As a lifelong Batman fan, I’ve been given every version of the character that I, or anybody else, can think of. I’ve had gothic, German expressionist Batman, I’ve had the animated masterpiece Batman, the realistic Batman, even the Lego Batman. I’ve even got Batman’s that I hate so much that they have saved me thousands in anger management classes. But, and let me put my best Christian Bale Bruce Wayne voice on here: “does it come in noir?”
The quick answer is “of course it does, you Snyder-denying idiot (I might as well do the work for some of you): film noir and hard-boiled fiction are one of the cornerstones of the character.” Batman has always been a detective who dresses up as a bat, and there are decades worth of comics, and the gold-standard animated series, to prove that. Yet, I’ve never felt that film noir is as big an influence in the movies as it is in literally every other medium featuring the Dark Knight. Tim Burton’s movies have the lighting but not the story conventions. Schumacher’s movies were supposed to be cartoons. Nolan’s trilogy was a mix of mythic tale and Michael Mann-influenced drama. Snyder put Batman into the melting pot with differing heroes in his movies so that no aesthetic overwhelms the other, except for his own dreadful one. Then Matt Reeves looked at the last 30 years and thought “fuck me, if nobody else is going to do it…”
Like Batman, film noir is a pillar of American storytelling. Through films such as John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, Howard Hawks The Big Sleep, and Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (all of which are adapted from wonderful novels by Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, and James M Cain, respectively), film noir concerned itself with the failing morality of post World War Two America with a focus on the psychological make-up of the characters and the underworld of the city they inhabit. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
The main character was either a down-on-his-luck private eye, or an ordinary man tempted into doing the wrong thing. In The Batman, Bruce Wayne fits both of these architypes. There is also a femme fatale, or in the parlance of Youtube cultural theory, an evil demon seductress, which Selena/Catwoman fits like a clawed glove. There are a lot of gangsters and a lot of shadows and a lot of rain. It’s silly, over the top, and I fucking love it.
Reeves cleverly starts off with the tropes of the genre – the character types, the labyrinthine plot, the affected voiceover – then uses them to twist his movie into a Batman story that looks familiar but that we haven’t seen before. The whole point of film noir is to muddy the moral waters and Batman himself has to deal with his own actions in the Riddler’s plan. Even Selena, who at first look is a femme fatale, is actually a much deeper character who is a nurturing, protective, and cunning survivor of this world. That’s the beauty of Catwoman, she’s the only criminal that consistently makes Batman question his own outlook. There is also a few absolutely beautiful sprinklings of noir dialogue: “It’s a powder keg” “And Riddler’s the match.” Most of which happens on what I am dubbing, the hard boiled rooftop, where the Bat signal is kept. The Batman is never more noir than on that roof.
The reason that the previous Batman films have only flirted with film noir, going more for the style than the substance of it, is because culturally they were at a point where Batman could only be so flawed. In The Batman, Bruce isn’t really a hero, he’s part of the problem, and the arc to this realisation is what make the film so rewarding. This Batman goes from thinking of himself as vengeance, to realising that he has to be more. It’s through the tradition of film noir that our hero becomes a real hero.
If you enjoyed this article, please check out the rest of our Batman retrospectiveright here. You can also take a look at our other cinematic universe retrospectives, for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Jurassic Park movies! And, as ever, if you enjoyed this and want to see more stuff like it, please consider supporting us on Patreon.
By Kevin Boyle
(header image via Variety)