The Batman is the epitome of a critic-proof movie. It’s been in production and post for the past two years, through a highly tumultuous and well-documented period of COVID delays and corporate fuckery. Furthermore, it’s only the latest entry in a franchise that’s been a global pop culture mainstay for nearly a century, and it stars an impressive roster of well-known talent. Everyone knows about this movie, and everyone knows whether or not they’re going to go see it.
On the other hand, it’s a three-hour movie. And a huge reason why the franchise remains so evergreen after so long is because it’s comprised of so many individual iconic assets, each and every one could be (and has been!) interpreted in any number of ways. And of course we’ve got the aforementioned issues with this overlong production, which could be worth its own documentary.
Paradoxically, it feels like there’s nothing about this film left to say, and yet there are so many thousands of words left to say about it. Hell, I had already written over 2,700 words on the subject before I had even seen the damn movie! So let’s not waste any more time, shall we?
In a previous blog entry, I stated that Batman is a gargoyle — he’s a false monster created to scare away the real monsters. From the opening scenes, it’s abundantly clear that the filmmakers get this about the character. In fact, they get this to such an extent that they pursue it to a degree I hadn’t even considered before: How could a civilian tell the difference between the fake monster and the real monsters? Even worse, what happens if one of the real monsters mistakes Batman for one of their own?
The Nolan trilogy already went into great detail on the issue of escalation, and how the bad guys of Gotham might be inclined to step up their game in response to the masked vigilante with the bat gimmick. Reeves and company go a step further, arguing that this is a crucial reason why Batman needs to have a code. If Batman starts using guns, the bad guys will surely use that as justification for carrying bigger guns. He starts killing people, and the bad guys will kill even more people.
Batman says that he is vengeance. But again, the Nolan trilogy already went into great detail about how vengeance and justice are not the same thing. And again, this movie goes even further, explicitly showing how pursuing vengeance in the name of righteous fury can lead people to psychotic solutions for rational fears. In the Nolan trilogy, it was just Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent. In Reeves’ film, it’s a whole freaking mob.
Throughout the entire film, there’s the recurring question of what separates Batman from the supervillains he chases down. It’s certainly not an accident that the Riddler is first introduced lurking in the shadows, in a move straight out of Batman’s own playbook. For a great many scenes afterward, there’s almost no way to tell if it was Batman or Riddler waiting to strike — the only clue we have is whichever character’s theme Michael Giacchino is playing in the moment.
The point is further emphasized by the piecemeal look of Batman’s outfit, such that he really does look like the amateur Batman imposters who got reprimanded at the opening of The Dark Knight. (Sorry, but those shoulder guards on Pattinson’s costume really do look like hockey pads.) Furthermore, the film is clear to draw a number of explicit parallels between Bruce Wayne, Selina Kyle, and Edward Nashton (respectively played by Robert Pattinson, Zoe Kravitz, and Paul Dano). Most notably, all three are orphans who are supremely messed up by their respective pasts and their relationships with their parents.
I won’t go into any spoilery details, but suffice to say that this iteration of the Wayne parents were involved in some shady business that got themselves killed. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, the classic origin story is given so much more power if Thomas and Martha Wayne were the tragic victims of a random mugging. If the two most wealthy and powerful citizens in all of Gotham could be killed by some everyday street thug, what chance could any commoner have? Thus it makes a lot more sense why Bruce Wayne would devote his entire life to making sure that no child in Gotham ever had to suffer the pain and loss that he did.
(Side note: I’m happy to report that we don’t get a “popcorn and pearls” scene this time, flashing back to the night of the murder.)
On the other hand, it’s impossible to ignore the established fact that the Wayne family has always been such a hugely influential part of Gotham. It’s likewise impossible to ignore the fact that Gotham is a cesspool of crime and corruption. Putting two and two together, of course Thomas and Martha Wayne must have had some hand in why Gotham is as bad as it is. Either that or they must have taken some part in trying to fix the city, thus running afoul of the criminals who’ve grown wealthy and powerful under the status quo.
A significant part of what made Batman Begins so great is in the inspired way Nolan and company threaded that needle to have it both ways. This movie takes a different (and admittedly weaker) approach, parlaying the revelation into that time-honored rite of passage in which Bruce discovers that his parents weren’t infallible demigods but flesh-and-blood human beings. Even better, it sends the message that even good-hearted people are capable of making mistakes, and the damage of those mistakes is only compounded by wealth and power. Needless to say, the lesson has significant implications where Bruce Wayne is concerned.
Speaking of which, a variety of modern critics have raised the question of why Bruce Wayne couldn’t simply use his money to ease Gotham’s recurring issues with crime and poverty. The film answers that criticism head-on with the simple fact that this is Gotham. In a city this crooked, do you really think all of Wayne’s billions would actually go toward helping the poor? No, that money would go directly toward lining the pockets of mobsters, greedy politicians, corrupt businessmen, and anyone else savvy enough to get their beaks wet without getting caught.
Catwoman and Riddler are both street-level thugs who become vigilantes to seek justice against the wealthy and powerful. Batman is a wealthy and powerful man who became a vigilante to seek vengeance against street-level thugs. So why are we rooting for the guy who’s punching down? Why are we rooting against the ones who are actually trying to take down this rotten system?
Bruce spends the entire film trying to find an answer to that question. And in the final analysis, it turns out that Riddler and Catwoman are out to punish the guilty while Batman is out to protect the innocent. When punishment is an end in itself, it’s a lot easier for innocent people to get caught in the crossfire. But when the mission is to inspire hope and save lives, that’s not as easy to corrupt.
