The Batman commodity

The other night when I saw Cyrano at my local Scarborough CINEPLEX, I made it a double feature, because they had only one showing that was to begin at 10:45 p.m. I filled the time before Cyrano watching The Batman, latest incarnation of the comic book hero.

Size matters, we’re told.

I had the option to watch it in IMAX, meaning a big beautiful image and sound to match. I inserted balled-up Kleenex into my ears, a trick I learned from a music critic back in the 1970s, at an Elvis Costello concert, while standing at the urinals. When I recall Peter Townsend and other musicians who have had their hearing damaged by music, I insert the Kleenex without hesitation.

And writing days later I can say that my ears survived the ordeal.

I think I’ve seen every previous Batman film. I remember them more by thinking of the directors as much as the person playing the title character.

Director Tim Burton is the emphatic creator of the modern obsession with comic book superheroes and villains, beginning with Batman (1989), and a sequel Batman Returns(1992). Although Danny Elfman scored both, I think of the first as much via Prince’s songs as in its score. The second film is even more extremely quirky, which translates onto the screen as something operatic. The clearest examples are in the endings for the villains. First there is the grotesque ritual Elfman and Burton give The Penguin…

And here’s the whimsical cat-music Elfman gave Catwoman.

For Batman Forever (1995) Burton stepped into a different role, as producer alongside the director Joel Schumacher. I wish I knew the truth about the dynamics behind the scenes, but I felt that commercial pressures were tampering with the artistic impulses we’d seen from Burton, with the result drifting away from art, pulled back to the original two-dimensional quality of a cartoon. Schumacher’s next opus Batman & Robin (1997) went further in that direction, which is to say, lots of action but nothing I would call art.

I find it pretty hard to watch.

After a break of nearly a decade the franchise was reborn in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) taking Burton’s gothic vision into even darker realms, and not mitigated or relieved by much in the way of art or beauty. Given the way Nolan harnesses suspense & horror to hold our attention, it should be no surprise where we end up in 2022.

Even without IMAX The Batman (2022) is a loud nasty film. As I watched the last hour I wondered if the producers had decided to pay writer / director Matt Reeves by the body-count; how many dollars is each death worth, I wonder. I say this as someone who has been triggered by the news over the past few weeks, as someone with family in Eastern Europe. If you’re likely to be sensitive don’t see this film. It pushes several of my buttons, both in its violence and the echoes of recent news events such as the suggestion of the January 6th DC insurrection. I don’t think this is a spoiler, not when the film should carry a disclaimer at the beginning for the faint-hearted.

It’s a well-made commercial product.

I am reminded of the course I used to teach on the most popular operas, when we would ponder the meaning of “popularity”. I recall something simple yet profound in the documentary Zappa that came out at the end of 2020. Zappa said “This is the dawning of the dark ages again. Never have the arts been in such bad shape in the United States… The business of music is all about this fake list of who sold what. The whole idea of selling large numbers of items in order to determine quality is what’s really repulsive about it”. Commercial pressure is also the difference between the artist starving in the attic or finding success. I believe that pressure is what led from the fascinating films of Tim Burton to the more commercial mediocrities we got from Schumacher. Nolan commercialized is Matt Reeves, every film delivering more explosions and jolts to your nervous system.

Perhaps this time the product will continue to make the studios money, without falling down the way Schumacher’s films did. Is the solution louder explosions and a bigger body-count?

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