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Here they come, the critics and the critical, the seriously and searingly opinionated, the boys that know better. They’ll try and tell you that you’re wrong, that your childhood memories of George Clooney as a viable protagonist are laughable. They’ll extoll about the importance of character arcs and aesthetics while brandishing invisible cabbages at you. Fools I call them. Apologise for nothing. The task of elevating a children’s adventure hero to the pinnacle of critical recognition is one designed to fail, and one which shows up habits of bed wetting on the part of its proponents. Take a walk with me and read why no person should openly criticise Batman & Robin perhaps the greatest film ever made in the history of superhero celluloid.
One of the common misconceptions of 2016 was that Batman V Superman was the bleakest film of the year. Not true. That film is nothing more than a mirror that reflects the self-hatred and confusion of the American popular consciousness. “Our heroes are dead!” the people cry. “Who will save us now?” The question comes on the back of a cynical popular discourse that has festered into an inherent distrust of any moral authority. We see that process devour its original logic and come full circle to embrace the original metanarrative of God as ruler of man. The audience has blind faith in a Superman as faithless as the people he protects. “We don’t deserve to be saved,” the people cry, “give us what we deserve!” I mean, it is very bleak, and Superman does get snuffed, but in that sacrifice (he’ll rise again mind you) there is, perhaps, a modicum of reticence. Bruce Wayne stands at the grave of Clark Kent and thinks “Maybe I’m the dick here.” It isn’t the type of self-reflexivity that’s going to usher in a new mode of masculine self-awareness but, like, we’re remaking boys adventure fiction form the 1940’s here so I’ll take what I can get.
Civil War on the other hand is a barrel of laughs. Until it’s revealed that your best friend has been harbouring the fugitive that killed your Mam (and knowledge of the same for the past eight franchise instalments) and he would rather behead you with his shield than try and come to any meaningful compromise between the two of you or admit any responsibility for your hurt feelings. Boys will be boys right!? How could the bleakest film of 2016 have Spider-Man in it? Amiright?!
For positive male role models in children’s adventure fiction please see: Stephen Universe and/or Avatar the Last Airbender.
Now a lot has been said about Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy (the first instalment of which unfortunately has the word “Batman” in the title) and I mean a lot. Superheroes as a subject are fast approaching the levels of ubiquitous encyclopaedic uselessness that football gained decades ago. Right now dozens of circles of men are repeating facts about studio rights, release dates, original publication histories in much the same way they do with titbits about “the beautiful game” (the nomenclature of which I’m not arsed looking up because football is boring. Don’t @ me.) Far be it for me to add to this deafening echoing of fragile egos but, like, fuck it I’m going to anyway. But it’s in the name of slicing through the faux seriousness that armchair cultural commentary (raises hand) brings to films which for all intents and purposes are made for children.
So Batman Begins. Nolan strips everything way back to the point that there’s barely any Batman in the film. Rather Batman is now a protagonist with feelings and motivations. Nice. Plausibility here is key. He can train with ninjas (which are real things from history). He can drive a tank developed by the private sector for the government (what can’t those guys do!) He can spray paint six hundred venetian masks and duct tape a blue tooth device into the ear of each one while Alfred vaguely cracks jokes in the background (what is Michael Caine even being paid to do here??) Batman is just a guy who has shit tonnes of cash, too much free time, and a crippling knot of unresolved grief that haunts his entire existence. That’s just a relatable guy. Good job Chris!
The real masterstroke comes when Nolan has to lean into the absurdity. In the 90s, Burton used aesthetics to augment the reality of the film; in a world made of the decaying, hybridised, gothic signifiers of the 1930s-1950s characters can be equally antiquated, ornate, and useless. They’re not going to stand out much more than the unnecessary sepulchres. Nolan’s got an entirely different ball game on his hands though. This is a streamlined narrative wound around the believability of the protagonist’s motivations. How do you get an audience to believe that someone actually would dress up as a bat and call themselves Batman? You don’t. You just distract them whenever it comes up.
Case in point. Bruce Wayne’s big reveal as Batman when he’s cruising through the docks picking off goons. Nolan establishes the sequence from the perspective of the henchmen. It’s all choppy cuts and moving cameras. Smoke and mirrors so we never see Batman, he sneaks up on the frame like he does the bad guys. Very clever, well done Christopher. At the penultimate moment Batman pulls Tom Wilkinson through the roof of his car and is like “My name is Batman. I’m actually doing this. This is actually a thing that I, Bruce Wayne who is being portrayed as a relatable heroic type, am going through with.” and then pulls away to some fucking homeless lad wearing Wayne’s old coat.
Jump back twenty minutes and you’ll remember that homeless man as Rade Šerbedžija, a recognisable enough face so that the audience doesn’t have to do too much heavy lifting later on, who accepts Bruce Wayne’s overcoat as he departs America to learn the ways of the criminal in Asia (problematic.) Rade is important here, perhaps even more important to the film than Alfred, he’s the payoff that Nolan uses to divert away from the absurdity of what Batman is, a man-child in tights. When Bruce finally admits what he’s up to the audience are like “Oh shit!” and before they can continue with “wait what?” Chris Nolan shoves Rade on screen asking “remember this guy?” and the audience are like “wait, do I?” while Hans Zimmer is demanding the horn section play louder and we’re moving onto the next scene.
