Movies talk to each other. What did the films of 2022 have to say? This is a look at how two movies from the past year tackle similar subjects in different ways. Be warned, SPOILERS for The Batman and Tár follow.
We live in an age of superheroes. Comic book protagonists have conquered the big screen, but it is not enough for them to take over the movie business, their films must be artistically overwhelming. In the words of critics reviewing The Batman, they must be operatic. But if this is what we want (and need) from our heroes – bold, romantic action – then we need to go straight to the source for a champion of what’s right: Lydia Tár.
Because let’s be honest, who is the more heroic actor? The more compelling character? On one hand we have The Batman, a dour do-gooder who runs around beating up homeless people and failing to understand Spanish. He sees a known gangster explode half a dozen tractor-trailers on a crowded highway (this happens while The Batman is chasing said gangster, but we’ll assume this vigilante operates under the qualified immunity concept that encourages destruction by cops) killing who knows how many innocent motorists, but then he lets the crook go because… he’s not the correct answer to a riddle. Who does this dipshit think he is? But on the other hand, in Tár we have Lydia Tár, courageously attempting to educate the woke and ignorant and leading by example, playing them great music from great men. Is she too harsh? Perhaps. But while The Batman acts in the service of some nebulous idea of justice that he discards when it is convenient for him, Tár is viciously insulting young people, or cravenly seducing them and discarding them, for music! Here is your operatic protagonist, a egomaniacal conductor who conflates the glory of music expressed with the glory of the person leading the music, who can, as she brags at the beginning of the movie, bend time itself to her will.
Would that Tár had edited The Batman! Director Matt Reeves can grimly shoot a dark night, but he does so for three hours that feel like three days – there is no rhythm to his torpid would-be opera of corruption. Robert Pattinson’s Batman agonizes and scowls and threatens – perhaps this is what Tár’s dullard pupil thinks a fugue is, a few notes expressed thuddingly and repetitively, not in an inventive and pleasing pattern. Tár director Todd Field is a pretentious dingus, as the prelude to his script makes clear (“this will not be a reasonable film”), but that prelude accurately notes the film’s shifting tempo – lengthy, controlled scenes of dialogue at the beginning soon become interspersed with confusing nightmares and visions and increasing pushback to our seemingly invincible hero, before the final third becomes an outright free fall (but not a dream, god dammit). Batman punches and pouts, explosions vary in size and various villains shout, it is an endless obstacle course instead of a movie.
This is not to say there are no similarities between our heroes. In fact, there are quite a few! For example, both creep on young women and let that creeping affect their work – Tár’s latest hot chick protégé divides her orchestra; Batman abandons a woman on the run to peep on Catwoman, letting her get killed by gangsters. Both are wealthy and powerful but find that wealth and power is not as stable as they may believe those they oppress (a browbeaten personal assistant) or ignore (an avatar of whiny abandonment) come back to knock them from their pedestals. Both are responsible for institutions that come to embody corruption – Tár blithely proposes opening up her foundation for young female composers to men, it doesn’t really matter to her other than as a symbol of her benevolence or as a feeding ground for sexual predation, and it turns out the Wayne Foundation started by Batman’s dear old dead dad has actually been a slush fund for two decades, funding fat cats, politicians, crooked cops and mobsters as they take livelihoods from the underclass and let crime run rampant in Gotham. It’s actually a pretty funny (although possibly unintended) joke. While it’s not feeding the homeless, Batman could’ve done more good with some actual Bruce Wayne-led corporate oversight over the damn money he’s responsible for than he does stalking the streets at night.
But that would require him to recognize just how complicit he and his family are in Gotham’s misery, a truly heroic measure. Instead, he and his faithful wage slave Alfred have a tearful reconciliation and reiteration of Thomas (and therefore Bruce) Wayne’s essential goodness despite Thomas telling a mobster to kill a pesky reporter digging into all that Wayne-funded corruption. It’s a moral, like the joke of Bruce’s ignorance on money matters, that the film doesn’t seem to realize it’s making: For some would-be heroes, intent is more important than action. But hey, Batman learns he can rescue people as well as punch them, this is what we call “character growth” after three hours. And he makes the decision to not fuck Catwoman or do anything different with his life so he can stay in Gotham. He’s totally going to fix it now. A hero may struggle against impossible odds and this is indeed a defining characteristic of Batman across movies and TV and comics, it is his existential prison. But here Gotham itself feels like a prison that Batman returns to like an old ex-con shoplifting just to go back inside. Although it’s not his fault – we can’t leave a hero with such high profit margins alone. Cue the teaser for the next movie.
Tár does not learn not to punch people. She punches the shit out of her rival, a weasley wimp of a conductor who stole her notes. It fucking rules! Both Batman and Tár have music that expresses their innermost anguish. For Batman it is the dirge-y drone of Nirvana’s “Something In The Way” and for Tár it is her own composition – the only one we see in the movie, despite her many attempts to write an opus – “Apartment For Sale,” a pissy accordion freakout about how her neighbors suck. It fucking rules! Tár goes down swinging, she denies her culpability at every turn but unlike Batman doesn’t have any friends to tell her reassuring lies. She winds up in Bangkok, conducting an orchestra playing the score for a videogame with a click track to keep her on the game’s time, not her own.
Throughout the movie Field throws in many ironies to trip up his hero. Any time we see Tár own someone we can be sure she will face a similar owning later on, and here is the stinger to her cruel dismissal of a high-ranking orchestra member where she reminds him that musicians live out of their suitcases. Who’s living out of her suitcase now? And yet she is still living, still conducting, still bringing her skill to bear where she can. She has fallen but is forging ahead with no support into parts unknown, down but not yet out. “Once you board this ship, there is no turning back,” the videogame narrator says at the start of the concert, and is this not more noble and heroic than The Batman’s phony growth in the stasis of Gotham? Perhaps, in his embodiment of angst without honor and embrace of inertia over change, The Batman is the hero we deserve, but Lydia Tár is the hero we need.