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Sunday Scaries: The Upside of Batman as a Horror Icon

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Regular readers will know that I do not have a high opinion of clickbait journalism trying to mislead their readers into knee-jerk outrage/derision responses. Chances are, if a headline for an article is prompting you to share it in anger or mockery on your social media pages, the headline is designed to goad you into that for their benefit. So it was with poor Paul Dano, whom the internet made fun of last week for seemingly claiming that he lost days of sleep while getting into character as The Riddler in The Batman, set for theatrical release this Friday.

This is not actually true; Dano did not claim that some pretentious Method-y approach he took to a riddle-themed supervillain left psychological scars on him. Here is the actual quote, in full context:

“There were some nights around that I probably didn’t sleep as well as I would’ve wanted to just because it was a little hard to come down from this character. It takes a lot of energy to get there. And so you almost have to sustain it once you’re there because going up and down is kind of hard.”

Warner Bros.

“Kind of hard.” Not quite the self-pitying screed it was presented as in the headlines from Screen Rant and Complex, huh? He’s just remarking that there were some intense scenes that sometimes required high levels of energy to maintain. Which makes sense, I guess? These productions have a lot of money riding on them and I imagine they stress out their performers. Why do we keep asking actors about the difficulties of these high-risk, high-reward gigs if we’re going to roll our eyes and call them spoiled prima donnas every time they confirm that, yes, these roles take a lot out of them? Jake Gyllenhaal claimed that Spider-Man: Far From Home was one of the most difficult, draining sets he ever worked on, and I believe him.

But I also think it’s worth pondering the reason why it was so easy for lazy click-chasers to trick us into believing playing The Riddler somehow “traumatized” Dano. Because this version of the character we’re about to see in five days isn’t a Frank Gorshin riddle-gimmick bank robber. He’s not even a semi-reformed private detective as he was portrayed in Detective Comics during Paul Dini’s run. He’s a full-on serial killer with a motif, more in line with Jigsaw from the Saw movies or John Doe from Se7en. And I think that’s interesting in the context of what a huge hit The Batman is set to be this weekend.

The first article I ever published on Awards Radar expressed my frustration with Dark ‘N Gritty Batman, even as I acknowledged this was a battle my side had lost years ago. But now, a little over a year later, after D.C. Films finally caved on the “Snyder Cut” but have otherwise abandoned that director’s grim, depressing take on their entire roster of superheroes with the sole exception of Batman, my feelings have… shifted, slightly, on this. As much as I wish it weren’t so, superhero movies remain the dominant tentpole blockbuster franchise for virtually every major movie studio. The amount of money and man-hours put into these productions impose serious creative restraints on what can and can’t be portrayed in order to guarantee a return on investment. This is why you rarely see these big-budget blockbusters debut with an “R” rating and why so many of them undercut their own tense or sad or scary scenes with “Well, that happened!” jokes.

Even big-budget tentpole movies that present themselves as Dark ‘N Gritty, like David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, end up being the kind of phony, sanitized, corporate co-opting of toothless “edgy” and Hot Topic “dangerous” aesthetics that you’d expect from a movie that has to appeal to a global audience to have a shot at breaking even (which was why Will Smith’s Deadshot had to keep reminding the audience “we’re the bad guys;” because that conceit isn’t actually dramatized through the actions of the main characters). 

Warner Bros.

But not Batman. He’s the one superhero box office juggernaut I.P. that continues to welcome violence and dark emotional undercurrents that would be unthinkable in any other movie of comparable scale. Even as far back as 1992, Tim Burton was free to write and direct a Batman movie with a BDSM-themed Catwoman and an outwardly revolting Penguin whose evil plan involved kidnapping and murdering all of the first-born children in Gotham City. Which, yes, did face some blowback and prompted Burton’s ouster from the Warner Bros top brass at the time, but that was nothing compared to how much people hated the campier, sillier approach Joel Schumacher took even more. The next twenty-five years have vindicated Burton’s heavier, gloomier Dark Knight as the version of the character most audiences want to see even today.

Danny DeVito’s deformed monster Penguin is almost quaint compared to the nightmarish Oscar-winning version of the Joker from Heath Ledger, and isn’t even as depressing a character as the other Oscar-winning Joker from Joaquin Phoenix. Even in the ostensibly more family-friendly D.C. Animated Universe, we’ve got Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker portraying Robin being horrifically tortured along with an animated adaptation of one of the nastiest stories in the entire Batman canon. These kinds of disturbing dramaturgical pathways aren’t places most audiences are willing to go with any other popular character these days. Heck, remember when Film Twitter was sharing this clip from Spider-Man 2, and expressing shock that a non-Batman superhero movie would swerve into a full-on horror sequence like this?

Let’s just say I will be very surprised if Sam Raimi was allowed to shoot anything even half that intense for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. 

I’m not actually sure how I feel about this, anymore. While I dislike the continued obsession with chasing Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns as the model for Batman movies and find much of the Serious Themes of movies like Joker pretty shallow, even juvenile at times, I also find myself even more frustrated by the continued colonization of the Marvel Cinematic Universe aesthetic dictating that every single moment must be constantly, frivolously “delightful” to the audience; where even a post-credits sequence involving Florence Pugh mourning the death of a major character is undercut by a Julia Louis-Dreyfus comedy routine.

Did you know Se7en was the #1 movie at the box office for four consecutive weeks, and ended up grossing over $100 million domestically? An original horror movie achieving a feat like that is impossible to imagine nowadays… except if it was folded into the Batman canon somehow. Look, it’s not an ideal situation. I wish people would finally get over superheroes. But they’re not going to anytime soon, so in this bleak era for popular cinema, where all of the other biggest blockbuster franchises (save one!) steadfastly refuse to allow their audiences to feel “too much” genuine tension or sadness or uncertainty or fear… maybe it’s okay if Batman remains “Dark” for now, if he’s the only vessel by which a Hollywood studio will allow risking extreme emotions and scary scenes that they assume general audiences otherwise won’t tolerate?

I want to be optimistic this year, folks. Let me know if you agree with me that this is a small silver lining for mainstream horror in the comments.

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Written by Robert Hamer

Formerly an associate writer for recently-retired Award Circuit, Robert Hamer is a military veteran who now spends his time obsessing over movies and pop politics.

He is returning to film and awards season commentary to return to a sense of normalcy in these plague-ridden times of rising fascism and late-stage capitalist dystopia. Join him, won't you, in these unorthodox attempts at cinematic therapy?

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