other take on Spider-Man or modern animated blockbuster. Last year's The Suicide Squad was also a deviation from the DC norm, following their usual pace and format but making room for more character depth and using the budget to push the boat out on visuals (see: Margot Robbie diving into an alien eye full of rats). And, most recently, we have Matt Reeves’ much anticipated The Batman.

For all intents and purposes, The Batman is a cult film smuggled to a global audience under a blockbuster name. From the costume design (the 2022 Batsuit features blood stains, bullet marks and general wear and tear) to the choice of soundtrack (an orchestral remake of Nirvana’s “Something In The Way”) to the way Reeves and members of the cast have spoken about it, it’s an intentional subversion of Batman’s traditionally aloof heroism. Robert Pattinson, never one to play a “normal” character, has described his interpretation of Bruce Wayne as a guy who has no idea who he is and no reason to live. Far from assuming a heroic identity as a force for good ‘by night’, the identity is a crutch of his own, a way of coping with life following the death of his parents.

As far as origin stories go, Todd Phillips’ The Joker took much the same approach, though it pulled The Joker out of the comic book universe and into the realm of psychological thriller. While several films have been dedicated to the villain origin story, very rarely do we get into the psychology of the hero beyond 'something sad happened to them in childhood'. This interrogation of vigilante heroism, in many ways just as worrying as villainy (that “one bad day away…” sentiment has been written into the arc of The Joker from day one for a reason), is a welcome shift in gears.

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Obviously the DC universe has always been dark – visually and emotionally – but the way The Batman is packaged has more in common with 90s cult staples like The Matrix, Fight Club or The Crow than it does a modern superhero film. Judging by what we've heard so far, it looks to steer the narrative away from objective good vs objective evil, and into something more vulnerable and nuanced. Something that, as Scorsese would put it, explores the complexity of human nature. Regardless of whether The Batman matches expectation, that's a welcome shift. If superhero films are set to continue their domination of the box office, their future is in the details.

FromEsquire UK

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