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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Friday, April 29, 2022

A Gothic Tomb for Meaning: The Batman

The Batman tries to find stark moral black and whites in a world of muddy greys. Why is the film's script so frightened of the ambiguity its cinematography creates?

I kind of hate the closing monologue in The Batman. The titular Batman explains the very important lesson he's learned during the movie: that just being "Vengeance" is not enough, that he has "to give people hope". After a terrorist attack that leaves the city flooded, he, like the new mayor, needs to "restore faith in institutions". There are many shots of Batman lifting people out of the ruins; there is a rising sun.

I turned to Sarah as we watched and blurted, "But this was *already in the movie!*"

See, not five minutes before we had gotten a sequence of Batman holding a flare up and leading a bunch of desperate survivors out of dark waters to higher ground. The contrast to the beginning of the film seemed pretty obvious: in his opening monologue, he announces himself as almost an avatar of shadow, an entity of fear that could be anywhere, anytime. Vengeance. Batman concludes the film embodying a light in the darkness. The symbolism is not what you'd call subtle, but it does make for some good shots which, I gotta stress, seem eminently readable without someone explaining them in voiceover.

If that wasn't enough, in the moments leading up to Batman, half-dead, diving off a platform into dark waters in order to rescue innocent survivors, we get a brief confrontation with one member of the (right wing I guess despite being motivated by the crushing poverty of Gotham?) terrorist copycat gang that's just flooded the city. Police lieutenant Gordon asks the unmasked anonymous villain who he is, and the villain cheerfully proclaims, "I'm Vengeance!" Get it? It's that thing that Batman says when he beats up some random gang members at the beginning of the movie! It's like poetry, it uh, it rhymes.

It's just--atypically for contemporary blockbusters--a reversal that dares to happen on screen, symbolically, rather than directly explicated to the audience. Maybe that's why they felt the need for a closing monologue that reiterated everything that was already on the screen: a lack of confidence in audiences' filmic literacy. Or maybe they just felt that the film had to close with a monologue due to it opening with one? They close with the same sad Nirvana song too, after all.

Well, they don't exactly close with that. They actually close with two more scenes, one which is eminently expendable and tedious, and one which is a genuinely poignant ending to the film. The first is The Riddler, the film's primary villain, being consoled by... gosh who could it be but the clown prince of crime, Da Joker Baby? 🙄 Yeah man. I get that these things are obligatory now but it just feels so pat and generic, like not even the filmmakers could work up the interest. Whatever. Consigning it to the dustbin of my analysis.

The LAST scene, though, woof. Batman meets with Catwoman at her mother's grave plaque, a small one on a wall among countless others. "You're leaving," he opens. She confirms his read on the situation, says she'll go upstate, and invites him to come with her, "knock off some CEO types". This moment strikes me as interesting because I read it in parallel to an earlier scene where Batman confronts the Riddler, who... revels in how much the two have achieved forever, having been under the misapprehension the entire time that they were allies (or was Batman under the misapprehension that they were enemies?). Just as the Riddler saw, in Batman's shadowy and nebulous symbolism, a kinship with his own revenge quest against the city, Catwoman too seems to see something radical, anarchic in Batman. Zoe Kravitz and Robert Pattinson play the scene well. Catwoman never really seems convinced, unlike the dogmatic Riddler, that Batman would actually come with her; Batman seems frankly a little lost, silent not because he's a grim stoic but because, in Pattinson's interpretation, he's an undersocialized traumatized weirdo. Catwoman radically calls into question the simplistic and moralistic view of the world that he clings to for support. Is there a hint of relief when he sees the Bat Symbol and Catwoman concludes, "You're already spoken for"?

And then there's one of my favorite sequences in the film. The two get on their cool motorcycles and proceed to have what I can only call a tentative, hesitant race down a road surrounded by an absolutely Bloodborne-ass set. Like, we're talking giant headstones absolutely crowded up to the very edge of the road. It's a great visual, these two weirdos who have turned their trauma into different but maybe not THAT different personas, almost racing each other, neither really trying to pull too far ahead to leave the other behind, at dusk, surrounded by an absolute necropolis, the massed fortifications of the dead. At a T in the road, Catwoman turns one way, and Batman another, though he watches her for a while in his rear view mirror, before turning to face back toward Gotham.

I think this scene encapsulates the deeper reason I find the closing monologue so frustrating. It's not just the redundancy, ultimately, but the insistence that the murky ambiguities of the film be resolved into a clear message. Imagine if the closing seven minutes of the film in between Batman leading survivors out of the dark waters and this final scene between him and Catwoman were just sliced straight out. What does that do to the film's themes?

Well, I think it actually carries them forward in a way the monologue seems afraid to. Batman in this film can hardly be described as cool; Kay of Kay and Skittles spends considerable time in their very solid analysis of the film's ideology talking about Batman as weird fuckup, the pointed way in which he does not appear and disappear as if by magic but trudges around exhaustedly everywhere, the way people have to keep explaining the plot to him. He's just a guy trying to make sense of the world and relying on a very black and white morality to parse everything, which gets him repeatedly into trouble. The film is weird and gothic, just a little bit absurd, full of dark humor, and many of Batman's "cool" moments are the result of sheer dumb luck that things happened to work out in his favor.

I feel like there's a movie in here where all the buzzwords of superhero media are revealed for the murky things they are, aesthetic voids into which an observer pours their own ideology. The issue isn't whether or not "vengeance" is bad and "hope" is good. "Renewal" isn't that far from "hope", after all, and the film transforms "renewal"--the name for Thomas Wayne's urban revitalization project that ultimately became an ongoing windfall for organized crime in the city--into a bitter curse, emblematic of the failures of the city leadership. These movies love it when a superhero is a "symbol" but they forget the core truth of semiotics: that a symbol and its signifier are linked arbitrarily, through convention, through construction.

