Monday April 04, 2022
Movie Review: The Batman (2022)
Matt Reeves’ “The Batman” is arthouse Batman: long, brooding and morally ambiguous. It’s reminiscent less of a superhero flick than David Fincher’s “Se7en”: two detectives, an elder Black officer and his white, hothead partner, attempt to solve a series of grisly, serial-killer murders. You know how recent Batmen swoop around Gotham the way Spider-Man swings around Manhattan—almost as if he had super powers? This ain’t that. This is a grounded Batman. He’s definitely a dude in a bat suit, who relies on gadgets and martial arts, determination and smarts. The first time he’s on the roof of some gothic skyscraper he doesn’t brood over the city in the rain but all but goes “Yikes!” Recent Batmen have been like ninjas, too—all of a sudden, poof, there—while the first time we see Robert Pattinson’s Batman, we actually hear him, slowly clomping up the steps like the Terminator. Nothing about him is fast. Nothing about the movie is fast. Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” plays several times on the soundtrack, which is appropriate because it’s the movie’s tempo. Exactly that. “The Batman” is like “Something in the Way” for three hours.
And it’s pretty great.
Who is director Matt Reeves and how the hell did he land this gig? Back in 2008, he directed the sleeper hit “Cloverfield”; then he was tapped to remake the great Swedish horror-vampire film “Let the Right One In” for American audiences, and did a great job. So he spent the next decade doing the “Planet of the Apes” sequels. Now this.
Oh, and Batman’s sexy again. About time.
We begin the movie looking through the high-tech goggles of someone spying on a rich man and his kid in a townhouse. The kid is pretending to be a ninja and Dad is accommodating; he pretends to be stabbed. Then the kid goes trick-or-treating since it’s Halloween in Gotham City.
All the while, these were my thoughts:
- Are these the Waynes?
- Or is this another family and it’s the bad guy watching them?
- Or is it Batman watching them?
Right out of the gate, in other words, Reeves blurs the line between hero and villain. That’s a lot of the film. And not in the way of “You created me, I created you,” the Batman/Joker dynamic in the Tim Burton movie. Nobody says it, but I kept thinking, “OK, so Batman beats up a bunch of skull-faced subway punks while the Riddler (an excellent Paul Dano) is taking down the corrupt officials of Gotham City. Batman is fighting the symptom, the Riddler is fighting the cause. So why is the Riddler the villain again?”
Answer: He’s the villain because he’s insane and tortures people. Don’t do that, kids.
Anyway, yes, in the opening scene, it’s the Riddler’s eyes we’re looking through, after which the Riddler shows up as silent as a ninja in the townhouse and bludgeons the rich man—Mayor Don Mitchell (Rupert Penry-Jones)—to death. Then he gets out the duct tape. He’s big on the duct tape. When he stretches out a strip, it’s as loud on the soundtrack as gunfire in “Shane.” He also leaves clues/riddles and a message to the Batman. Not to taunt; I think he’s testing his smarts. He feels kinship. He wants partnership.
This is Year Two of Batman’s exploits, and he’s still this odd, caped vigilante around town. Most cops hate him, but he’s become the all-but-official partner of Lt. James Gordon (an excellent Jeffrey Wright), who is already using the bat signal when he needs to contact him. This is another stroke of genius to me. I’ve written about the bat signal before. It’s super-cool, I loved it as a kid, but it tends to mean we’ve left the Batman-as-vigilante phase (cool) and entered the Batman-as-institution phase (meh), which is a step away from Batman as camp (death). Here, Reeves manages to give us both Batman-as-vigilante and the bat signal. Because Gordon isn’t in charge yet. And the people who are in charge are corrupt.
Which is the point of the Riddler. Like John Doe in “Se7en,” he’s acting as judge, jury and executioner for the city’s sins. First it’s the mayor, then the police commissioner (Alex Ferns), whose face is eaten by rats during a livestream; then it’s the DA (Peter Sarsgaard), who is kidnapped and forced to crash a car, with a bomb locked around his neck, into the mass funeral for the mayor in midtown Gotham. All of these city officials are in the pocket of Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), the crime boss who runs the town from his penthouse above the Iceberg Lounge. So why doesn’t the Riddler just go after Falcone? Too logical, I guess. Way shorter movie. And how does the Riddler connect the dots between the mayor and the DA and the like? Was it common knowledge—like Mitch McConnell and dark money? Now there’s a Batman villain for you.
I keep using the term “the Riddler” but I don’t know if we ever hear it in the film, and he’s not exactly Frank Gorshin in a green leotard with question marks over it. (Though one of his lines is said with a very Gorshin-like inflection.) All the supervillains are mere suggestions of their comic book personas. The Riddler is a nerd accountant with crazy goggles and dark green hoodie. The Penguin (an excellent Colin Farrell), is a fat, squat crimeboss with a limp named Oz. Selina Kyle (a superhot Zoe Kravitz) is a martial arts-trained cat burglar, who, on the prowl, wears a mask with mere suggestions of ears. Plus the cats in her apartment. “I have a thing about strays,” she says to Batman, giving him a suggestive look. All three characters could fit into most crime/gangster movies and it wouldn’t look weird.
