Catching up with The Batman this weekend – a film that was finally released theatrically in 2022 and promptly became the highest grossing movie so far this year with about $750,000,000 in worldwide ticket sales– was long overdue.
Ostensibly this is because I teach screenwriting and try to assign my students an old or new movie to see most weeks so storytelling and structure in different genres becomes second nature to them.
But truly – that’s merely the surface reason.
The real one is that I believe watching the top-grossing movie of any year allows you to stay informed.
What this means is that, like it or not, the film the most people go to see in any given year tells you quite a lot about our world — whether you want to know it or not.
So, here’s what I know after watching three hours of The Batman.
1. Robert Pattinson is a finer actor than you think and possesses great hair and seductively angular features.
2. Prosthetics have gotten to the point where, if Warner Bros. demanded it, the technical geniuses behind Hollywood moviemaking could make even ME look like The Batman. Or Selena Kyle.
And, most importantly –
3. We live in a time where there are no SUPER heroes anymore.
In writing classes we teach that no one is 100% altruistic. Meaning every hero has a little bit of villain in them and every villain has a touch of a hero lurking somewhere in their souls.
The key to villains is they believe deep down what they’re doing is right and justified.
The path to a hero is that the vast majority of the world think their actions are right and justified.
In our world there are no actionable super majorities to anything anymore. Certainly not heroes. I doubt even Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky would get a supermajority worldwide vote if we had a global lie detector. Nor would Russian President Vladimir Putin achieve worldwide super villain status.
The 2022 probing portrait of Batman tells us everything about our lack of true SUPER HEROES. It takes the moral ambiguities of the franchise, the conceit of most superhero franchises, and gloomily plants a barely faux hero – our hero – smack dab into heroic territory.
But because the bar is sooo low we think nothing of it.
He’s an avenger/vigilante with a personal agenda so internal and so intense that he barely feels human. Certainly he’d have a less than zero potential by the standards of any other era to become anything even approaching a valiant do-gooder.
More importantly, no one around him has much of a moral compass. And the few who do are either operating with their own secret personal agenda or have not received enough screen time for any real them to properly emerge.
This weekend I went to the annual TCM Film Festival in Hollywood and rewatched the 1978 classic Warren Beatty film, Heaven Can Wait. It was a fantasy comedy remake of the 1941 movie Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which was based on a 1938 play of the same name.
And it shows – in all the best ways.
The late seventies were enough of a post Watergate time and pre-Ronald Reagan 1980s ME era for the world to still believe that a real life good guy could achieve hero status, inspiring others without giving into temptation himself.
Sure, it helped that Warren Beatty at his most handsome played Joe Pendleton, a lifelong second-string quarterback for the L.A. Rams, who mistakenly dies and is escorted to a weigh station to heaven due to his incompetent Guardian Angel.
But when Joe is given a second chance and gets temporarily dropped into the body of a rich, unscrupulous industrialist, who among other things gleefully runs a conglomerate that thinks nothing of drilling oil and polluting entire small towns of people to slightly increase his profit margins (Note: Yes, this film was made in 1978), it seems a recipe for disaster.
Clearly, the good guy will be corrupted by all this money and power. Because let’s face it, no believable good guy could ever be that heroic with all the oil and money in the world at his personal disposal. At the very least he’d have to launch his own rocket ship to take him to the edge of outer space or perhaps invent his own super electronic auto before dropping back down to earth to help all the rest of us little people.
He’d have to become a bad guy who takes a stroll on the dark side, before rejoining the merely human race and inspiring them.
Because that’s the only way we’d believe it.
Except, well, no – not in the late 1970s.
Joe never succumbed to darkness. In fact, he is nothing but good, well intentioned, hard working, loyal and kind, even to the two people he lives with who are trying to kill him in.
His everyman morality wins the day – a morality not born of some past traumas he has overcome but springs from the plain yet solid nice guy that Joe apparently always was.
He’s a regular fellow whose superpower is being moral. A hopeful idea of a movie released during a time when we still had a few smidgeons of hope.
Heaven Can Wait was one of the top five grossing movies the year it was released. Among the others were Grease, National Lampoon’s Animal House and Superman.
It’s easy to sense a pattern here because there was one.
Even in a year when two dark and raw post Vietnam War movies, The Deer Hunter and Coming Home, triumphed over Heaven Can Wait at the Academy Awards.
See, it’s not that the late 1970s were an uncynical time. They were just, well, a little less immoral.