Weird Creature of the Night (Review: The Batman)
There aren’t many fictional characters that have as many character facets as Batman. You could go in a number of different directions beyond horror if your story involved Dracula — comedy, romance, action for starters. I think the same could be said for Sherlock Holmes. If you compare just Robert Downey Jr’s action-oriented take with the more cerebral approach of Benedict Cumberbatch you’ll see that the character of Holmes provides storytellers with a good amount of flexibility.
The nature of superheroes, however, is to be iconic, and that iconography can be limiting. Superman is an icon of truth, justice, all that jazz. Moreso, the nature of his character is that he’s compelled to help. He feels a pull to do his part in making things better and, hypothetically, if someone were to make a movie in which Superman was a big old grump about helping people, that would be spectacularly wrongheaded.
Unlike Captain America, The Flash, Wonder Woman, or Spider-Man, Batman oddly allows for more storytelling variety. You wouldn’t necessarily think that if you go back to the beginning. In those ancient issues of Detective Comics, at his inception Bats was a shadowy avenger who struck fear into the hearts of the wicked. It was ever thus, no? Well…no. The 1966 Batman TV show was campy and proudly goofy. The pendulum swung the other way with 1989’s gothic Batman and the even more gothic Batman Returns. After advertisers complained, the pendulum swung a different direction with 1995’s deeply silly Batman Forever and the deeply bad Batman and Robin. Then Christopher Nolan came along to plunk Bats into a gloomy trilogy that was more a crime saga and less a superhero adventure. And then Zack Snyder shoved the character into an interpretation that was dark but in more of a bombastic key.
Sure, The LEGO Batman Movie provided levity and intelligence, but it felt like the Dark Knight was fated to remain in the darkness. He didn’t have to stay there, though. The right filmmaker could do crazy science-fiction, swashbuckling adventure, even some genuine romance. But filmmakers stubbornly stuck with the shadowy avenger. I had gotten a little tired of that approach, and when I learned that a new standalone movie featuring the Caped Crusader was coming down the pike, a part of me thought, “Jesus, again?”* Was The Batman more of the same? Well…a little bit yes, but mostly no. I’ll explain.
For two years, Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) has had a singular purpose. Vengeance. He knows criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot, and to punish them, he adopts the identity of The Batman. Fear is his primary weapon, and in an early voiceover, he says, “They think I’m hiding in the shadows. But I am the shadows.” He’s become an urban legend for lowlifes.
With a funky costume, DIY gadgets, and an appetite for ass-kickery, you’d expect his crusade to be a roaring success, no? No. Despite scaring the dickens out of crooks and putting a bunch of scumbags in the hospital, Batman isn’t making much of a difference. Nobody ever said it would be easy, considering the criminal underworld is run by smooth mafioso Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), and his enforcer The Penguin (Colin Farrell).
Making matters worse is the pervasive corruption rotting Gotham City from the inside. The courts are dirty, the DA’s Office is dirty, and surprise, surprise, the cops are dirty. Lieutenant James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) is one of the only honest cops left, and to clean up the city, even a little, he’s been forced into an uneasy partnership with Batman.
Then, on Halloween Eve, the Mayor turns up dead. He’s been bumped off by The Riddler (Paul Dano), a masked serial killer with an annoying habit of leaving riddles and ciphers at murder sites.** The murder is a message, the first of many, and Batman must solve the mystery of who the killer is and what they’re after. He won’t be alone, and along with Gordon having his bat-back, he’ll team up with Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz), a part-time bottle girl and full-time cat burglar.
Right out on front street, let me inform you that The Batman is a bladder punishing three hours long. It’s also dark, both thematically and visually. There are shootings, stabbings, explosions, and worst of all, mascara-fueled moping. What we have here is a dark and gritty Batman movie, and making a dark and gritty Batman movie is not exactly what I would call visionary.
