Why so serious?

Is The Batman noir? Matt Reeves is missing the mark for one obvious reason

The buzz surrounding The Batman says it will be the darkest take on the superhero yet.

Days before director Matt Reeves dropped the second trailer for The Batman, Twitter user ViewerAnon leaked a rumor that the film will be three hours long and a “full blown noir.”

When the trailer finally arrived during the 2021 DC FanDome, the movie’s rain-soaked world evoked some noir vibes as the trailer sets up Robert Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne as a world-weary outsider attempting to solve a crime. Colin Farrell’s Penguin appears to take a cue from off-kilter noir villains of the past a la Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death (1947). Ready to take care of herself, Zoë Kravitz’s Catwoman could be primed as the film’s femme fatale.

While three hours seems long for a film in a genre that tends to have bangers that clock in around 70 minutes, the character of Batman does find his roots in the same pool of fiction as the classic era film noir. In fact, Batman has dipped back into his early noir beginnings throughout the many iterations of comics and film adaptations.

So, what exactly are Batman's noir roots, and how can Reeves do something fresh within those tropes? First, you need to take a look at the history of the genre itself.

“Suffering in style”

Actress Barbara Stanwyck hides behind the door as actor Fred McMurray walks into a room, carrying a cigarette and drink, in a scene from the 1944 Billy Wilder production of Double Indemnity.George Rinhart/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

Coined by French film critic Nino Frank in 1946 to describe a handful of Hollywood-made films that flooded into France after World World II, film noir translates to “black film.”

This description in the less literal sense was used to describe the dark plots and foreboding atmosphere of films like John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941), Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944), Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), and Fritz Lang's The Woman in the Window (1944). The Czar of Noir and host of TCM’s Noir Alley, Eddie Muller, refers to noir as “suffering with style,” and these films fit that bill to the letter.

Cynicism was in.

This classic film noir era included tropes like troubled detectives, seductive femme fatales, twisted mysteries, world-weariness, and a general sense of dread. Many of these early films were adaptations of crime fiction popular in the 1930s, from writers like James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammet, and Vera Caspary. As the economic disparities of the Great Depression hit the stark trauma of a world at war, popular tastes moved away from screwball comedies and lush musicals. Cynicism was in.

These films also shared filmic techniques brought over from European émigrés fleeing Nazi Germany. Gone were the days of flashy costumes and ornate sets. Instead, these filmmakers brought the aesthetics of German Expressionism, including low-key lighting, with high contrast lighting known as chiaroscuro. What they did bring with them from depression-era films was the penchant for witty dialogue found in both screwball comedies and gangster pictures.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns features a 55-year-old Batman who comes out of retirement to fight crime in Gotham. Published in 1986.DC Comics

So, where does Batman fit into all of this? In 1939, Action Comics had a hit on their hands with Superman and decided they needed more superhero characters. Enter Bob Kane, who came up with a character called “the Bat-Man.” Collaborating with Bill Finger, the two took inspiration from the popular syndicated comic strip The Phantom, Scottish patriot Robert the Bruce, American soldier Mad Anthony Wayne, the silent film The Mark of Zorro (1920), pulp heroes like The Shadow, and more while developing the character and his alter ego, Bruce Wayne.

Debuting in May 1939, Batman made his first appearance in Detective Comics #27 in a story called "The Case of the Chemical Syndicate," which was written in a very pulp style. Like many characters in film noir, this early iteration of Batman was a cynical miscreant who felt little remorse for killing criminals.

“...the very essence of noir is that there are no more heroes.”

However, when his sidekick Robin was introduced in April 1940, Batman as a character softened. He no longer used a gun, preferring his utility belt and gadgets to topple his adversaries. He also became a bestseller. It’s this softer Batman that made his way into early serialized film adaptations. In 1950, when the Comics Code Authority was established, his pulp roots were all but lost, as evident in the campy 1960s adaptations starring Adam West.

Adam West as Batman.Bettmann/Bettmann/Getty Images

However, by the 1970s, Batman’s darker side began to reemerge in the comics, culminating in the mid-80s when DC editorial director Dick Giordano recruited Frank Miller to write a special four-issue run called Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. With illustrations by Miller and Klaus Janson and color by Lynn Varley, this run featured the bleaker Gotham we now associate with the caped crusader.

The popularity of Batman: The Dark Knight not only catapulted Batman back into a prominent place in pop culture, but it is credited (along with Watchmen) for jump-starting a new era in comics.

Batman’s new era

Michael Keaton on the set of Batman Returns, directed by Tim Burton. Sunset Boulevard/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

Just as Batman was having a resurgence in the 1980s, neo-noir films were booming as well, with hits like Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1981), Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), Joel and Ethan Coen’s breakout Blood Simple (1984), and David Lynch’s Oscar-nominated Blue Velvet (1986). Pulps were also back in fashion following the foundation of the publishing house Black Lizard by crime writer Barry Gifford in 1984.

These worlds collided in Tim Burton’s massive money-making film Batman starring Michael Keaton. A massive hit with fans, some critics at the time found the film too dark, with film critic Roger Ebert going so far as to call it a “depressing experience” in his 2-star review. Keaton and Burton re-teamed for 1992’s Batman Returns, which was again given a 2-star review from Roger Ebert in which he felt there was tension between the very nature of superheroes in the world of film noir. Ebert writes, “superheroes and film noir don't go together; the very essence of noir is that there are no more heroes.”