It’s a fairly cynical bait and switch and continuing the cynicism most of the Marvel films picked up on the trick. Two of the Iron Man films are so uncomfortable with the notion of identifying Robert Downey Jr as a superhero that they roll credits immediately after the admission. That’s Iron Man and Iron Man 3 for anyone counting. I don’t know how Iron Man 2 ends. I’m not watching it again. You see it in Captain America, you see it in Man of Steel. I’ll tell you where you don’t see it. Wonder Woman. Slay queen. At best this type of unease is accepted as self-aware send up but really it’s just a smokescreen to hide the infantilization of culture catering to an uneasy populace who will eventually feel happy enough giving a reality television star access to the codes. Here are your childhood heroes packaged for your adult sensibilities. Sleep tight you guys.
Morgan Freeman doesn’t help. The bemused smile he wears when dealing with Bruce Wayne’s requests for military grade weaponry is the same affectation the audience are expected to adopt. A kind of wink-wink, nudge-nudge “I know what’s really going on here” mentality the British public adopted when they decided to take up looking for weapons of mass destruction as a pastime. If Morgan Freeman had any integrity he’d have pressed a semiautomatic firearm into Bruce’s hand and said “the real bad guys are in Afghanistan Bruce.” But here we are. A single film away from a shared cinematic universe helmed by Tom Cruise featuring a roster of “monsters” who’ll no doubt convince us, again, that it’s better the devil you know (vote for the centrists!).
So can we really separate Nolan’s Dark Knight from Snyder’s Batman V Superman? Yes. Of course we can. In a variety of ways. But I’m not here to do that. So no. No we cannot. Snyder’s exultant flagellation only becomes necessary after Nolan’s moral compromise. What a shower of bastards.
Harken back then to before all this codology and you’ll find that Batman was a grand old lad. A man who wore his fetishes on a finely sculpted rubber arse. Happily, there’s no time for plausibility in Batman & Robin. How did Mr Freeze (not Dr Freeze mind you, there’s no evidence going that the man was in possession of a post-doctoral degree) a supposed expert in cryogenics engineer his freezer-mobile to function as a rocket ship, or add jet powered wings to his freezer-suit? Who bloody well cares. A more pertinent question might be where did Mr Freeze acquire the accoutrement for his lair; his ice blue robe, the costumes for his ice-hockey themed henchmen, his polar bear slippers. Surely the World’s Greatest Detective would have been able to follow the receipts back to the unseasonal spike in sales of winter décor at every Harvey Norman in Gotham. This is not the film for these concerns.
Rather this is just a bit of a romp. It isn’t a good film, no. There’s plenty wrong with it, like the handy scene where Pamela Isley extemporises her nefarious agenda into a dictaphone because the writers haven’t managed to introduce her to any of the other characters or the apparent disparity in the resources which were invested in the script and the production (a tradition carried on by Batman V Superman). But the point here isn’t to convince anyone that Batman & Robin is a good film, or even a film worthy of conversation or critical attention. Apart from this article of course. The point is to say that all Batman films are equally ludicrous and that the ones which try to hide it the most are probably the most laughable of all. They, inadvertently, reveal the crisis of conscience which eat away at their core, which drive their pretentious politics. They are useful as reflections of the times and climate which produced them. But serious cinema? I don’t think so.
Batman & Robin ends with Batman (the superhero, not the apparently “relatable” protagonist) reaching a hand out to the bereft and frighteningly out of touch Victor Freeze and saying “Dude, chill.” lol. The film values compassion, the ability to reason with our enemies, and just not being a total dick about stuff. Batman is, actually heroic. Aspirational. He’s the better man. When the politics of the day begin to colour our popular fictions, when those heroes who offer escapism begin to excuse political compromise, those fictions become agents of that political force. They in essence become propaganda, not overtly applauding any political agenda, but justifying certain decision-making processes, helping to acclimatise an electorate. Remember the conclusion of the Dark Knight? How Batman suspends civil liberties to locate the terrorist? Sound familiar?
There is a lightness to Batman & Robin, a spaciousness achieved by not really having a story, or characters but also by an acceptance of the characters genre roots. There is no “reality” no attempt to make this a “serious” film. Rather it’s a yarn that revels in the possibilities the suspensions of reality allows. Ice-skates at the click of your ankles. Bat-credit-card. The “Ununited Nations”. Darkness should never be used as a synonym for reality. So I’ll keep my rubber nipples thank you very much.
You can keep your critical acclaim and your box office returns while you’re at it too. The so-called heroes who earned it aren’t worth the celluloid they’re projected from. I’ll keep my heroes as they should be, heroic, not morally compromised whine-bags.
Come at me with the poison kiss of your opinions and I’ll just whisper “rubber lips…”