Ahead of their next and final Batman game, Rocksteady have shown us their new Batmobile in action! It’s sleek, it’s fast and – as Comics Alliance’s Chris Sims has pointed out – it’s absolutely bristling with lethal weapons, which begs the question of exactly whose Batman we’re talking about here. Hilariously, the trailer begins with a stern warning that the clip “MAY CONTAIN CONTENT INAPPROPRIATE FOR CHILDREN”, which could pretty much serve as a motto for the modern-day superhero industry as a whole.
The comics themselves have been on a relentlessly grim trajectory ever since the influential work of Frank “Damn kids!” Miller in the 80’s. We have now become so insecure about the whole idea of superheroes that, in what should be a source of outrage across the whole industry, Superman isn’t even allowed to wear his little red pants anymore.
Rocksteady’s previous two Arkham games have had a fairly light-hearted tone, offering a lot more fun and superheroics than the atrocity that was last year’s Man of Steel. Despite this they have each been rated a solid 15 by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) – presumably due to the fact that 94% of the gameplay consists of beating and twisting other human beings into soggy bags of bonemeal, in true Bat-fashion. The fact that the developers and publishers were apparently OK with this suggests that for some reason a hard rating doesn’t eat into profits for games the way it would in Hollywood – because brother, it’s a whole different story when we look once again (and how can we not?) at Christopher Nolan’s holy trinity.
Although they have a far more serious aesthetic than the Arkham games – which seem as light-hearted as the 1960’s Adam West show by comparison – each of Nolan’s Dark Knight films was given the coveted 12A rating by the BBFC (equivalent to the American PG13). It is a curious fact of many recent superhero films that acquiring this rating, which is essential to ensure the maximum possible audience, and maximum possible profits, is obviously part of the mandate for any director in the field. It often has a very visible effect on the films themselves – the most obvious example being Wolverine’s claws which, despite penetrating dozens of bodies over the course of his five (is it six?) film appearances, never seem to get stained with a single drop of blood.
Of all Nolan’s bat-films, I’ve always thought Batman Begins (2005) managed to get the best of both worlds. It gives us the gritty take on Batman we need to comfort our egos, without losing a more pure-hearted spirit of adventure. It’s violent but not to the point of traumatising children. It manages to complicate the morality of Batman cleverly, without the need for long, waffling monologues about ethics and philosophy. Coming out of that film for the first time, I realised one of the reasons I loved it was that I could imagine loving it just as much as an eight-year-old, being introduced to Batman for the first time.
If someone took my eight-year-old self to see The Dark Knight (2008), on the other hand, they would probably be legally culpable for some form of child abuse – or, at least, wilful neglect. Apart from being bored out of his tiny mind by pseudo-intellectual speeches about ancient Roman politics, the nature of chaos, and so on, the little guy would have seen violence of a quite different order. Nolan makes no attempt to hide his intentions – this is not a film for sissy babies, it’s a film for big, grown men. The Joker introduces himself by slamming a pencil through someone’s eyeball. He slashes a man’s face to ribbons with a knife. He feeds a henchman to a pack of wild dogs. Batman himself breaks a mobster’s legs, crippling him. Harvey Dent shoots several people dead, and at one point causes a fatal car crash.
When you lay it all out like that, the film sounds a lot more violent than you remember, doesn’t it? That’s no accident. When the Joker slashes someone’s face, Nolan skilfully cuts the scene so that we never see any wounds or blood. We don’t even hear a sound effect to indicate a knife slashing through flesh, which leaves an odd silence covered only by one of Hans Zimmer’s trademark “BHOMBUMH”s. We see a pencil – we see someone’s head get slammed down – the pencil is gone. We never see a shot of the pencil embedded in someone’s head. We cut away from the aftermath of each of Harvey Dent’s killings, never glimpsing the bullet-riddled bodies or broken wreckage he leaves in his wake.
That’s what is sinister about the choices the film makes. Not that it is too violent for young children – that is obviously fair enough. What’s creepy is that the film has been very deliberately designed so that young children can still come to see it – or, more specifically, so that they can pay to come and see it. Obeying the mandate from on-high, Nolan precisely fulfils the letter of the BBFC guidelines for a 12A rating – “Violence must not dwell on detail. There should be no emphasis on injuries and blood” – despite the fact that this constraint totally contradicts the aesthetic he dedicates the film to.
To be fair, the guidelines are themselves partly to blame here, for failing to understand that the real power of movie violence doesn’t lie on the screen, but in the viewer’s imagination. Remember the most ingenious and disturbing scene in Rian Johnson’s 2012 Looper, in which the mob forces a runaway to come in by dismembering his past self? As far as I can recall, the scene stays strictly within the above-stated guidelines. We don’t see a single drop of blood, or any actual wounds. We see only the awful consequences of this violence for his terrified older self – vanishing limbs and sudden scars – which somehow makes the acts themselves feel all the more horribly real.
Wherever you stand on the issue of which audience this stuff should be catering for, it’s clear that right now comic-style superheroics are stuck in an awkward ‘no-man’s land’ – whatever the medium. They are clearly most profitable when styled and distributed as “not just for kids,” but a lot of the people doing that styling and distributing still seem to consider the form inherently childish. This paradox was neatly captured by a statement from the BBFC after their controversial rating for The Dark Knight, displaying some seriously twisted logic: “the BBFC judged the clear fantasy action context and audience familiarity with the superhero genre as sufficient mitigation against the film’s sometimes dark tone”. In other words, it’s impossible for a superhero film to be too dark and ‘adult’ because, as everyone knows, superheroes are for sissy babies.
For the love of God, n0body tell “visionary director” Zack Snyder – or next time he’ll probably lose the cape, too.