Muller Marginalia

The Batman: A Cautionary Tale for Subtitles

Published: May 4, 2022  |  

Writer, editor, performer and self-producer

Last February, New Thinking’s residential Hollywood expert, Sandro Monetti, opined on whether The Batman could help lure pandemic weary audiences off their comfy couches and back into the dark womb of movie theaters everywhere. Show biz folks everywhere can rejoice: according to Forbes, the film brought in over $600 million worldwide, making it “one of the most successful “part one” superhero movies ever in domestic earnings.” 

Sorry to say it, but I was not one of those small donations to the big dollar signs: like many others, I’ve grown accustomed to waiting out the box office so I can catch big-name films in the comfort of my own home. (Recent studies have shown up to 43% of folks would prefer to watch a movie premier at home, even paying extra for it if given the option by a streaming service.) Not only does it save me the hassle of going out, the fear of contagion, and the ticket price, it allows me the convenience of the pause button (which, for a three-hour film, is a must, in my opinion) and, of course, one of my greatest joys: subtitles.

Living with a huge anime fan over the past several years (subs not dubs 4 life!) has gotten me largely accustomed to watching shows with subtitles on. Although some folks find them distracting, I find them essential, even when watching something in my native tongue. First, it sidesteps the issue of uneven sound balancing—I don’t have to turn the volume up to discern a sotto voce moment and run the risk of blasting out my ear drums with a raging instrumental score in later scenes. Also, I live in Manhattan on Broadway not far from a hospital, so road noise, sirens, and idiot gangs of moped riders commonly drown out whatever it is I’m watching. 

Granted, there are definitely drawbacks to subtitles. Sometimes they can spoil a joke, especially if it’s centered on a homonym, since the subtitle will reveal a spelling you wouldn’t have heard otherwise. It’s also a spoiler for big reveals—I always hide the subtitles with my hand while watching Ru Paul’s Drag Race so I don’t see the winner before hearing it. But there are also other little advantages: they reveal details you would have missed, like the lyrics to songs playing in the background, and dialogue that might otherwise have been indiscernible.

And this is where The Batman comes back in. 

Finding the film nestled in my HBO Max queue, I decided to kill a few (three) hours and check it out the other day. Subtitles were on, of course—which is highly recommended, given the gravelly emo voice acting everyone seems to adopt in the film. 

In one dramatic moment, while Robert Pattinson is walking a hallway with a determined smize smoldering into the camera, we hear John Turturro’s character Falcone distantly playing billiards as he chats up his henchman.

Now in a theater, I’m guessing the audience mostly stayed engrossed by Pattinson’s face acting. So it’s likely that, when sound editors were mixing this scene, they just took a few wild lines from Turturo improvising generic wealthy mafia bad guy dialogue to fill in the gaps, just to create ambience. (And if this was actually SCRIPTED… God bless them, you think they’d try a little harder on a $300 million movie.) At home, with subtitles on, this bit of word salad conversation—which undoubtedly was meant to be unheard background chatter—was front and center in my cinematic experience.

Here’s what I heard Tuturo say during Pattison’s moody catwalk: 

[Billiard balls clatter.] “Who is this guy who invented the ball, right? Must have made a fortune. If you think about it, the concept of it, right? Briscoe, do you know how much this sweater cost?”

 “No, boss.” 

“$1,183. You know why communism failed, right?” 

“No boss.” 

“Austerity.” [Men laugh]

(Around this time, our emo Bruce Wayne has reached the room and the scene can really start.) 

I loved this weird little Easter egg of dialogue so much I rewound the scene and made my fiancé read along. “Who invented the ball”???! Like… generally? I’m guessing it was also the guy who invented the wheel, and most likely they didn’t have money yet. And then just jumping to the cost of his sweater apropos of nothing, followed by a random Ayn Rand-worthy critique of communism? J’adore. Poor Briscoe. He probably has to listen to this shit all day. 

We both agreed that this wound up, for us, being the best part of the movie. (It wasn’t really my fav Batman joint, to be honest.) If you want to see it for yourself and have the movie streaming on your HBO app right now, just jump to 1:43:42—subtitles on, of course.

With a healthy dose of folks like myself consuming these big box office flicks on our personal small screens, productions are going to have to start thinking differently about what they can and cannot get away with. Because so long as we’re still watching at home, those subtitles are going to keep revealing many of these films’ messy secrets.

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