Saturday, March 26, 2022

Film Review: The Batman


Sexuality/Nudity Mature
Violence Mature
Vulgarity Mature
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Mature

One of the great things about reading Batman comic books is that they can be almost anything.  One issue could have Batman facing off against a Joker death trap and then the next he could be on the Planet Apokolips, in an alien exo-suit punching Darkseid in the face.  And then the next week, he could breaking into the FBI disguised as a fire-fighter in order to solve a missing-person's cold case,  But this would be after his previous adventure when he took on a group of ninja-assassins with his bare hands.

(By the way, all of these are actual Batman comic book stories).

I bring this up because I love how the same is true about the Batman movies.  We've gone from the Tim Burton dark fantasy to the camp of Joel Schumacher (which was reflecting the tone of the 1960's Adam West Batman), to harrowing hero's journey of the Christopher Nolan trilogy and even the super-heroics of Zack Snyder's vision.  But now with The Batman we get something that we really haven't seen before:

Batman the Detective.

The Batman takes place two years after Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) started his war on crime.  He is still out there beating street thugs in the grimy streets of Gotham, wondering if he is making any real difference.  Things begin to take a dramatic turn when Lt. Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) calls Batman in to the murder of the mayor (Rupert Penry-Jones) by a mysterious new threat that they call the Riddler (Paul Dano).  This investigation pulls Batman deeply into the Gotham underworld to encounter reigning crime boss Carmine Falcone (John Tuturro) and his henchman Oswald "Penguin" Cobblepot (Colin Farrell).  Along the way he comes across the mysterious Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz) who may have similar goals to him but also has an agenda of her own.  All the while Alfred (Andy Serkis) does his best to keep Bruce from going over the deep end and plunge into the moral abyss into which he is staring.

The biggest criticism I have heard others say about this movie is that it is too dark and too long.  To be sure, the cinematography is very dim.  But like Joker, director Matt Reeves is creating a strong sense of space in this movie.  Gotham is a claustrophobic, murky urban nightmare.  All the life and color feels drained from this film, which corresponds to the intense depressive nature of Bruce.  All of the gadgets and technology feel just slightly ahead of its time, but grounded in the real world.  In fact, this is the most grounded Batman film I have seen, and that includes Nolan's films.

In regards to it being too long, I can respect that critique.  The narrative is not as tight as it could be.  However, this did not really bother me.  Watching this was like watching season 3 of Daredevil: the story took time to unfold the characters and plot lines.  I enjoyed the fact that the story would take turns in ways I did not see coming and pursue those plot lines to the point where you almost forgot the original thread.

This movie is not for children.  Even with a PG-13 rating, this is much more mature than any other Batman film.  Not only is there violence and murder, but the methods of killing are horrific.  One of them involves someone hooked up to a contraption with rats.  Most of the deaths are off-screen, leaving the horrors to your imagination, but children would fill in the blanks in a way that would be a bit much.

But the darkness and violence perfectly reflect the kind of Batman stories on which this movie is based.  The story that The Batman takes its main inspiration from is The Long Halloween, which is one of the greatest Batman detective stories.  Even though he is the world's greatest detective, this story challenges him in ways he did not see coming.

Reeves and co-screenwriter Peter Craig have given us the closest thing to a noir-Bat story that we have seen.  I mentioned before the focus on atmosphere, but they also give us a fresh take on the character.  This Batman is so close to being over the edge that he is just a hair's breath away from being like the criminals he pursues.  In this world, there is no "Bruce Wayne" persona.  Instead at all times, even when out in public, there is only the intensity of Batman.  Thankfully, Reeves and Craig trust their audience enough not to have to rehash the entire origin story, but instead focus on new and interesting twists.  It pushes Bruce to a place where he has to question his entire war on crime.

Whenever a new Batman is cast, there is a lot speculation as to whether we are getting a Keaton or a Clooney.  Pattinson is fantastic in this role.  As I wrote, his Batman is pure intensity all the time.  He is a joyless fantastic who is always looking, searching for threats and evil intent.  He, thankfully, does not go over the top with the voice like Christian Bale.  He also isn't stealthy, but makes his heavy footsteps heard and enters a scene with presence, trading stealth for fear.  It is easy to appear silly in the costume when surrounded by normal characters like cops, but Pattinson makes it work.  I really believed his unrelenting focus.

The other performances are also excellent.  This might be one of Tuturro's best.  He is powerful in how subtle he is.  His cool demeanor speaks to the character's confidence and power.  Farell's Penguin is like a cross between a 1940's film gangster and a Robert DeNiro impression, but it works.  His over-the-top performance provides some of the only levity in the film.  Kravitz is great as Selina, with great chemistry with the stoic Pattinson.  Serkis' take on Alfred is very interesting.  He leans into the more grizzled and less refined version of Alfred that we find in the comic book Batman: Earth One.  I don't want to speak too much of Dano's performance because part of the intrigue of the movie is how little they show of him through most of the movie.

One of the lines that was hyped much in the trailers is Batman saying "I'm vengeance!"  He says this early on and this is an important thematic element throughout the movie.  Since his parents' murder, Bruce has been motivated by revenge.  He takes out his rage on all those who break the law.  You can see that in the way he ruthlessly and ragefully beats his enemies to a pulp.  His quest is one of selfish catharsis at the beginning rather than a noble search for justice.  And as he falls deeper into the underworld of crime the more it threatens to consume him.

As a Catholic, I found this theme incredibly compelling.  Even if he is doing the right thing, he is still doing it for the wrong reasons and that makes his quest fall on the immoral side.  Part of his journey is one where he has to confront who he is and why he is doing what he is doing.  Using the Riddler as a foil helps because in his own twisted way, he is on the same path as Bruce.  But the question is whether or not Bruce is the same as him or the opposite.  All the other characters deal with questions of moral compromise and either overcome or succumb based on their journey.

If I had any problems with the film, there are two, but they are not deal-breakers.  The first is that there is some inconsistency in the action.  For example, there are times when Batman is taking on two machine gun blasts to the chest as if it nothing.  Then in another scene, one shotgun blast almost kills him, necessitating someone to come and save him.  

The second is that while Matt Reeves does a masterful job of telling a cerebral and moody story, there still was just a little bit of emotion missing.  This could simply be my own personal approach to Reeves movies.  His Planet of the Apes films are expertly made, but I felt a slight emotional distance despite the excellence of the story.  People often complain that Christopher Nolan's films lack emotion, but I disagree.  The ending to The Dark Knight never fails to make me feel something.  But the only thing holding The Batman back from reaching the perfection that is within its grasp is the fact that it doesn't pull enough at the heart.  It is exceedingly intersting, but it isn't incredibly moving.

Despite this, I find myself thinking of the movie with fondness.  Reeves has done a commendable job here and has set up a new Batman franchise that I cannot wait to see unfold.

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