Directed by Matt Reeves
Written by Peter Craig and Matt Reeves
In its way, The Batman is utterly on-brand: one more long, unrelentingly dour DC movie laboring in the long shadow cast by The Dark Knight, brought to fruition after a troublesome development cycle by a director who's shaping up to be modern populist cinema's very dourest motherfucker, Matt Reeves, who truly is kind of like Christopher Nolan, if you took the auteurist obsessions out and replaced them with a depressed sort of movie-movie geekdom. Honestly, he's kind of the perfect guy for a Batman project if you're after a very stereotyped Batman rooted body and soul in 90s and 00s grimdark cliche. Splitting the difference, Reeves's approach—technical capability married to classical storytelling, with a tendency towards situating his heroes in mythic-feeling landscapes and driving them with elemental motivations—worked pretty well for his two entries in the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy, Dawn and War, which were about the downfall of humanity in favor of a confederation of emotionally-purer successor species. But it may also be why Dawn has no personality, War has a personality simply because "finality" is a good substitute (though it also imports a personality from Apocalypse Now, in order to cover any remaining deficit), and the first film in that trilogy, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, directed by Rupert Wyatt, was better than either of its follow-ups. Nevertheless, going by box office receipts, it does seem that "90s grimdark cliche" is exactly what audiences were after for their Batman, and, hell, it's a perfectly reasonable thing to want as far as Batman goes.
So there were a lot worse people to have given the job to than Reeves, who makes predominantly pristine popcorn films that are always supremely watchable (well, give or take a Cloverfield) even if they're usually not all that interesting, at least outside of a neat visual idea here or there, or sometimes a particular performance, or, as in The Batman's case, an occasional "you should really just relax" moment where things lurch from a movie about smart people made by people of average intelligence to something actively idiotic. (The big and oft-highlighted freeway chase is one of these. I'm entirely capable of stopping myself from asking the question "hey, did Batman just kill fifty people?", but the spectacle should mute this objection entirely. At the very least, the climactic reveal of the Batmobile emerging from the demolition derby flames should happen in a single take rather than get interrupted with a reverse-angle insert.) And after Joker, maybe The Batman is extremely, abominably on-brand: a Batman adventure that, in seeking a grimy, grungy Gotham, rips off other, vastly more serious movies by way of hollow pastiche.
I realize I'm making it sound like I hold it in contempt, yet if truth be told, it's the best superhero movie in some small while. That's a fairly low bar—thanks MCU—but an identifiable one. Of course, it turns out that one of the things that had elevated it to "the best" is going to get ruined in the months to come. A film I'd naively hoped was a closed-off Elsewords-style one-off won't just get sequels (begrudgingly, that's fair enough), but it's getting television spinoffs, which is just baffling (at least one, The Penguin, concerning a character who makes, if any impression, a negative impression in the film itself, and we basically already got exactly this, "a show about the rise of Penguin to power," only five or six years ago, when Gotham was still something new and not terrible). But you can't take points off a movie just because it reflects a desperate and barren age. Well, you can, but you shouldn't.
So: The Batman (I won't repeat myself about how much I despise this newfangled franchise naming convention; it is, suffice it to say, not remotely borne out, for despite the screenplay's own fun with definite articles, this is definitely just "a Batman") does a few things that are, in fact, pretty novel in terms of Batman on screen. For one thing, for all that Batman Begins is literally an origin story, this one actually feels like it takes on Frank Miller's grounded Year One/Year Two concept in anything like a cohesive way, starting with its focus upon a Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) who's meaningfully young and green, and not just because because Michael Giacchino's score follows him around with a motif lifted from Nirvana's "Something In the Way." (You'll excuse the nitpick, and hopefully you won't get too sad when it dawns on you, but Nirvana is still a good fifteen years out of date for a Batman who's only picked up crimefighting in the past couple of years. Of course, one assumes Pattinson's Batman isn't also Pattison's 36.) Well, this Batman is inexperienced, but it's not his first day, and besides his trusty butler-dad Alfred Pennyworth (Andy Serkis) having acclimated himself to their nocturnal routine, this Batman has also already secured an alliance within the GCPD in the form of Lt. Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), even if the larger part of the Gotham police don't completely trust this theme-costumed maniac yet. The impact of Batman's nightly battles has likewise been felt, as Reeves demonstrates in his prologue, following an intercut group of unrelated criminals across the city whose crimes fall apart in the face of the fear that emanates from every shadow—and this Gotham might be the shadowiest yet.
It's thanks to Gordon, then, that Batman is invited to consult on the case of the assassination of Gotham's incumbent mayor just weeks before the election. The killer has left behind some taunting clues, riddles you might call them. Indeed, this "Riddler" (Paul Dano; it's not a big reveal) has only begun, and his clues and ciphers point to an all-out campaign of extermination against the powerful and corrupt in the city. The mystery of his identity, and what exactly it is he wants, takes Batman on an odyssey through the criminal underworld of Gotham, from Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) to the Penguin (evidently a Colin Farrell who's been swallowed by a sentient fatsuit that hates Italian-Americans) to Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz). Needless to say, when Batman finds his answers, he won't like them.
