Greetings citizens! McEric here to talk about THE BATMAN, the latest film iteration of the classic character, brought to us this time by director Matt Reeves (LET ME IN, THE PALLBEARER) with Robert Pattinson (THE LIGHTHOUSE, THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME) under the cowl. In the case that you've been living under a rock, here's a trailer:
To discuss THE BATMAN, we have to use several approaches. We have to discuss it as a Batman film compared to other Batman films, as a Batman film in relation to his full lore, as a film of its own, and as a fan. So let's begin.
First we have to acknowledge this film as a new member of a very large family of Batman films. For better or worse, it exists in a world where it is inevitably stacked up against many previous iterations, where it is forced to either expand, retcon, improve, or apologize either to or for its predecessors. To say that I was excited to see THE BATMAN is far too binary a classification for the feelings I had leading up to its release. I'm a lifelong Batman fan with a tattoo to prove it. I'm also one of those fans of a particular age that saw the Tim Burton film in the theater in 1989, so I'm something of an O.G. with Batman's relationship with cinema. Anytime Bats is on the screen I'm going to be interested. But this was perhaps the first time that there was a serious interpretation of Batman coming to the screen that didn't have an agenda. It wasn't his first outing, like Burton's BATMAN, or an origin story, like Nolan's BATMAN BEGINS, or a sequel to an imaginary entry, like BATMAN VERSUS SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE. I was interested in the Batman's adventures, but I didn't really have any skin in the game. Thanks to Warner Bros' plan or complete lack of one, there was little fanfare going into this entry; they weren't billing it as a new era of Batman or the first step in a wholly new direction. Even the title itself gives it the impression of a singular, insular entry: it's THE BATMAN... 'nuff said. So I went in to see this film hoping to be pleased and not even really caring if I wasn't. (As I explained this ambivalence to a friend of mine, he reminded me that I've been watching pretty much shit cinema for a few years now and I honestly should just be happy to be in a theater seeing something with a budget. He's not wrong.) As luck would have it, I was quite pleased with the film that I saw.
As I've said, I'm a Batman O.G. and that admiration doesn't exist only in celluloid. I've been reading Batman about as long as I've been reading, and my favorite stories are the ones that showcase his detective skills, his troublesome relationship with law enforcement, his intimate relationship with his villains, and the humanity behind the facade of fear. The majority of Batman's missions on the page are narrated by him, with his innermost thoughts framing the action and giving insight into his methods and motivations. Reeves's Batman narrates this tale, which frees the actors onscreen of the daunting task of dropping exposition for precedent, effectiveness, timeliness, and other cinematic considerations. It makes the viewer's relationship with the Batman more intimate, as we're given a passenger seat in his crusade rather than relegating us to voyeurs who eavesdrop on his conversations with Alfred to give us reference. Additionally, Reeves' and co-writer Peter Craig (THE TOWN, BAD BOYS FOR LIFE) have tackled the organized crime element that has made for the most gripping Batman stories, like THE LONG HALLOWEEN or DARK VICTORY, better than Nolan and Goyer had. Whereas Nolan's films, more so than Burton's or Shumachers', did reveal the mafia to be the underlying poison of the city, of which the costumed criminals were more of affiliates to, Reeves shows them to the be catalysts of all the drama, and the direct cause of agents like the Batman and the Riddler. The best thing the film borrows from the comic books, by far, is the aesthetic. THE BATMAN, more than any other Batman adventure onscreen, looks like the comic books. The muted colors, the garish daylight, the deep reds and blues, and even the perpetual rain all point exuberantly to the source material. For those who prefer their comic books to remain "the funny pages" you can get a little chuckle every time you see a portion of New York City renamed Gotham onscreen, such as Gotham Square Garden or Gotham Times Square.
Now to discuss THE BATMAN as a film. It's a good goddamned film! A lot of it works, and what works overshadows what doesn't. Right from the word "go" we see a city in chaos, with distrust, destruction, and violence on full display. A heated election cycle is underway for a new mayor of Gotham City and the citizens all seem to share the idea that a different figurehead won't represent an actual difference in the way the city is falling to ruin. None morenso than The Riddler, played by Paul Dano (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, SWISS ARMY MAN), who begins killing those in "power" in Gotham to unmask the true power that lies at the city's wretched heart. He leaves cards "For the Batman" at his crime scenes, and Det. James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright, BASQUIAT, HBO's "Westworld") has no reservations bringing the costumed vigilante in to assist with the investigation. As the clues unravel and the bodies pile up, it's quickly apparent that the GCPD and the Batman are outmatched by the Riddler and that his dragnet will ensnare them all and ensure the city drowns in its own blood. Oh, and the Penguin and Catwoman are there.
What works: Pattinson's Batman is very refreshing. He's not arrogant like Bale's, confident like Keaton's, invincible like Affleck's, or corny like Kilmer or Clooney's. He's an angry young man, indifferent to his status as a power figure in the city, ambivalent to all those around him, and dizzy with the nonsense of violence. He, like the seemingly random act of inhumanity that formed him, seems content to go around beating up criminals to release his rage, wherever they may be. He calls it "vengeance" but he's really just spinning his wheels trying to squash as many cockroaches as he can before the sun comes up. When the Riddler involves him in his high-profile crimes, it gives him the opportunity to focus his efforts into something constructive. His quick observations at crime scenes show that he has a detective's mind. His costume is probably the most practical we've seen onscreen, and one can see a resemblance to the duds worn in the graphic novel YEAR ONE. Even though he's walking through crime scenes with impractical antennae, he looks otherwise tactically efficient and not wholly out of place in the city. Pattinson's Batman, as well as his Bruce Wayne, seems to be the most realistic portrayal of what a person like that would be in our world. He's delusional, unhinged, emotionally stunted, and perpetually lost. He chases crime like some would chase money or lust. He's getting high on his own violence while purporting to be actively stamping it out. His Bruce Wayne is callous and unlikable, and his interactions with Alfred have little of the "Daddy Knows Best" energy of the iterations preceding this one.
