Recent Movie: The Batman
My overall reaction to this movie is: "fine, I guess". And perhaps that's less a function of the film itself as of the state of the character, who has received five different cinematic takes in thirty years, the last two of which have converged on a sort of a Batman orthodoxy that mandates gloom, brooding, and violence. But even allowing for the tiredness of the material, Matt Reeves's version feels uninspired, stitched together from the pieces of previous attempts, lightly rehashing ideas that have already been thoroughly chewed over, and adding nothing new to the concept or the character.
The guiding principle was clearly "The Dark Knight, but more so". The film is structured more as a crime story than a superhero story, with a strong presence for the Gotham police department, an emphasis on organized crime and institutional corruption, and a deranged villain—Paul Dano as the Riddler—who is obsessed with exposing the seedy underbelly of the supposedly respectable Gotham leadership. This is all well-executed as far as it goes, and to his credit, Reeves improves on the original where it was most obviously lacking. The action scenes are coherent and gripping, and the visuals—though eventually the brown and grey color palette becomes quite tedious—are rich and velvety. But where Nolan's Batman movies were, for better and worse, putting their own stamp on the material, Reeves's just feels like it's turning up the dial on someone else's work. Every idea in the movie feels recycled: the implication that Riddler was inspired to theatrical violence by Batman's emergence, the argument that Batman could do more good as Bruce Wayne than as a masked vigilante. Even Riddler's disgust with the lies told by Gotham's elite, and determination to redeem the city through catastrophic violence, feels warmed-over, and somehow even less coherent than Bane's similar goals in The Dark Knight Rises.
It certainly doesn't help that Batman, despite appearing in almost every scene, feels curiously absent from this movie. For all the jokes about "emo Batman" (and despite a truly absurd floppy hairstyle), Robert Pattinson is never given the chance to give this Batman (or Bruce Wayne) their own personality. The implication, one supposes, is that this is a Batman who is still figuring himself out, but what actually shows up on screen feels blank rather than questing. There are a few solid gestures towards the idea that this version of Batman, who has only been operating for a few years, hasn't yet evolved into his final form—most notably, a scene in which he attempts a dramatic leap from a tall building and thoroughly beefs the landing. But absent a core of humanity, these moments feel mechanical. A progression towards an entirely foregone conclusion, whose shape has been determined by its broader cultural context, not the specifics of this take on the character.
Presumably inspired by Joker putting a light superhero gloss on Taxi Driver and The Kings of Comedy, The Batman feels like Se7en meets Klute, with superheroes. I haven't seen Joker, but if this take on the concept is anything to go by, it's a phenomenally bad approach to storytelling, one that doesn't really succeed as a superhero story, while feeling like a pale shadow of the classics it's imitating. Case in point is the handling of Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz) who is here positioned as the sassy informant to Batman's detective. But almost hilariously, this version of Jane Fonda's character is not a sex worker, despite working at a club where all the other women, including a missing one whose disappearance throws Catwoman in Batman's path, are sex workers, because this is still major studio tentpole that needs a PG-13 rating. Along the way, Catwoman as we've come to know her—as a player with her own agenda who may feel attraction to Batman, and may ally herself with him in specific cases, but is always ultimately on her own side—is nowhere to be found. If previous movie iterations of the character have felt like Batman's equal, this one feels like a sidekick.
All this culminates in a Batman movie in which Batman does essentially nothing, very cinematically and for nearly three hours. In keeping with the Se7en template, Riddler sets up elaborate murder scenes for the people whose lies, he believes, have corrupted the city. Like the detectives in that movie, Batman can only observe these tableaux, constantly behind the eight ball and even, in one case, playing into Riddler's hands by delivering a victim to be killed. (There is, for a few minutes, the intriguing suggestion that Gotham's leadership will suspect Batman of being in league with the Riddler, since their goals are superficially so similar; it feels quite telling that what is probably the only original idea in this movie is dropped almost as soon as it's raised.)
But what works in a movie whose whole point is the despair and helplessness of its protagonists is obviously a poor fit for a superhero story, and so the film furnishes Batman with a last-minute opportunity for heroism—that somehow ends up feeling even more dispiriting than Gwyneth Paltrow's head in a box. Riddler's actual scheme, it turns out, is a massive terrorist attack that causes lethal floods in most of the city. Which Batman fails to prevent, but he does pick off a few gunmen who had been positioned to shoot at the fleeing survivors (a clearly unnecessary flourish given the scope of the destruction, added to give the hero a problem that he is equipped to address). Then, in what is intended as the moment in which he cements his heroism, he picks up a flare and leads a small group of survivors across a flooded arena. So the cathartic ending this film offers is one in which thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of people die, and the superhero's contribution is to do what any firefighter could have done.
Right at its end, The Batman has its title character muse that he realizes that embodying vengeance is insufficient, and that he should try to offer hope to the people of Gotham. Which is a perfectly fine conclusion (if, again, hardly original) that has no grounding in any of the preceding two hours and fifty minutes. And more importantly, at the end of a film that has delivered little more than well-executed riffs on other people's ideas, it's hard to imagine that this series is suddenly going to take Batman in a new direction. The foundation—in character, setting, and tone—simply isn't there. Once again, this is almost certainly not Reeves's fault. The character has been so relentlessly rehashed—and the contours of what it is allowed to be have been so rigidly drawn—that there is simply nothing new to say about him. But the result is a film that, for all its achievements on a scene-by-scene level, never successfully makes an argument for its own existence.