Monday, March 28, 2022

The Batman

Directed by Matt Reeves.
2022. Rated PG-13,
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Zoe Kravitz, Jeffrey Wright, Paul Dano, Colin Farrell, John Turturro, Andy Serkis, Jayme Lawson, Peter Sarsgaard, Alex Ferns.

     Gotham City is as grimy as it's ever been. Therefore, it's only fitting that it's mayor gets murdered on Halloween night. The killer leaves a calling card of sorts, calling himself The Riddler, and a note for the most famous vigilante of all-time, The Batman. True to his name, the note contains a riddle. In this iteration, Batman is still fairly new to the crime-fighting game, but has been around long enough to have struck an uneasy relationship with the Gotham City Police Department, thanks to the mutual trust he shares with Lieutenant James Gordon (Wright). This starts our hero's investigation, one which takes him to every nook and cranny of Gotham's seedy underworld.
    One of the complaints diehard Batman fans have long had about the live action films featuring the character is that he doesn't live up to one of his many taglines: The World's Greatest Detective. Some would go so far as to say he's not much of a detective at all. This version definitely seeks to atone for the sins of its predecessors, having us spend lots of time with Batman, and often Gordon, trying to figure things out. To make sure we know this is serious business, the film channel's David Fincher's Se7en in tone, and somewhat in execution. It employs the same mixture of neo-noir and horror. The former ensures we keep our thinking caps firmly in place throughout the duration of the movie. The latter draws us to the edge of our seats and unsettles us. The difference between Se7en, other Batman films, and this one is that occasionally, the good guy is the one we should be afraid of. Tim Burton's Batman toys with the idea of Batman coming off as a horrifying mythical figure to the criminals of Gotham during early scenes. Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins leans heavily on the idea. In fact, it's built around it. Reeves's version, however, is the first to really put the audience in the shoes of the crooks. Nolan's shows it to us in an effective style. The way this Batman reveals himself to, and deals with them is pure horror. We get to experience a bit of the same dread they do as he menacingly emerges from the shadows. To drive further down the horror road, many of The Riddler's scenes are even more grim. If not for the film's title and the titular character's costume, one would be hard pressed to classify this as a superhero flick.


    The tone, and the accompanying imagery, are a double-edged sword. On one hand, they rattle the nerves in a satisfying manner. On the other, they're so pervasive they render The Batman a one-note composition. With almost nothing light in the offering, we sometimes feel the weight of its three-hour runtime bearing down on us. A few snicker inducing lines of dialogue pop up here and there, but there are not many scenes for the audience to exhale. Visually, the light of day is scarcely seen. Thematically, this gives Batman and his foe the gothic, even vampiric quality the film seems to be going for. Aesthetically, it's occasionally hard to see. Watching Batman move about in a black costume against black backgrounds with other drably dressed individuals can be a bit tough to make out. The flashes of red help, but it's still murky, and not always in a good way. The thought did cross my mind, however, that this has a chance to look leaps and bounds better at home on my 4K television where each figure could be more clearly defined. Maybe that's just my old man eyes speaking, but a fella can dream, can't he?
    Like with every new version of Batman, fans worry how some newcomer will do in the cape and cowl. Fandom anxieties were especially high when Robert Pattinson was announced as the lead. My brother summed it up during a recent conversation before the movie came out when he said, "All I see is the sparkly vampire guy." Ironically, Pattinson's version of Batman is more vampire than Edward Cullen ever was. That's more a function of the writing than anything the actor does. He takes that writing and plays it as well as possible. His Batman is very clearly a violent sociopath barely clinging the last shred of restraint that keeps him from being a supervillain, himself. He has not only committed to being Batman, he's completely given up on being Bruce Wayne. To see him as Bruce is seeing a man uncomfortably wearing the costume polite society wishes upon him. To see him in full crime-fighting regalia is to see him as he sees himself. For some, this will be a point of contention. Traditionally, part of the character's fabric is his internal struggle to maintain the billionaire playboy facade while dealing with lifelong grief and guilt about the death of his parents. Here, he has no interest in the former, leaving only the latter. In a film nearly three hours long, he appears as Wayne for only a handful of those minutes. He is all pain and grief, and ready to unleash it on anyone he deems a bad guy. His famous rule about not killing anyone appears to be the only thing keeping him from becoming the very thing he is fighting against.