Zoe Kravitz (KIMI, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD) is exceptional as Selina Kyle, who is introduced as a fully-formed but unnamed Catwoman. She's shown quickly as a fighter and a survivor; an ambiguous figure with a genuine heart and a passion for what she calls justice. She is no damsel, yet she brings a sensitivity to the proceedings that Bruce couldn't mine from his own soul without help. She lends a humanity to all of the jumping and kicking and speeches about integrity. Her story is beautifully open, shown after its genesis and left open for myriad adventures still, so it's entirely likely we'll see her again. The romantic gestures she gives to the Batman are less motivated by a woman's attraction to power and more of a gift to a scared and stunted young man. When she kisses him, you don't get the feeling that she's fallen for the brooding sociopath but rather that she wants to save him from himself; to remind him of the man beneath the bat lest the darkness overtake him.
Dano's Riddler is fucking terrifying. We are introduced to him through his telescopic lens and shaky breathing, and we know immediately that we are dealing with a man overwhelmed with his own pathos. His first kill is clumsy, ecstatic, juvenile. He seems as surprised to have done it as we have. From there, he is emboldened by his bloodshed and his mission and he transforms throughout the film into a full-fledged agent of terror. If you got vibes of David Fincher's SEVEN while watching the film I can personally attest that you're not alone. Even during his confession he spouts dialogue that almost perfectly echoes John Doe's words in the seminal film. Furthermore, we should note that even though Batman "solves" all of the Riddler's clues, he never actually stops him or saves anyone. The solutions only lead him to another murder or to witness a diabolical plan unfurl. This film could've just as easily been called THE RIDDLER and made just as much if not more sense.
What didn't work: Colin Farrell (DAREDEVIL, ALEXANDER) sat in makeup for two to four hours each day to portray Oswald "The Penguin" Cobblepot... only to not DO anything. The goddamned twins were more memorable than he was. And he's getting his own HBOMax show? I mean, yeah, I'll watch it. Obviously. I just don't quite understand the assignment. I know we lost Powers Boothe so he couldn't do the role, but couldn't we have gotten Stacy Keach? That could've saved us time and money. It was like DICK TRACY(1990) all over again. I did enjoy the car chase scene, though. Speaking of...
The Batmobile didn't really do much for me. It looked and sounded tough, and it seemed to take a licking and keep on ticking, but I've never really understood the allure of the Batmobile as a car. For one, car chases don't work that well on the page, even in a comic book format, so if you're going to put a Batmobile onscreen, you've got to make it memorable to justify it. After having so many action movies marketed to me as car commercials over the last twenty years, this was the first time I watched a movie and actively thought "I wonder what kind of car that is?" Not the Batmobile, mind you, but rather the car Oswald was driving in the scene. I thought "this guy's outrunning Batman and shoving 18-Wheelers off the road in this car! I want one!" Seriously, what car was that?
Andy Serkis (BLACK PANTHER, LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING) wasn't given much to do as Alfred, which I thought was a shame. I think he's a phenomenal actor and I love to see him on the screen as opposed to being superimposed by a monkey or a monster. However, once more Alfred has been reduced to a flag-bearer and drum-beater for the Philanthropist and God Among Men that was Thomas Wayne. And speaking of drum beaters...
Michael Giacchino's score is great, particularly for the big action scenes when we want grand horns highlighting explosions or daring feats of flight and the like. When the film's pace slows and tension is needed, scenes are often permeated only by a heartbeat-pace rhythm of timpani drums. It's not ineffective, and I actually thought it added a visceral grounding to some of the crime scenes or police station scenes. The thing is, I've been watching film for so long that sometimes a score can take me out of a scene by reminding me of another film, as this film's use of the timpani kept me thinking the camera would pan over to the performer, as in Mel Brooks' SPACEBALLS after Spaceball One completes her transformation into MegaMaid. Please don't tell me I'm not the only one.
As a fan, I have to admit that I am overall impressed with this take on Batman. Like the score, there are some things that I found to be somewhat ambiguous towards; they worked in some instances and not in others. I liked Pattinson's Batman in that he wasn't overwhelming. He could fight, but he had a vulnerability to him. He didn't feel invincible, and I like that. Batman is supposed to be a man in a world of mice, not a god in a world of men. Furthermore, as it concentrates on his early career, he is less apt to do that "Batman disappears when he decides he's done with the conversation" trick that has become his staple over the years. It's actually somewhat comical early on in the film when he has to be told it's time to go during certain scenes. Jim Gordon literally says things like "We have to leave now" and the Batman would just keep standing there, narrowing his eyes at evidence.
To further illustrate his superiority there is a scene in the film wherein the Riddler is taken into custody and it shows him looking out a window at the Batman, watching the proceedings, surrounded by cops. Batman is shown to have a force at his side, where the Riddler is seen here as one man. It's a wonderful perversion of the classical ideal of the lone hero against hordes of henchmen and the supervillain. Another reason I wanted this film to be called THE RIDDLER.
In short, THE BATMAN is a superior entry in the Batman legacy, with a talented cast, a great story, and a great message about vengeance, hope, tragedy, and moving on. I've since learned that it is, in fact, the start of something more, and I am here for it. I thoroughly enjoyed this film and am excited to see where Reeves and Co. take it as it continues to bring Batman into the new era.
Until next time, stay safe and stay sane!
-McEric, aka Eric McClanahan-