Maybe it makes sense that Bruce ends the movie with his explanatory monologue. Bruce can't wrap his head around the arbitrary linkage of sign and signifier. His weird quest IS his parents' legacy, and the "criminal element" IS the force that killed his parents. When confronted with the possibility that Thomas Wayne was a huge piece of shit actually, his whole sense of identity threatens to collapse until Alfred can recuperate Thomas as a good man who "made a mistake". It feels really significant that the film never cuts to an "objective" account of Bruce's parents' deaths, or even ever provides solid evidence of any particular character's understanding of events. Carmine Falcone tells him that Maroni, jealous of Falcone's influence over the Waynes, killed him. Alfred tells him Falcone had them killed to silence them, a story that, I have to say, feels a lot more shaky and colored by sentiment than Falcone's. Even Alfred concedes that the death might ultimately have been a random fluke. The film, to its credit, seems comfortable sitting in that ambiguity. Bruce is not. I don't see the fact that the film quickly diverts attention away from Thomas's moral failures as a structural flaw but a reflection of Bruce's own need to return to a structured understanding of the world that will give him meaning and direction.

With this perspective in mind, and the monologue (and dumb sequel hook nonsense) excised, the climactic scenes feel like a mirror to this dynamic. Batman's whole symbolic system comes dramatically crashing down (like a big electric sign crashing into water, maybe? just spitballing here) and he struggles to find some reasserted meaning that can give him direction. The monologue... it's just a bit too confident, isn't it? Confident in a way that robs the close of the film of its poignance. Once again it does something that is done elsewhere in the movie better, more artfully, more, well, cinematically. If he has a moment of reasserting some sort of moral clarity despite the collapse of the whole system of symbolism he's built for himself, surely it's the moment when he turns away from Catwoman towards Gotham! We don't need him to have that same moment twice, once through the ambiguous means of cinematic language, and once through the guy just telling us the moral of the film!

This moment, stripped of the heavy handed and--to once again cite Kay's interpretation of the film--fundamentally hollow and liberal messaging, feels much more poignant to me. It reads like something a little less clear cut, like it's a little uncertain whether he should've in point of fact gone with Catwoman. Is she really the antivillain of this piece, or is Batman? Can Batman overcome not his external foes but his internal conflict with meaning and direction? Is he losing his chance at a more fulfilling and perhaps more morally coherent existence because he can't help but go it alone, stubbornly finding his own way of making his identity work even in the face of contradiction?

Ah well. These films can't all be The Joker I guess. Maybe that's my real frustration: that DC has now repeatedly put out weird, visually engaging, actually morally troubling films, but all the stuff that I find so frustrating about the superhero mode of storytelling ultimately keeps stepping out of the shadows to spoil my fun.

A frustrating tiktok did the rounds on twitter the other day, positing that Disney should take advantage of the "expanded universe" thing to make a bunch of MCU "arthouse films". This would, the nerd asserted, answer the criticism that Disney is crushing out independent cinema, and would also flesh out the world in which the Avengers exist. Now, I think it's telling that, not unlike crypto boosters, the approach of stans is not to take on critiques of their favorite capital venture but to find kinda slapdash ways of deflecting that criticism. The point of the critique about independent cinema is not "Disney should do more things *like* independent cinema" it's that independent cinema should be, you know, *independent* of whatever Disney has decided is the financially optimal cultural paradigm.

I think that were this clever plan implemented, it'd probably look a lot more like what DC is doing currently, and I wonder how well that would really go over with MCU fans. Are they really ready for something like The Joker? The mass hysteria that greeted the frustratingly interesting and good film sorta tells me they're probably not. And if that's a bridge too far, well, gosh I don't know, I'm trying to imagine some of the films I've watched recently transplanted into the MCU. How about the surreal and expressionist rape-revenge film Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41? Would the explicit on screen sexual violence and murder in the film play better if there was a Black Widow tie-in? Would Under the Skin, in which an alien posing as a human woman seduces and harvests men for unclear but decidedly nightmarish purpose, come across better, the sexual violence in that film more poignant, if we knew she was a Skrull? How about the MCU's take on the subway alien miscarriage scene in Possession? I can do this all day, and it makes me really curious what the image of "independent cinema" is to these fans. I think the grimmest possibility for me is that confronted with the absurdity of suggesting this content might be in an MCU flick, they'd respond, well, that's ok because *that content shouldn't exist at all*.

My point is not that The Batman should've had more murdered and raped women in it--frankly, I was *already frustrated with the number of dead sex workers in the film*. My point is that the nature of the production of these films is that there's always gonna be limits to how murky the symbolism can get, how interesting the films can be. I mean if we're gonna keep doing this, I'm glad DC is out here producing weird shit like this and The Joker. I had a lot of fun watching the film when it wasn't trying to comfortingly explain itself to me in certain terms! And it's worth the price of entry, frankly, just for the thumb drive gag. You'll know it when you see it. I just think it's worth reflecting on what this monoculture actually means, and how the context for these films means they'll always correct backward towards a baseline of acceptable content, themes, and even cinematic language. A lack of independent cinema means that there can be no radical moves away from a very narrow band of acceptable hollywood style filmic storytelling, no shift in the paradigm that the big corporations have to respond to. Like Batman, these productions, when confronted with ambiguity and incoherence, find their way back, inexorably, to comforting cliches that can justify rolling forward along the same basic path as before.

This Has Been

A Gothic Tomb for Meaning

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