    In this case, that thing is the Riddler. In much of Batman canon, he's a goofier and lesser version of Joker. Here, he's clearly more influenced by the last decade's worth of hyper-realistic Bat-fare along with the self-righteous baddies of your favorited crime/horror thrillers. While he's demonstrably unhinged, his exploits are no laughing matter. Eventually, the film uses him to offer up some commentary on the cross section of incels, their social media accounts, and the transference of their online personas to the real world. Though he is another man who wants to watch the world burn, he is his own thing. During the film's last act, he does display some of the zaniness the character is known for, and it is out of place. The saving grace is that we've spent so much time watching him do scary things that our laughs are uneasy. It plays into both the figurative and literal darkness of the movie.
    With Dano's performance settling on being unsettling, and Pattinson's being slightly less so, it's up to the rest of the cast to give us dimensions and layers. The most notable of these is an unrecognizable Colin Farrell doing some of his best work as the Penguin. More slime-ball than supervillain, he steals every scene he's in and delivers about half the film's comic relief. The other half is handled by Jeffrey Wright as James Gordon. He's not just cracking a bunch of jokes. He simply comments on the situations he finds himself in. It's pretty effective. Andy Serkis gives us a far different Alfred than any other live-action Batman. One of the shortcomings of the film is that we don't know more about him. Finally, of course, our hero has to have a love interest. The old reliable Catwoman is brought out once more, in the guise of Zoe Kravitz. She conveys the idea that she and Batman are kindred spirits more subtly than any of her predecessors. When necessary, she can indeed turn on the swag, but that's not the crux of her performance. She's the polar opposite of Batman in her approach to life. She's far more Selina Kyle than Catwoman, and it works.


    One of the film's more remarkable feats is fitting in so many characters from Batman's canon without ever feeling cluttered. Part of the reason it's able to do this is that runtime. It allows for patient storytelling where most of the characters get their moment to shine without imposing on each other. Through it all, however, it never feels like it's anyone's movie other than Batman's. Even some of the best Batflicks are ones where our hero takes a backseat to the shenanigans of his foe. That doesn't happen here. Another point in the film's favor is the way it blurs the lines between genres. As mentioned above, it really flirts with being a full blown horror movie. Director Matt Reeves is very capable of handling this, having previously helmed Cloverfield and Let Me In. Here, he shows the same sure direction that made those films successful. It helps his movie stand apart from other Batman movies. Whether it's the best of the lot or not is up for debate. Personally, I don't think it is, but I don't think it's far off, either. Regardless, it's to be commended for managing to be it's own thing in a franchise with narrowing expectations.



4 comments:

  1. I ended up enjoying this film far more than I realize. I don't think it's anywhere near Nolan's trilogy but it is still a fascinating and engrossing film while that deleted scene they revealed obviously is inspired by Manhunter which is a film I think more people need to see as it features what I think in my opinion the definitive version of Hannibal Lector played by Brian Cox.

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    1. I need to see it myself. The sad part is I've actually owned it for a few years now, but I've never seen it. Sigh. So many movies. So little time.

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  2. This is a great analysis of the film. "a violent sociopath barely clinging the last shred of restraint" - that might be one of the best descriptions of Batman I've ever heard. He's my favourite superhero because he isn't this ray of shining light to destroy the darkness, he is the darkness. Consumed with fighting the evil and insanity of Gotham, he doesn't realise that he's a product of it and a catalyst that creates more insanity but I digress.

    I think the fact that you never get to exhale is what makes this movie work so well. You walk the journey with Batman. Figuring out the clues with him, unraveling the mysteries as he does. You feel engaged in the story and I love the fact that this film chose to keep the quips to a minimum.

    It is difficult to make a Batman movie because audience expectations and ideas around the character are so strong. They'll be many a debate about who's the best Batman and where this movie ranks on the list but no one can this deny this version is something special

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    1. Thanks! I love your expansion on my description, as well. Audience expectations are nuts on every superhero flick these days, but especially on Batman. So glad Matt Reeves & co. hit it out the park.

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