And I suppose that is another one of the reasonably-fresh things The Batman's up to: actually giving Batman his due as a detective. This was practically the first thing out of Reeves's mouth as publicity geared up for his movie, and I always assumed it was puffery. Surprisingly, it wasn't: this very serious, gimp-suited Riddler does provide a framework for a Dark Knight Detective to detect things. How good a framework that is depends on how you respond to Batman spending an hour grappling with the clue, "the flying rat," when it's written in a gendered language (Spanish) that already incongruously specifies it's referring to something male. But the larger issue with the "detecting" part of The Batman is simply how much effort it expends trying to remind you of better neo-noir detective movies, which is where we state the obvious (really just repeat the filmmakers' own admissions), and acknowledge that it superficially resembles Seven and Zodiac. It winds up owing rather more to other, less-reputable elements of our pop culture wasteland—even before the grand scheme clarified itself, I was a little repulsed at the reimagination of Batman's most adorable rogue as a cross between Jigsaw and Alex Jones. And the clarification, when it comes, makes this effectively literal. On the plus side, simply by pointing at "the Internet," The Batman has at last solved the plausibility problem regarding where Batman's deranged freakshow villains ever manage to find henchmen.
Mostly, this works—whatever else you could say, Dano is extremely committed to this vision—and I suppose I'm glad it exists, at least as long as we're just talking about this one movie. But it's also a little tedious: The Batman cares more about Thomas Wayne than any normal audience member should be expected to (hell, it cares more about Thomas Wayne than Bruce Wayne usually does), and commits the cardinal Batman sin of actually solving Batman's parents' murder, which besides wasting time burrowing into Bat-prehistory is a profound misunderstanding of the mythic underpinnings of Batman's never-ending struggle—Thomas and Martha Wayne weren't murdered by some specific criminal, they were murdered by crime—and it strikes me as a path that only somebody already bored with Batman would ever need to go down.
But I'll give it to Reeves, he's reliable at what he does. It's astonishing that The Batman doesn't feel as long as it is—make no mistake, it feels long, but not three hours long, and that's all the more surprising given some of things it doesn't have time for, like action (it's a remarkably quiet and pensive Batman), or Alfred (it wastes Serkis so badly that it feels like it actually forgets Alfred was in the movie*), or any particular dichotomy between "Bruce Wayne" and "Batman." This has always been a problem, not just in the movies, but it's such a non-starter here that when it trots out the ol' "that mask is your real face" it falls flat, since it's not like we ever perceived a difference. (I do like Pattinson's sleepwalking sullenness, but other than some very occasional deadpan humor—The Batman isn't as solemnly unfunny as its reputation suggests, but "the funniest Matt Reeves film" is a pretty marginal achievement—it's still an awfully one-note performance, a more functional Batman than Bale's, but not an especially fascinating one, like Keaton's or Affleck's. Genuinely the best thing about it might be the look Pattinson is able to achieve thanks to Reeves's acknowledgement that Bruce wears greasepaint under his mask. If not that, it's some of his tentative interactions with Kravitz: it's a little clunky with it, but Kravitz and Pattinson do manage to nail the basic Batman/Catwoman dynamic and return some measure of recognizable sexuality to the superhero genre—if the doomed yearning of their relationship is the film's only real attempt at human emotion, it actually might be enough.)
There are things here that I out-and-out love, though: I do love a Batman movie where Batman has a relationship with cops, and even if he's not exactly deputized yet, perhaps the single biggest arc in the film arrives in the way the police come to accept the lunatic dressed like a bat as a peer. I simply love the idea of Batman interacting with people in ways besides punching them, and the denouement, in its po-faced, Reevesian manner, gives us one of the most superbly comic booky moments ever beheld in a Batman movie, the giddy image of Batman working alongside the National Guard without anyone appearing to acknowledge that this is outrageously weird. It ties in, part and parcel, with The Batman's occasionally-expressed theme of what, precisely, Bruce has achieved for Gotham by running around in a costume beating up bad guys. But for all I didn't need another deconstructive treatise on vigilantism in a superhero movie, The Batman does a good job with it.
But if it's a good movie, and I'd happily call it that, it probably has as much to do with just being a good movie, confidently and competently made under a set of aesthetic restrictions that should get much more wearying than they do after three hours, particularly Grieg Fraser's murky underlit cinematography that Reeves manages to pull his fair share of high-impact, iconic images out of, and which somehow feels appropriate to this cartoonishly noirish Gotham. (James Chinlund's production design has its moments to shine, too: for every scene where he's tasked with tiresomely regurgitating Seven, there's two where he gets to play with overwrought architecture that puts the "gothic" back in Gotham after the Nolan years.) And Fraser and Reeves, like a lot of directors and cinemtographers these days, are fooling around a lot with shallow focus, but if shallow focus is going to be the Goddamn hip thing for the next couple of years—it's going to get worse before it gets better—they are at least showing their contemporaries the right way to do it. I do not think it carries any meaningful thematic heft, which still renders it kind of annoying, but it does tend to be used to conceal or reveal narrative information in ways that feel controlled and intentional, and serves as a worthwhile visual guide across an aesthetic that, muddy by design, might not have been navigated any other way. There is also the matter of Giacchino's score: I'm not entirely comfortable with calling a score that uses preexisting music this much "great" (besides "Something In the Way," the Riddler's leitmotif is pulled from freaking "Ave Maria"), but it does what it needs to do to give this grubby Batman adventure an epic complexion, particularly in its main Batman theme that takes liberal inspiration from "The Imperial March" without, at least, actively ripping Williams off. It is, ultimately, a satisfying Bat-movie, maybe too much of a Bat-movie for the small goals that it seeks to achieve. But by superhero film standards, it's hard to complain too much even about that.
*Still, and even if it's a really trivial thing, I do appreciate that The Batman is the first piece of Batman media in recorded time that recognizes that Bruce Wayne has a household staff, and that a guy who already has a full-time job providing logistical support to a war on crime isn't also spending eight hours a day dusting.
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