Reviews Short Narrative

What if Batman? (2021) – 0.5 stars

Director: Samuel Ali

Writer: Samuel Ali

Cast: Ricardo LeDoux, Michelle Chris Maker, Walley Welch, Lorelei Linklater, Mattias Alegro Marasigan

Running time: 14mins

Every now and again, just when you feel yourself getting comfortable as a critic, something in life comes along to surprise you. In the aftermath of the event, those standard terms, those stable ideas you thought you could depend upon to get your point across suddenly feel woefully inadequate. As you struggle to describe exactly what you have seen, the words you might normally deploy no longer cut the mustard.

In these moments, only a drastic overhaul of your usual lexicon will do. In the case of What if Batman?, for example, while I might usually talk about the work of a ‘writer’ or ‘director’, those phrases feel less appropriate than ‘culprit’ or ‘offender’.

Routinely veering into unintentional self-parody, Samuel Ali manages to actually spoof the entire genre of pop-culture fan films before any on-screen crime has even been committed. His title, What if Batman?, is a variation of the tired question so many other hackneyed ‘creatives’ have already mined, for comic effect or otherwise. What if… Wario were put on trial for his video-game crimes in the ‘real world’? What if… Wonder Woman got into a parking dispute after ditching the invisible jet in a disabled space? What if Ron Weasley was addicted to heroin?

The end result is always the same: a product which is of fleeting interest at best, but ultimately is substantially less compelling than engaging with the source material directly. This is because, even at the best of times, the fan film is an egregiously unimaginative exercise in filmmaking, born either of a fear that an idea was not interesting enough to get the audience to engage with original characters, or a wilful laziness that leans on previously established stories to avoid having to develop new personas or scenarios.

Even if things go ‘well,’ this is entirely counter-intuitive: the multiverse in which established comic-book characters exist is already bursting with limitless explorations of “what if…” – so if your hope is to engage fans of Batman, the chances are they can find official alternate stories about the character. So, if you were hoping to engage a mass audience with niche ideas, you honestly have as much chance doing it with something new as with a fan film. Meanwhile, if you’re simply using the genre as a crutch to disguise your own lack of imagination, the fact is there are endless better “what if…” works already available. Especially when ultimately most Marvel or DC films are essentially fan films now – as established directors with nothing to do with either empire mash together competing sets of action figures, for their and our entertainment.

What if Batman? indisputably falls into this category – it will be functionally irrelevant to anyone but the endless roll call in the film’s credits; fans familiar with the franchise will find its tepid attempt to rejig the established lore of Batman underwhelming compared to the works produced by Frank Miller, Alan Moore or Christopher Nolan, while anyone outside the fandom will have virtually no idea who anyone is, or why we should care. But that is not the half of it.

It is not only an idle rehashing of somebody else’s intellectual property, it is one which fails on virtually every front: falling on its face in terms of its grotesque cinematography, its lethargic performances, and most improbably of all, its ability to tell a coherent story. And no, the idea it is a ‘rough cut’ does not excuse this. If your film is not finished, you do not make it public. When this label occurs, it is usually a finished film anticipating heavy criticism.

Not wanting to disappoint on that front, let’s get into the way the film looks first of all. I often neglect cinematography when it comes to my best reviews because usually it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. Which is fitting, because Ali’s lens seems to have been smeared with WD-40 before filming. It might charitably be claimed this is to emulate the grimy cinematography of a low-budget grindhouse film, but in actuality this seems to be a means to disguise how flat and unimaginative the image construction is; how little thought went into building depth or texture in the supposedly shadowy corridors of Arkham Asylum, or just how bad the makeup is for the vast majority of the cast.

Which brings me neatly to the men and women behind the aptly labelled Rogue’s Gallery. I spent my time flitting between contempt and pity for the sorry ensemble of What if Batman? – unsure if I should condemn the dead-eyed nothingness they served up, or whether I should be embarrassed that these were the best takes from shooting. It is hard to single out anyone on this basis, but the performance of the film’s lead, portraying Thomas Wayne, sadly cannot be skirted round.

