Ah, superheroes. For many years my favourite superhero was the yellow spandex one from X-Men, even before Hugh Jackman put on that bodysuit.
It was also underpants-and-cape guy for a while, but it turns out I was just crushing on Christopher Reeve.
And then there’s Batman, the epitome of “not really a superhero but cosplays one because he’s rich and bored”.
Batman is a cop. Here’s a guy with so much money, Forbes Magazine puts his net worth at $6.9 billion (nice). Bruce Wayne does not have a superpower. Everything that drives Batman is Wayne’s desire to avenge his parents’ death at the hands of — if you grew up on Tim Burton’s version — the Joker. While that has some sort of artistic satisfaction to it which came probably came about because Jack Nicholson is older than Michael Keaton, the original backstory has him just upset with criminals in general.
He’s a cop. Instead of using his vast wealth and ample free time (Wayne is described as a playboy, a bon vivant), Bruce Wayne dresses as a bat and beats up bad guys at night.
Sure, he could have joined the Gotham City Police Department (I may be making that name up because despite all the research I’ve done for this essay, I couldn’t be bothered to fact check this), or contribute a small portion of his fortune to help reduce crime by investing in social services, drug rehabilitation, or even hiring ex-convicts in his organisation, but no. He’d sooner suffer from sleep deprivation and massive internal injuries, night after night. C’mon, my dude. Even Satan has a therapist!
The most interesting aspects of Batman are the people around him. The Joker is probably the most beloved “bad guy” in comic book history (though Roberto Rastapopoulos from Tintin might give him a run for his money). Other villains include The Penguin, played supremely well by Danny DeVito in that one movie I watched; Catwoman, who was portrayed fairly well as Michelle Pfeiffer in that same movie I watched, and less well by Halle Berry in the movie I missed but she was a better X-Person anyway; and the green one who isn’t the Joker but still likes jokes, I guess? Look, I’m not that invested in this stuff. Jim Carrey annoys me generally, and annoys Tommy Lee Jones especially.
On the side of “good” you have the head cop, Jim Gordon, who summons Batman with a big flashlight because there’s something wrong with the weather in Gotham and cellphones don’t work unless they’re a super creepy plot point involving a massive invasion of privacy. There’s also Batman’s not-at-all-gay-coded sidekick Robin, and we’ll stop there before exploring the unnerving “underage sidekick” thing. And of course skidmark-and-blood scrubber, Alfred Pennyworth, who has his own spin-off TV series. Even Batman’s help is white!
I get it. I do. I buy into the universe and the characters and the idea of good overcoming evil, especially given when Batman debuted (it was 1939, when the largest conflict in human history just got underway a few years after a failed insurrection, but I digress). However, I think America’s obsession with comic book superheroes has had a detrimental effect on their ability to exist in the real world. Comic books — and the movies that replace them — present evil characters as larger than life. The closest America has to an overtly evil-looking character is some dude who looks like a turtle, and even then it’s not that overt.
Because of this, Americans (and citizens of other countries — they’re all complicit) are missing the signs of true evil. Rights are being eroded. The so-called “previously disadvantaged” (read “Black”, “Queer”, “Disabled”, “Women”) are still disadvantaged. The amount of surveillance in the interest of “protection” is Orwellian. Police have overreach that should terrify you. Politicians and populists are leveraging nationalism bordering on fascism in the face of economic distress and a global pandemic. Fear is also a really good motivator to pass omnibus laws that seem to be solving the immediate problem, but hide deeper, insidious changes (cf. the PATRIOT Act). Power is concentrated into a global elite of rich white dudes.
Batman is the embodiment of this elitism. He’s literally a capitalist gone rogue. Batman is only a hero because of marketing. He is just a bored, rich, white, male vigilante. The very notion of the Justice League (or the Avengers, or the X-Men) is predicated on the notion that police departments are inadequate for whatever reason and must be aided by rich white dudes (and a couple of women for show). If we switch to the Marvel universe now, exactly how many problems involving the deaths of millions of people were directly caused by the actions of Tony Stark? Billionaires are good at exactly one thing: taking other people’s money from them and — directly or indirectly — causing a lot of them to die. The billionaires in superhero stories are complicit in the deaths of as much as half the entire planet’s population.
Which brings me to the point of this essay: the Snyder Cut. A few years ago, Zack Snyder had to leave the production of the JUSTICE LEAGUE movie because his kid died. There are no words to describe how awful that is, and therefore I understand if you don’t like what I say next. I’m on board with the context of why he left the production, why post-production was taken over by Ally Of The Week Who Is Really A Creep, Joss Whedon, and why his vision was never truly realized.
Depending on who you believe (the budgets and break-evens of movies are a well-guarded secret, and marketing is often the same as the cost of making the film), the Whedon version lost as much as $60 million on a break-even of $750 million. You have to take this with a pinch of salt because, as the literal plot of THE PRODUCERS tells us, productions are better when they take a loss, because you can write off the entire budget and not pay a dime in tax. Pinch of salt.
[Full disclosure: I have acted in a major Hollywood film.]
So back comes Snyder, who already has a bit of a reputation for “dark and gritty” movies featuring ultra-violence, bad lighting, and bad weather. It’s an artistic choice, and that’s OK. I once acted in a short film about a cult that mixes up its sacrificial virgin. Joss Whedon, for all his success at making things appear on the screen at 24 frames per second, is not dark and gritty (not counting his alleged creeper behaviour). So it was absolutely a strange choice for Warner Brothers to hand him the reins to this franchise picture, with a purported budget of three quarters of a billion dollars including marketing, and expect a billion dollar box office.
To his credit, Whedon and his three editors managed to tease out more than $650 million from a two-hour film. Which I guess is why Warner then gave Snyder another $70 million and four years to produce a four-hour version of the film. Maybe they hope it’ll do double the business? As an IT person we call this the sunk-cost fallacy. Give me that $70 million and I’ll make ten 2-hour movies.
In researching this section, I was surprised that SHOAH wasn’t the longest cinematic film on record. I was going to make the observation that a documentary film about one of the worst atrocities in human history (the Holocaust, if you’re not paying attention) deserves to be over nine hours long to appreciate the scale and depth of Hitler’s rise to power after a failed coup. If you haven’t watched it, you need to set aside a weekend (though given the horror it encompasses, perhaps four weekends) and watch it.
My point is, Snyder is well within his right to make a four-hour film if he thinks it tells a story. Where I think he’s falling short is in claiming that it is anything more than an ego trip. It might be exciting and revolutionary (Remember when 300 brought a completely new look to comic book films?), but I believe Jennifer Bisset and Sean Buckley when they write:
But the main difference between the streaming and the theatrical versions might just be the added violence and profanity, which scored the HBO Max version an R-rating.
An artistic choice to be ultra-violent and sweary is not revolutionary. It’s not original. It’s not new. Given American sensitivities, this is an artistic decision designed to shock people, and that’s boring. To then go and do it with a character who is less than the sum of his supporting cast, despite how good you think Ben Affleck is in the role, is a waste of another $70 million and four years of marketing.
Sometimes updating a thing to be dark, gritty and realistic removes the very thing — the soul if you like — that makes it relatable, especially if Creep of the Week already made $650 million from it. This is nothing more than a cynical money grab, like when TITANIC was re-released a year later.
Meanwhile I’ll look back fondly on hugely problematic Belgian comics featuring Asterix, Lucky Luke, and Tintin, understanding them in the context in which they were created and recognizing how we’ve progressed.