Then again, that leaves open the question of whether hope, optimism, and any real change are even possible in a place so far gone as Gotham. The film leaves that an open question, while firmly stating that trying to be part of the solution will always beat the alternative.
In all iterations across all media, Batman is always at his most compelling when he works directly on top of that razor-thin line between tough and crazy, and Robert Pattinson skirts that line superbly well. I might add that he and Zoe Kravitz have perfectly serviceable chemistry, Selina Kyle is more than tough and crazy enough to hold her own against Batman, and portraying the character as a biracial woman adds all sorts of new layers to the character.
As for Paul Dano, I’m happy to report that he threw himself into the role with aplomb. It’s not very often when Dano really gets to sink his teeth into the scenery, but he always does so with compelling insanity. More importantly, the filmmakers clearly understand that Riddler holds a unique place in Batman’s rogues gallery because he can’t be defeated with punches and gadgets. The only way to beat the Riddler to out-think him. Again, the filmmakers understand this to a stellar degree, as the Riddler uses his various clues and riddles to trick Batman and the police into doing his dirty work for him. Brilliant.
Oh, and that “thumb drive” bit at the half-hour mark? Freaking ingenious.
In the supporting cast, I was nicely impressed with Jeffrey Wright, here playing Lt. James Gordon as the only good cop in the GCPD. More notably, it can’t be ignored that Wright has already played Batman in “Batman: The Audio Adventures”, and he’s using the exact same voice as Gordon. So when Batman and Gordon are working together to coordinate efforts or solve some problem, it sounds like a team-up between two different Batmen and that tickled me.
Kudos are also due to John Turturro, nicely playing Carmine Falcone as a character of ambiguous morality behind impenetrable sunglasses. Peter Sarsgaard is sadly underutilized, but he makes a meal of what he’s given. Ditto for Colin Farrell, who completely and totally melts into his makeup for a small yet crucial role.
The filmmakers did a fantastic job getting the broad strokes perfectly right. It’s in the finer details where we start running into problems.
First of all, Batman never throws a batarang. Not a one. He makes extensive use of the grapnel gun, and he’s got a few explosives in that utility belt, but no batarangs. That chest emblem turns out to be a bat-shaped cutting tool, which is pretty neat, but it’s never thrown. If it’s not thrown, that’s not a batarang.
So here we have a Batman who never uses what could very well be the most iconic and versatile weapon in his entire arsenal. That is some serious bullshit.
Another big problem comes with regards to Alfred, played here by Andy Serkis. Not that Serkis himself is the problem, and I’m happy to report that he did an admirable job with what he was given. No, the big problem here is that the filmmakers could never get a clear picture of the Bruce/Alfred relationship. Through most of the film, it’s like watching a spoiled rich kid dealing with a put-upon servant, which might be considered a valid take for anyone who’s never seen another iteration of the character. (Except maybe The Lego Batman Movie, which was intended as a parody!) As best I can tell, this iteration of Bruce never really saw Alfred as surrogate family (indeed, they’re the only family that each other has) or came to properly appreciate him until shit goes bad. Like Bruce didn’t come to that understanding at any other point in the past twenty years? Yeah, right.
Then we have the Batmobile. I freaking love this new Batmobile and I love what the filmmakers were going for with the big car chase scene. The whole concept of “it’s the bad guys desperately trying to run and hide from Batman, but they’re in cars” is a frankly brilliant take for a scene with the Batmobile. The problem is that the whole sequence is shot all wrong. Every single shot is so tight that there’s no room to appreciate the various stunts and maneuvers and whatnot.
On a similar note, it felt like every fight scene suffered from subpar camerawork. The performances sold the action, the score nicely raised the tension, and the sound design made sure every punch felt nicely visceral. But for all of that, there was something about the camerawork and editing that didn’t quite make the stunts as thrilling as they might’ve been.
Speaking of which, there’s the climax. Even a week before the film’s release, I already pointed out that we had seen this Batman taking machine gun fire to the chest at point blank without flinching, and it broke the character. Importantly, this was before I had seen a bomb literally blow up in Batman’s face, and he walked it off without a scratch.
This becomes a far greater issue in the climax, in which Batman’s primary threat is a bunch of people with guns. So either Batman is immune to bullets and thus in no real danger, or bullets can hurt him in open defiance of everything we’ve already seen. Either way, the character’s invulnerability completely breaks the climax, which is kind of a big fucking problem.
Last but not least, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the sequel teases. At least I hope the drug that Batman injects himself with at a plot-sensitive moment was a potential tease at sequel-baiting and world building, or else it looks like sloppy writing. But of course everyone’s talking about the certain cameo at the end from an actor who’s more than proven himself, and I personally hope he’ll get the chance to cut loose sooner than later.
Is The Batman a good movie? Honestly, I think that question is beside the point. Regardless of whether or not it’s a good movie, this is the version we’re stuck with until the character is inevitably rebooted in another ten or twenty years. So perhaps the question we should be asking is whether we need a sequel.
Well, something will have to be done about Batman’s invulnerability. I’m astonished that the filmmakers showed such a clear and thorough understanding of the character and why we love him, yet they couldn’t understand why making him bulletproof wrecks the whole franchise from top to bottom. Otherwise, it looks to me like everyone has a clear passion for Gotham and they’re remarkably savvy with using the franchise to make timely and relevant statements. So sure, let’s see where this goes.
But for the record, The Dark Knight is still the best film of the franchise so far. Except maybe Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.