Meanwhile, Pattinson’s Batman looks iconically Batman—like a ’70s-era, Neal Adams drawing, but with dark cape/cowl rather than blue. He might look better than any Batman we’ve ever seen on screen. It should look weird—like “Se7en” with Brad Pitt in a bat outfit—but somehow it works. I assume because we expect it? I bet if you found someone who’d never heard of Batman, or superheroes, they’d think the whole thing was bizarre.
Pattinson makes it work, too. Like Edward from the “Twilight” series, he has a bruised, tragic stillness to him.* His Batman may mete out pain but he also exudes it. His Bruce isn’t the usual playboy, either. When he shows up at the mayor’s funeral, and the press goes crazy, Falcone (I think) calls him the only man in Gotham more reclusive than himself. He’s the city’s lost child, its poor little rich boy.
(* Has any actor played both vampire and Batman? I think Pattinson’s the first. He did it for the girls and now for the fanboys. OK, fangirls, too. He’s tall, quiet, tortured, mascaraed, passive. Selina makes all the moves. Their scenes together smoke.)
I like that there’s no slow-mo flashback to the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne; it’s assuming we know that story by now. I like that Wayne Manor isn’t a mansion outside of the city but a city skyscraper. Initially, too, Batman gets around on a nondescript motorcycle, which blends, and the passage to his “bat cave,” is serpentine, with secret walls, making it, you imagine, difficult to follow. To be honest, I was almost disappointed when the Batmobile showed up for the car chase with Oz—which, despite the one cool moment (the Batmobile leaping through the flames), felt overlong and unnecessary: an action-adventure bit for a noirish police procedural.
Let’s ask the Mamet question: What do the characters want?
So Selina is trying to find out what happened to her friend, Annika, a fellow waitress at the Iceberg Lounge, who goes missing; that’s why she teams up with Batman. She’s also the illegitimate daughter of Falcone. Does he know? And was she working at the Iceberg Lounge to become part of his life or kill him?
Oz is the loyal henchman who turns out to be not-so-loyal. We don’t know much more about him.
We know what the Riddler wants but he keeps going astray. Yes, it’s weird to talk about a crazy dude who uses 1984-style torture devices “going astray,” but, to me, the Riddler does this with his fourth target: Bruce Wayne. Why does he go after him? The Riddler, nee Edward Nashton, was an orphan himself in Wayne Orphanage. But after Thomas and Martha were murdered, the orphanage wound up in the hands of Falcone and Oz, who pillaged it like Tony Soprano’s men, leaving the orphans starving. Yet every day he had to hear about “poor little Bruce Wayne,” surrounded by his wealth. And he came to hate him. He identified with Batman and hated Bruce Wayne, and he decides to kill him. But it’s off the mark: Bruce isn’t part of the city’s corruption. Is that why the Ridder’s M.O. changes? With the others, it’s close quarters and sadistic torture, but with Bruce he just sends him a bomb in the mail. Blah. Alfred (Andy Serkis) opens it instead. Blah. He survives. Blah.
Then Riddler goes further astray. For most of the movie, his cinematic antecedent is John Doe in “Se7en,” and the sinners who need eradicating are the city’s fathers—the rich and powerful. In the final act, he’s all Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” unleashing a real flood that, like Travis’ imaginary rain, will wash all the scum off the streets. It’s a big, grandiose moment but kind of a bummer. At least John Doe stuck to the plan.
Batman changes, too, but in a way that makes sense. He has a trajectory. He begins the movie saying “I’m vengeance” to the subway punks, then realizes how corrupt the city leaders are, and that even his father was hardly a paragon of virtue; and at the end he’s confronted by one of the Riddler’s acolytes, who, when asked who he is, responds, “I am vengeance.” So the hero comes to realize his path is wrong, and rather than hurt criminals he winds up helping citizens caught in the flood. If the storyline were true to itself, in fact, this would be the moment when he unmasked himself—like Zorro at the end of the original 1920 “Zorro.” Basically it’s the moment he needs to be Bruce rather than Batman. But: sequels; moola. We even get a glimpse of Barry Keoghan as the Joker in Arkham Asylum. Warner Bros. primes that pump. Least shocking part of the film.
Despite that, I think this is the best Batman movie ever made. I love the scene in the police station where Batman is surrounded by cops, love Jeffrey Wright as Gordon, think Dano is a revelation (again), think Pattinson makes a great, brooding Batman. They’ll have a tougher go in the sequel. How do you scare criminals when you’re a beacon of hope? Good luck. Just don’t forget the Nirvana.