DC must have agreed since these two dark takes from Burton were followed by much campier efforts from director Joel Schumacher: Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997).

In the world of comics, DC dipped back into the darker well with the graphic novel Batman: Gotham Noir from Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips in 2001. Set in 1949, Jim Gordon is a washed-up alcoholic detective with an estranged wife and child and an on-again-off-again relationship with Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman).DC Comics
Notable for its heavy use of noir tropes, Batman: Gotham Noir even had a crossover issue with Eddie Muller in 2017 to celebrate the launch of the Turner Classic Movies franchise Noir Alley, in which Muller and Batman join forces to solve a new crime.DC Comics

Positioned between Burton’s films and Schumacher’s camp was Batman: The Animated Series, which aired 85 episodes from 1992 until its cancellation in 1995. Although ostensibly aimed at children, the show had classic era hardboiled dialogue, and the female characters from the universe like Catwoman and Poison Ivy are often styled as femme fatales. The animators even used light inks on black paper to achieve the high contrast feel of film noir. Created by Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm, the series won four Emmys and has been considered one of the best adaptations of the material.

The Batman movies miss out on the slick style that makes noir so damn cool.

Then came Christopher Nolan, who had made a name for himself with a pair of neo-noir films: the low-budget Following (1997) and the award-winning Memento (2000). Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy with Christian Bale dawning the cape pushed the waning superhero genre back into the spotlight and Batman films back into the world of noir. Sort of.

Christian Bale as Batman in The Dark Knight, directed by Christopher Nolan.Warner Bros.

Although its name is borrowed from Frank Miller’s comics, the trilogy's primary inspiration was Dennis O'Neil and Dick Giordano’s 1989 comic The Man Who Falls, which retells stories featuring Batman’s origin from Detective Comics. David S. Goyer and Nolan’s screenplay stripped Batman back to the basics, taking a more sober and serious approach to Gotham and all those who populate it.

This shedding of camp in favor of grit and realism certainly places these films closer to noir than Schumacher’s and maybe even Burton’s. Where they succeed in grounded drama, the Batman movies miss out on the slick style that makes noir so damn cool. That was something Burton at least understood; see Michelle Pfeiffer’s perfectly witty take on Catwoman.

The Batman & Modern noir

Robert Pattinson plays the Dark Knight in Matt Reeves’ The Batman.Warner Bros.

So, where does that leave Matt Reeves, Robert Pattinson, and The Batman? At the DC FanDome panel, Reeves revealed his inspirations include the gritty feel and flawed humanity of 1970s crime films like William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971), Roman Polanski and Robert Towne’s Chinatown (1974), and Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader’s Taxi Driver (1976). All three films received copious awards attention, including nominations for best picture at the Oscars, with Friedkin’s film taking the top prize.

Each film is firmly planted in neo-noir soil. Friedkin’s film twists the detective trope with Gene Hackman’s unromanticized anti-hero Popeye Doyle. Robert Towne’s screenplay uses the real story of the California water wars to unearth the seedy underbelly of Southern California's suburban expansion. And Schrader’s Travis Bickle shows the grim reality of vigilantism.

This is not the first time these very same films inspired a Batman take. Before Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Darren Aronofsky had pitched adapting Frank Miller‘s Batman: Year One in the style of both The French Connection and Taxi Driver. Miller has said that even his Batman was “too nice” for Aronofsky's vision of the abandoned film. It appears this pitch was a few decades ahead of its time as Reeves revealed Pattinson’s Batman will be investigating a series of murders.

Given all this background, how much does the main trailer give off film-noir vibes?

Well, the teaser opens with a neon-lit diner on a cold and rainy night, so we’re definitely in Taxi Driver and Blade Runner territory. Much of the footage in the 2:39 minute-long trailer is murky, with muted beige that fits well with the art of some Batman comics, though it doesn’t add much depth or feeling of chiaroscuro to the visuals. It’s got punchy noir-esque dialogue, with Pattinson’s voiceover including lines like, “This is the powder keg, and Riddler’s the match.”

However, the overarching tone of the dialogue scenes remains incredibly dour, indicating the film — or at least the marketing at this early juncture — doesn’t realize that part of what makes noir unique is the wit and mordant humor that courses through most of these films. So far, it feels as though the film is taking itself far too seriously.

Zoë Kravitz plays Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman, in The Batman.Warner Bros.

While there is space for a true film noir Batman, from his roots in early pulp comics to the later standout runs by Miller and Brubaker & Phillips, this new trailer doesn’t read like much more than a surface-level understanding of the noir mood.

The heart of noir is small actions with big consequences.

Good modern noir requires more nuance than stylized dialogue and stock character tropes. It’s also antithetical to the action set pieces most contemporary comic book films seem to relish. A good car chase can go a long way in crafting tension without the need for the massive explosions that accompany the one seen in this early look.

The heart of noir is small actions with big consequences, small stakes that weigh heavy on only those involved. It may be the end of the line for a character or two but not the end of the world for an entire city. The scope of Batman as a hero is so large — his impact so great — it may well be impossible to create stakes that audiences believe are suited for the man in the bat suit but are small enough to work within the true noir mood.

Let’s hope this early look is a marketing failure only, and Reeves and Pattinson deliver the goods when the film drops next year.

The Batman arrives in theaters on March 22, 2022.

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