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chroma is key

Recently, The Batman, the latest (re-re-)reboot of the character directed by Matt Reeves, has been generating buzz for being…good. It’s a low bar, maybe, but a nice win for DC, a studio that’s been struggling to establish its identity in opposition to Marvel’s family-friendly, ruthlessly marketed, kudzu-like grasp on the superhero landscape. Not that DC hasn’t had its wins—not a single one of its DCU movies has truly bombed—but beyond the somewhat fractious appeal of more daring (using the word quite generously) films like Joker and Birds of Prey, the entire franchise has had a malodorous aura since the Joss Whedon racism/sexism/general-grossness affair, overshadowing the early hits like Wonder Woman and Aquaman.

The Batman has a few things that set it apart—a fresh take on the characters and setting, Robert Pattinson’s emo-boy interpretation of Bruce Wayne—but one of the things that makes it really stand out is how it looks. A lot of people were buzzing about the fixed camera shots when the trailer came out, and for good reason. The planting of a camera as if it were on, for example, the hubcap of the Batmobile’s back tire gives the viewer a sense of intense motion, ironically by allowing them to focus on a still point in front of a whirlwind of background images. Something else which has gotten a little less focus but is almost more interesting is the film’s use of colour.

Colour and superhero movies (and blockbuster action movies more generally) have had a pretty fraught relationship for the past thirty-odd years. The original superhero blockbuster, 1978’s Superman, used colour unselfconsciously, painting its heroes bright, its villains dark, its krypton ethereal whites, and its normal world in, well, earth tones. That’s not to say it’s boring; the film looks gorgeous even today. But as the first big-budget fantasy action flick, it seems more interested in imagining Superman in our world than creating another for him to inhabit. The rest of the series, even as the plots get goofier, doesn’t stray too far stylistically from that mission.

In 1988, Tim Burton’s Batman completely changed that. Burton’s only feature film credits up to that point were Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, but even then his signature style was evident. In Batman (1988), nothing looks like reality, and it’s not just because of the matte paintings of Gotham as Metropolis-cum-Chinatown. The world of Batman (1988) is awash in sickly purples and depressive greys interrupted by aggressive lime greens and dirty reds. Although Burton certainly isn’t interested in recreating our world in colour, he still uses colour, narratively, in a similar way to Donner’s Superman: his heroes are warm in yellows or oranges, while the Joker attracts colder blue washes that blunt his technicolour wardrobe for the majority of the film’s climax. The film, overall, is dark, giving the brilliant greens and purples of the Joker, muted as they are in the noir-inspired light, still enough of a pop to stand out. Burton uses the colour to show that the green and purple Joker really isn’t like anyone else in this world of greys and oranges.

Then, in the next ten years, colour in superhero movies took a turn for the campy. The Joel Schumacher Batman films, Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997) were not nearly as well received as the Tim Burton originals and the latter has been especially derided as one of the worst superhero movies ever made. And this is a shame, because the movies are in their own way gorgeous. Schumacher, especially in Forever, continues to use a lot of Burton’s colour vocabulary, painting the heroes in “realistic” tones and the villains in more outlandish ones, but he ramps up the colour generally, trading Burton’s foggy backdrops for neon washes of purple and green. More even than Burton, he has no interest in showing the viewer the colours of our world.

It’s hard not to see what happens next as anything but a reaction to the critical and (by blockbuster standards) commercial flop of Batman & Robin. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005), although its Gotham still has a distinctive colour palette that gives the impression that the entire city is constantly on fire, its world is significantly less saturated than its predecessors. This desaturation only ramps up in The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). That isn’t to say that the movies are bad, but Nolan seems much more interested in, not unlike Donner’s Superman, bringing Batman into our world instead of creating his. The colour, then, doesn’t so much tell the story as it helps sustain disbelief—which leads us away from Batman, and to the nasty business of desaturation in action movies in general.

If you’ve managed to avoid the superhero-dominated media landscape recently, first of all how, and second of all, you may not have noticed that a lot of movies recently have been very desaturated. The reasons for this are varied, and debated, from blaming it on the legacy of The Matrix’s famous green wash to dissecting the innards of modern colour processing software, but a large part of it is likely due to the huge reliance on CGI for most of the epic, sweeping shots in the action genre. It’s a well-known fact that desaturation can cover for graphics that might not hold up in the harsh light of colour renders. Even though Marvel and DC (and Sony) certainly has the cash to buy the top-shelf graphics, it’s a hell of a lot easier to paste a mild grey filter over your entire film than to have to really make sure your massive, purple, ruffle-chinned villain looks realistic in vivid technicolour. Plus, it helps maintain a consistent look across films directed by wildly different directors, shot by wildly different cinematographers, which is important when you want to sell a merchandise line as much as movie tickets. Zack Snyder’s DC films, as visually arresting as they can be, also seem to have similar unifying greyness which dulls even the brightest environments in his world.

The Batman has its share of greyness, but it has a far richer tone palette over all. Not only do the colours feel deep, they also help tell the story. This time, Batman himself is more associated with red and orange than grey and black and the Riddler’s characteristic green is mottled with a pale blue that makes you nauseous just to see. It’s the criminal element that has the most varied colour associated with it, the bright pinks and purples of the seedy clubs of Gotham, and it helps you understand why a life of crime might be so attractive.

With the success of The Batman, we can hope that more action movies start to take the storytelling power of colour seriously again. Or, at least, to give their movies some colour at all.

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