A while back the girls were off at a sleep-over, so Kim and I decided to go see the new Batman movie. It was two hours or so of the latest in comic book hero mythology, dark and high tech, and to be honest I didn’t like it very much.
Oh, it wasn’t a bad movie, really, as those sorts of movies go. Much of it was shot in Pittsburgh, at the same building on CMU’s campus where Kim did most of her graduate work and next to the Pitt building where I sang in the Heinz Chapel Choir. Those pillars and stairs that the villain delivered his Russian Revolution speeches in front of, at the climax of the film? The Mellon Institute. It was nice that they didn’t edit out the soot on the pillars, the way they did in Hoffa. Much of the Final Fistfight appeared to be in the lobby of that building, where I used to hang out with my friend Tracy when she worked there, before I met Kim. The prison door that was supposedly across the street from it – they kept cutting away from the one to the other to give that impression – is actually around the corner and isn’t quite so heavily fortified in life, parking garages not being known for their need for high security. This was a little disorienting, but still kind of cool.
The movie also had all sorts of Shiny in it for those who like gadgetry, and anything with Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman can’t be all bad. There were a few decent lines of dialogue. Plus, for long stretches the camera was focused on Anne Hathaway, which is all I can really ask for in a film. She may have even had some dialogue, now that I think about it. I wasn't really paying attention. The film had its high points, is what I’m saying.
It was muddled – there were long stretches of the film that didn’t really seem to go anywhere other than around and around, chasing its own tail.
It kept trying to say Important Things but didn’t really have any coherent message. Either have a message or don’t have a message – you don’t need to have one to have a film worth seeing – but pick one.
There were too many parts of the film that were only tangentially related to other parts of the film – in many ways it was more of a picaresque than a narrative. Things happened and got resolved, and then more things happened and got resolved, and suddenly – BOOM! – credits.
And so on.
But these are fairly common problems with movies, and I’ve enjoyed many a film that had one or more of these flaws. The thing I really hated about the film, though – really, really hated – was the sheer overwhelming amount of consequence-free violence.
There’s a lot of it – from stabbings and drownings to a mass charge of armed men (and a few women) into the face of a mass of other armed men (and a few women). For all the leaden preaching that Mr. Batman does about nonlethal weaponry, there was an awful lot of very lethal weaponry on display and in use in that film, plus a major plot element that rested on the possibility of a seriously lethal weapon being deployed and an entire sub-plot/backstory that hinged on the idea of awful violence being inflicted on others.
And none of it meant a damned thing. Not to the audience. And not to the characters themselves except when the key plot points called for it.
Nobody suffered, except a couple of major characters who were required to suffer in order to have plausible motives for inflicting more violence on others. They did so with proper drama, and little or no actual effects on their persons beyond the acquisition of motives.
Nobody was shown injured, really, except one major character who needed to be on the sidelines for dramatic reasons. He was well and properly sidelined, and spent the bulk of the movie with something very akin to what used to be called “movie cancer,” the sort of ailment that provides dramatic cover but doesn’t cause much actual suffering or keep the character from doing anything when they need to do so. You could argue that the main villain spent the movie wearing the effects of violence on his person, but frankly that struck me as just a handy way for him to get to wear a mask too – a cool one, that made him seem so very deeply villainish.
Batman himself was treated very much like a rubber bone at a boarding kennel for most of the film – good lord, dude, whose girlfriend did you hit on to get this badly treated by the scriptwriters? – but was largely unscathed except when dramatically necessary, for as long as dramatically necessary and no longer.
And for all the bodily harm, death and chaos inflicted on minor characters by the bushel basket, nobody grieved. This, more than anything else, is what bothered me – the sorry and thoughtless treatment of the minor characters, who were just so much chaff to be winnowed out. Nobody missed them. Nobody even noticed them – not, one suspects, even the characters themselves. They showed up, violence happened to them, and they disappeared.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with movies that portray violence, not really. Violence is a part of life, and in the US it is endemic – we have rates of violence in this country that outside of our borders you can generally find only in war zones. If you’re going to make a serious film about modern American life – even if that film and the life it portrays is deeply fantastical, as with this one – you almost have to include some element of violence, real or threatened, or it just doesn’t seem natural. I don’t have a problem with violence in films per se.
But it ought to mean something.
People get hurt. People get killed. Those people had lives, loved ones, jobs, responsibilities. They were tied into a social fabric that has now been frayed. Though not in Gotham, apparently. Their deaths counted for nothing, meant nothing, affected nothing in the fictional little world of the film.
It doesn’t surprise me that the latest All-American malevolent loser compensating for his shortcomings by slaughtering the innocent with high-powered firearms chose to do so at a showing of this movie. We glorify such losers in our culture, pious protestations notwithstanding, and he fit right in with the overall theme of the film: violence is cool because none of it means anything once the shooting stops. It’s just empty action.
Except that it had consequences here in the real world, at least for the victims and those who cared about them. That part was certainly different here.
There were no such consequences in the film itself. People died and were forgotten as if they never existed.
I suppose you can argue I am making too much of what is, after all, quite literally comic book violence. But that shortchanges the depth that can be achieved in modern graphic novels, the work that has been done on film, and the putative darkness that these new comic book films all seem to want to portray these days. Darkness has consequences. Darkness dwells on consequences. This movie was not dark. It was just poorly lit.
I’m rereading Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series now, because I needed a break from the world as it is currently constructed. I just started on Guards! Guards! – the eighth novel in the series and the first one to feature Pratchett’s best-drawn character, Commander Samuel Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. One of the things that endeared the novel to me the first time I read it was the dedication:
They may be called the Palace Guard, the City Guard, or the Patrol. Whatever the name, their purpose in any work of heroic fantasy is identical: it is, round about Chapter Three (or ten minutes into the film) to rush into the room, attack the hero one at a time, and be slaughtered. No one ever asks them if they wanted to. This book is dedicated to those fine men.
Pratchett understood what the makers of Batman did not – that violence has consequences; that even minor characters have lives and loves and responsibilities, all of which and all of whom are affected by that violence; that not to show the consequences of violence is to glorify it and make it easier, more common and more acceptable. It is after all the City Guard who suffers most in the Batman movie, but nothing is dedicated to them and their lives are simply grist for the mill, to be ground into dust as needed.
Violence on film isn’t degrading. Violence without consequence, though, that is.