And you know what? I kind of loved The Batman, and if I’m being honest, I might love it more than The Dark Knight. A huge part of that is director Matt Reeves. As the filmmaker who made two out of three of the excellent Planet of the Apes reboot, he knows a thing or two about making smart genre cinema with a strong emotional core. Reeves has gone to great pains to make Batman and his world as grounded as possible. The tech is (mostly) believable. The costume is cobbled together tactical wear. Hell, the Batmobile is essentially a souped-up muscle car with an afterburner bolted to the back.
Reeves has made a film that echoes other films like Seven, Zodiac, The French Connection, and Saw. It’s a dank, grimy film with neon lighting the shadows. But he never goes full grimdark. Instead, he’s made the first Batman movie that has the feel of the best Batman comics. As much as I clowned on the running time, Reeves gets that a Batman story must first of all be a mystery and that there needs to be time for clues, investigations, red herrings, and reveals. There are excellently staged action scenes*** and, for the most part, they exist to serve the mystery and not the other way around. This is a comic book movie made by people who understand how comics function and why they endure.
What I also appreciated is that this is, at its core, an origin story — for the villains. We don’t have Martha Wayne’s pearls falling in slow motion, nor do we have young Bruce kneeling in front of the bodies of his parents. Screenwriters Reeves and Peter Craig know that we know all of that and skip past it. Instead, we’re seeing the genesis of the greatest rogue’s gallery in comics. Equally as intelligent is their characterization of Batman. He’s been doing his vigilante thing for a while and can handle himself in a fight. But this Batman isn’t a nigh-unstoppable force. Not yet, anyway. As smart and as skilled as he is, he’s unfocused. Angry. While he’s not the world’s greatest detective, he’s well on his way, and he learns that his nocturnal persona can do more than just scare the bejeezus out of crooks.
There are a lot of smart, nuanced, and entertaining performances to enjoy. Want to see an unrecognizable Colin Farrell channel his inner Robert De Niro? As The Penguin, Farrell plays him as an amusing mid-level enforcer used to being underestimated. Zoe Kravitz’s Selina Kyle is slinky, smart, and tough as nails. She’s also slowly becoming consumed by revenge, and Kravitz sells the vulnerability under the Catwoman confidence. As The Riddler, Paul Dano is able to be dangerous, a quality that only the late Heath Ledger was able to bring out as a Bat-villain. Dano’s performance is absolutely unhinged, and you buy that he’s very intelligent and completely insane. I also very much enjoyed the GOAT Jeffrey Wright as Gordon. He spends a lot of time handling the investigation with Bats. An odd friendship develops between the two, almost against Gordon’s better judgment.
What about Robert Pattinson, you may be asking? Does he do the cloak and the pointy ears justice? Absolutely. Pattinson plays Bruce Wayne as a reclusive oddball, a guy more interested in beating ass at 1:30 in the morning than keeping up appearances. Instead of Christian Bale’s aloof bohunk, Pattinson’s Wayne is like a hungover rock star. In his alter ego, he’s the most vulnerable Batman we’ve seen yet. He knows that his crusade isn’t actually making things better but he can’t see a better way until he’s forced to. He’s also smart, and this Batman is pretty good at working a crime scene and figuring out clues.
Yes, I know, I said about 4,000 words back that I wasn’t interested in yet another sourpuss Dark Knight in a sunlight challenged world, then proceeded to talk about how much I liked The Batman. The fact remains that Matt Reeves, Robert Pattinson, and the rest of the cast and crew have made a standalone film that works as an engrossing mystery, a smart character study, and a sophisticated way to honor the literary legacy of Batman. I can absolutely live with that. Next time, though? Would it kill him to smile a little?
*The first rule of smart filmgoing is to meet a movie on its own terms, instead of expecting it to be a certain thing. Too often, people walk into a film and want it to tell a certain story a certain way. When it doesn’t, then the movie is “bad.” This is incorrect. Don’t make the mistake I made.
**The Zodiac Killer should seriously think about suing The Riddler for copyright infringement. Now that I think of it, I’d love to see that lawsuit.
***This Batman film has the most innovative and flat-out cool fight scenes of the bunch. There’s a lot I would compliment about the Nolan films, but his fight scenes are not great.