In this timeline, Thomas was not shot outside the theatre. Instead, his son Bruce took a bullet to the chest (with fountains of ketchup bursting forth from what I will kindly refer to as a ‘squib’) – something that drove both his parents mad. Thomas now resides in Gotham’s maximum-security facility for the criminally insane, after himself becoming a masked vigilante, cosplaying as a pipistrelle.

The comatose Ricardo LeDoux does nothing to convey even a modicum of this apparent trauma, though, turning in a stiff and restricted performance that makes Adam West’s 60s incarnation appear emotionally tortured by comparison. In one screen, LeDoux spits out a sleeping pill that he was prescribed by one of his doctors – but on this evidence he’d have been just as functional had he swallowed it.

Meanwhile, the two actors who might arguably have come through this sorry affair unscathed are largely scaled back – perhaps because their scenes require them to have dialogue with LeDoux. Mattias Alegro Marasigan is excellent as Dr Jervis Tetch (sorry, I don’t know who that is either) – giving us a much-needed slice of ham in his brief discussion with Thomas. Chewing the scenery as much as possible with this script, he is at once ominous and playful in the way the very best DC villains often are. Meanwhile Michelle Chris Maker, as the fallen Martha, does some truly commendable work with genuinely bottom-of-the-barrel dialogue.

Having longer set-piece conversations with these two characters might have provided a more solid base for this production to build from – not to mention a less convoluted and unfocused way of supplying intrigue and exposition into the story. Instead, snippets of information are placed in the mouths of almost random characters from the Batman universe, shoehorned into the production in the hope of servicing fans who will not enjoy this production anyway. Oh look, there’s Harley Quinn, working as a pharmacist with Selena Kyle! And there’s Harvey Dent who is a hospital orderly now, while Penguin is the janitor! But the only people that means anything to will be angered by how little care and attention the characters they love have received in their ‘adaptations’.

And that, finally, brings me to the story itself. With oven-ready characters and locations at the disposal of this production, they have been assembled into a garbled mess of a narrative. Thomas Wayne is a despicable individual, obsessed with delivering ‘justice’ to Gotham City, having contributed to the inequality which spawned the crimes he is avenging. There is no reckoning with this. At the same time, he is revealed to have had an illegitimate son that he shipped to another country and imported upon the death of his favoured heir Bruce.

When Thomas is given reason to in turn doubt his wife’s loyalty, and Bruce’s lineage as a result, he still believes he has a right to feel like the one who has been wronged. And when the film abruptly ends with him moving to strangle Martha – the film cuts to black and a metal track unfit for the very worst student horror thrashes into life over the credits – we are ultimately none the wiser for the question What if Batman? centres on. What if Bruce Wayne never became the Dark Knight? Apparently horrible people would largely still be horrible – but to no discernible end, and with no potential for self-reflection or character development.

Worse still, that initial question has faded from our minds – eclipsed by a number of more important queries. What was the point of this? How on Earth did the many, many listed ‘producers’ and ‘assistant producers’ manage to convince more than 90 people to crowdfund this production? And how did anything in this production come close to eating up the $25,000 listed as its budget?

The constant regurgitations and recycling of comic-book cinema are bad enough as it is, without fan films adding to the lukewarm slurry audiences are expected to passively consume. With that being said, there are reasons filmmakers might want to take a crack at them: the opportunity to widen your own support-base by riding in the slipstream of a popular franchise; the chance to catch the eye of a studio producer who will see you as a safe pair of hands capable of technically solid filmmaking on a budget; the possibility of sneaking in subversive themes or ideas an audience might normally avoid into culture they will readily consume, à la Joker. What if Batman? fails to deliver on any of these fronts – and honestly were it not for two semi-decent cameos (and the fact it wouldn’t translate visually), I would have given it zero stars.

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