Tim Burton’s 1989 movie, Batman, which has become known colloquially as “Batman ’89,” was released when I was 11 years old. While I never much read comic books growing up, that film, to me, was probably the most excited I’d ever been about a movie until that point in my life. Maybe it was the logo, or the cool-looking trailer, or the Prince music, or the promise of spectacle. But I saw the film at the time and wasn’t disappointed.
When the Zack Snyder version of Justice League, known as the Snyder Cut, finally made its debut on HBO Max about a year ago, my older son was 11, the same age I was when Batman ’89 arrived. When I coached his Little League team last spring, my son’s teammates heard that I write about movies and constantly asked me questions about what I’d seen. But none of them had any questions about the Snyder Cut ― in fact, they hadn’t even heard of it.
going by the sample size of my kids… The Batman hasn’t captured the imagination of younger filmgoers
A year later, there’s another new Batman movie, director Matt Reeves’ The Batman, which features Robert Pattinson as the latest actor to don the bat suit. The film has garnered positive early reviews, and it earned a boatload of money in its opening weekend. But going by the sample size of my kids, their friends, and reports from friends of mine who have seen the movie with crowds, The Batman hasn’t captured the imagination of younger filmgoers. Spider-Man: No Way Home, on the other hand, was seen in the theater by just about every teen and pre-teen I know.
I get the sense that Batman, and to a lesser degree Superman, hasn’t captured the zeitgeist to the degree that, say, Spider-Man has over the last 15 or so years. And there’s a reason for that: It’s been a while since there was a Batman or Superman movie that could conceivably appeal to anyone younger than 15.
Dark or Light?
Now, I fully understand that Batman is a much darker and more brooding character than Spider-Man or most of the MCU heroes and that the “dark” Batman movies have traditionally been better than the lighter ones. Almost everyone prefers the Burton and Christopher Nolan movies to the Joel Schumacher ones, and no one likes what Joss Whedon did with his version of Justice League. I actually ended up liking the Snyder Cut, much more than I expected to — more, in fact, than the new movie.
But now that we’ve had three “dark” iterations of Batman in a row, I’d kind of like to see a filmmaker take a crack at an approach to Batman that’s something besides dark and dour, although I expect the box office performance of the Reeves film indicates we’ll get a bunch more like that.
I’d kind of like to see a filmmaker take a crack at an approach to Batman that’s something besides dark and dour
This isn’t about Marvel/DC fights to me; I don’t care about those fights. I see every movie from both sides of it, and I’ve liked and disliked numerous movies from both, which I think that’s the case with most people who care about superheroes. I really dug the last Suicide Squad movie, and Peacemaker too, while the MCU’s track record of late has been mixed (Eternals, anyone?) I would love a world of the best possible movies from both studios.
But does Batman matter as much to the world these days as, say, Spider-Man does?
I thought of this in the early days of the Russian/Ukraine crisis, on February 25. The Twitter account of Exhibitor Relations, the box office reporting firm that has cultivated an entertainingly snarky social media persona, said the following that day:
This was mocked a bit at the time, especially because the Russian market has been known to engage in piracy from time to time, and the lack of a new Batman picture isn’t the sort of thing that was going to dissuade Russia from invading Ukraine. And unlike various world leaders throughout history — from the Indonesian death squads of The Act of Killing to Donald Trump — Vladimir Putin hasn’t shown much indication that he cares about Hollywood mythology, much less whether it validates him.
Following the invasion, the release of Batman was indeed pulled from Russia, as have all major Hollywood releases in the near future. It’s a part of probably the most significant cultural boycott against a country since South Africa in the apartheid era. This is a good thing, although I do object to film festivals pulling Russian films, for the simple reason that, whether it’s Iran, Russia, or Israel, when a nation carries out controversial actions, the filmmakers in that nation tend not to be huge fans of the regime.
Even before Ukraine, we’ve seen the importance of Batman frequently overstated of late, especially by members of the Snyder Cut fandom who seem to believe that their favorite movie is the driving force behind the various TimeWarner and Warner Brothers mergers of the last few years. This was my personal favorite version of that:
The Snyder Cut was never released in theaters, so it’s unclear how it managed to make $3 billion, which would make it the highest-grossing film of all time. Also, box office figures are publicly and independently released, so studios can’t “hide” them, nor would executives hide a $3 billion hit from their bosses, as studio heads tend to brag about and take credit for big hits.
I want great Batman movies that are artistically successful and draw a large audience. But I would also like to see some way for Batman to inspire childish wonder again, the way it did for me back in 1989.