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.

Comments

Brett said…
It's odd, but I found the movie's aesthetic almost a bit refreshing after years of the MCU-style stuff. It was tired back when Dark Night Rises wound down, but it's been 14 years since The Dark Knight came out so it feels a bit new-ish to me again.

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 felt so weird. There was a good stopping point in the scene where he meets the captured Riddler in Arkham, where they could have had him realize that "I am vengeance" is a bad idea. The movie felt thematically finished at that point - it still would have had an undercooked Catwoman story and a Batman who doesn't actually save anyone, but it at least would have been interesting and not too protracted.

But then we got everything after that, which absolutely felt like something they had to rewrite and do because somebody involved said they needed an Act III blow-out and Batman to save somebody.
Pascoe said…
You've summed up my own feelings on the film magnificently. Aside from getting a kick out of Colin Farrell's goofy Penguin, about the only bit I was genuinely thrilled by was that opening "I am the shadows" sequence, which IMO works as a great standalone Batman mood piece.
The more I think about it, the more it seems like that entire "quick, we need a win!" add-on would have worked if they'd just kept the shooters at the mayor's victory speech and left out the bombs on the flood barrier. Because that's a problem that's suited to Batman's skillset, whereas when I first saw the bombs exploding I thought "whoops, better get Superman here quick".

Also, this is not a problem unique to this movie, but if the city of Gotham is protected from destruction by a single wall, and it is possible to park seven explosive vans next to that wall without anyone noticing or getting suspicious, then there are problems here that go far beyond corruption and organized crime.
(The comment above was in response to Brett.)

Pascoe:

Yes, that was a good sequence, and particularly because it not only sets out Batman's MO, but his priorities. He's not there to stop a convenience store holdup or a graffiti tagging, but he does show up to stop a racist assault. Unfortunately, that's a thread that's dropped almost immediately.

I don't even know what to make of Farrell Penguin, except to beg Hollywood to please, just cast fat actors to play fat characters.
Chris said…
"All this culminates in a Batman movie in which Batman does essentially nothing, very cinematically and for nearly three hours."

I miss two-hour long action movies.
Unknown said…
All very well said. Batman was so ineffectual in this movie (apart from beating up some teenage gang members at the beginning, he basically, as Abigail says, does nothing - doesn't solve the mystery, doesn't catch the Riddler, doesn't stop the Riddler's scheme, doesn't prevent Alfred getting blown up, etc) I almost wondered if that was the point somehow: Forget all this crime fighting, which you're not very good at, and just focus on traffic control duties during emergencies...
I miss two-hour long action movies.

You know, it's interesting: there's no denying that the movie is too long. If you're remaking Se7en and your version of it is nearly an hour longer (with fewer victims, no less), you've clearly done something wrong. But even though you're aware of the length while watching, and aware that it's unjustified, it's not onerous. I think it speaks to Reeves's skill as a filmmaker (and to how wasted he is on this material) that he's made a movie that is clearly too long, but manages to wear that flaw so lightly.
LondonKdS said…
After the hard-right-wing paranoia and police-worship of The Dark Knight Rises, I have no interest in seeing yet another Batman film that uses anti-establishment protest symbolism for its nihilistic, sociopathic mass murderer.
S Johnson said…
The movie says Paul Dano's character is charismatic enough to enlist a band of committed gunmen to conduct a massacre for kicks...and they keep their lips zipped. As this was happening on screen, in my seat I was comparing this to the giant penguins carrying missiles on their back that suddenly showed up for the last act in Burton's movie, not Nolan's. But then, I liked the Burtons better than the Nolans.

Another improvement on Nolan is the score. Zimmer, God bless him, will bludgeon your ear drums into submission if somebody doesn't stop him. Nolan didn't know any better.

Neither Nolan nor Reeves were as dark as Burton. But then, the truly dark Batman is the one who has ten year old Robin. No Batman movie will ever go there. But if you insist on chatting about police corruption, you should at least have the crooked cops be the targets, not the friends. No, a couple of scenes of grumpy cops doesn't cut it. Batman clubbing down a trigger-happy cop is taking the ostensible premise "seriously." Trying to minimize heat from the cops by never killing anyone would even offer an in-universe reason for a no-kill rule.

The real problem with the repeating versions of Wayne is I suspect the preposterous Alfred. And for Batman the equally preposterous Gordon. No actor can make a character live who never has scenes with anything remotely approaching real people. They can't do it with French poodles.

I only saw this because I was desperate to get out of the house on a sad occasion. I was doing a certain amount of writhing in my seat but I made it through. I've never been able to rewatch the entire Nolan.

Chris said…
"Neither Nolan nor Reeves were as dark as Burton. But then, the truly dark Batman is the one who has ten year old Robin. No Batman movie will ever go there. But if you insist on chatting about police corruption, you should at least have the crooked cops be the targets, not the friends. No, a couple of scenes of grumpy cops doesn't cut it. Batman clubbing down a trigger-happy cop is taking the ostensible premise "seriously." Trying to minimize heat from the cops by never killing anyone would even offer an in-universe reason for a no-kill rule."

The couple things that popped out at me about the corruption theme during the movie:

1) The scene where Batman tells Gordon that the Riddler won't go after him because "you're not corrupt." ... It says so much about the characters (and the writer, and frankly the genre) that it doesn't occur to them that Gordon is the point man for Gotham City's most notorious outlaw, and that, for any outsider to their little crusade, certainly to someone like the Riddler, that situation COULD be seen as very similar to the mayor, DA, police chief, etc's cozy little arrangements with the mob, MAYBE.

2) The whole "Falcone works for you?" "No, we work for HIM!" There was a short while when I thought the movie was going to go with option 1, that the "real" bad guys were the crooked public officials who were "made" by the Maroni bust, and Falcone was just the lowest tier of the conspiracy. Which would have been nice, because while the genre likes to portray gangsters as criminal masterminds, IRL they're just the bottom feeders of the power structure - the real power is higher up and more ostensibly "legitimate." And that would have fit right in with the Riddler's crusade to expose corruption in high places. But no, they had to consolidate all the corruption around one Kingpin-like figure (and familiar character in the mythos).

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