The Batman(3/7/2021)

Remember when Batman movies were rare and each new film seemed like an event?  I remember that, and I must say I’m coming to kind of miss it.  In theory the newest Batman reboot, The Batman, is the first solo movie about the caped crusader since 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises but in-between we’ve gotten two major movies with Batman fighting as part of a team (one of them released in two different forms), one high profile movie about his greatest villain, three movies in the Suicide Squad-verse (which is fairly intertwined with Gotham), a live action TV series (“Gotham”), several animated films and shows, several video games, a Lego movie… there’s been a lot.  On some level maybe it’s my fault for watching all this stuff, like someone who gorges on a ridiculous amount of ice cream for a week and then lashes out when someone invites them to go get more ice cream, but at the same time Warner Brothers has been pushing all this stuff and I’m not going to apologize for taking them up on it.  It’s a bit of a contrast with what Marvel does, which is certainly culturally omnipresent in terms of the overall brand but they are pretty diligent about carefully doling out their specific characters in reasonable portions so that you don’t get sick of them individually as quickly.  By contrast Warner Brothers/DC seems to know Batman is their one most consistent performer so they just give us version after version of Gotham over and over.  Of course it kind of sucks that I’m coming to feel this way right when one of their most ambitious Batman films hits theaters, and that movie’s trailer was just cool enough to make be pretty pumped to give it a chance.

This is not a sequel to any previous iteration of Batman but it’s also not exactly another origin story.  In comics parlance this is a “year two” story that begins with Batman (Robert Pattinson) already being an established vigilante in Gotham City but still early in his crime fighting career and the public isn’t really sure what to make of him.  He faces his greatest challenge as the film starts when Gotham’s mayor, Don Mitchell Jr. ( Rupert Penry-Jones), is assassinated by an elusive killer calling himself the Riddler (Paul Dano) who leaves intentional clues at the scene to taunt the police and Batman.  Soon other officials start being killed as well and Riddler starts releasing videos to the public suggesting his victims were all part of some sort of vast citywide conspiracy.  This will force Batman to coordinate with Detective Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) to investigate some of the mob leaders running crime in the city like Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) and his right hand man Oswald “The Penguin” Cobblepot (Colin Farrell) to figure out what this conspiracy is and cut off Riddler and one of the strongest leads is the suspected murder of a woman named Annika Koslov (Hana Hrzic), whose roommate just happens to be a skilled cat bugler named Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz) who while investigating that death finds she has common cause with Batman.

At this point it is perhaps a bit stale to compliment a Batman movie for taking a “dark” and “gritty” approach to the character but… this movie is certainly pretty damn dark though perhaps a bit less gritty than some of the previous adaptations.  Where The Dark Knight trilogy leaned into trying to make some of the comic book insanity of the character fit within the template of more familiar action movie tropes this one leans a bit more into giving the movie the feel of a comic book.  Not necessarily a silver age comic book like what the Marvel movies are drawing on or the edgelord comics of the 80s but more like the feel of contemporary comic books that are a bit more nonchalant with their darkness and are characterized by a bit of glossiness in the art.  In terms of story this is plainly drawing on the classic comic book limited series “The Long Halloween.”  It doesn’t have the holiday jumping element of that book and doesn’t involve the two-face character, but like that series it’s a “year two” story that sort of explains how Gotham’s mob families lost control giving way to the criminal supervillains Batman would become more famous for fighting and like that series it delves into the question of whether Thomas Wayne was everything he was cracked up to be.

In place of Two Face the film uses a version of The Riddler who is depicted as a sort of serial killer with delusions of fomenting revolution by revealing Gotham’s dark secrets.  I… have some mixed feelings about this take on the character.  The Riddler is historically a character about the dark side of intelligence, a sort of dark mirror image of the “nerd” comic book reader who has become so smug about his own intelligence that he builds these elaborate crime plans to prove how smart he is to the world.  On some level this Riddler has shades of that but he’s a lot angrier and his scheme is more of a sincere if twisted crusade than an exercise in ego presentation.  Also, while the traditional Riddler is not above killing it’s not his raison d’etre while this guy is rather actively targeting murdering people in fairly sadistic and attention getting ways to start off his crime spree which is presented as a sort of PG-13 version of a Saw movie and once we learn more about him he starts to resemble the killer from Se7en almost to the point of plagiarism and by the end of the film he’s almost just a barking lunatic who does not exactly seem capable of the elaborate planning and coordination that’s required to bring about the evil scheme that eventually unfolds.

Having said all that I mostly did like Paul Dano’s performance in that role, which is saying something because I’m usually not that into Dano’s work.  Dude certainly dedicates himself to what he’s doing.  In fact I’d say a lot of the acting in this is quite good.  Colin Ferrell is really fun as this mobbed up take on The Penguin where he’s caked in makeup to the point of near unrecognizability but does manage to make some real energy come out from under all that just the same.  The villains are rounded out by John Turturro as the gangster Carmine Falcone, who isn’t exactly stretching himself here but is certainly has some nice touches, particularly his understated delivery of a key speech late in the film.  On the other side of the law I quite dug Jeffrey Wright as Gordon and Peter Sarsgaard does some good work as Gotham’s not very trustworthy district attorney.  Andy Serkis is here as the film’s version of Alfred, who does a good job but I wouldn’t say it’s the most interesting or memorable take on this familiar character.  Then there’s Zoë Kravitz as Catwoman who is just incredibly striking pretty much every time you see her on screen.  Her take on the character is well in line to the antihero quasi-love interest version of the character that’s been in vogue as of late.  We saw a similar take from Anne Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises but this version is a bit more “punk rock” down to Kravitz’ short Halsey-esque haircut and general body language.

Having said that, I’m not exactly sure that catwoman was entirely necessary to this story.  I would miss Kravitz’ take on the character but we’re dealing with a movie that’s nearly three hours and while I’m not inherently opposed to that I do think this particular movie does feel a tad bloated, which is exacerbated by having something of a false ending about forty minutes from the end and it’s the Catwoman material that, more than anything else, feels like a needless appendage on top of the story rather than an intrinsic element within it. I would also say that I’m not sure I can get behind the political undercurrents of all this.  On the positive side, I think there’s value to a movie about questioning the histories of certain heroes (in this case Batman’s father, Thomas Wayne) and whether they were as virtuous as they claimed, which is useful in a time when the legacies of so many past historical figures are having their legacies re-evaluated.  On the other hand I’m less interested in getting behind something that argues that the entire establishment is corrupt and all the “elites” are colluding, as The Riddler is trying to expose given how much damage similar outlandish populist conspiracy theories (like the one involving the seventeenth letter of the alphabet) have done as of late.  Obviously this attitude is being put into the mouth of a villain, but the movie only really questions his methods, not his mission and he’s more or less vindicated as correct about most of what he’s trying to expose.

So, I have some issues with this movie but I kind of knew when I started this review that it was going to end up seeming more negative sounding than my overall feelings about the movie actually are.  My the record show that I do in fact like this movie quite a bit, if this had come out before superhero and specifically Batman movies were overexposed beyond belief (say, in the summer of 2008) I would have probably been over the moon about it.  But I think I’ve become a bit jaded through overexposure and I may well have just gotten up on the wrong side of the bed the day I saw it because I just do not have that palpable sense of excitement that this should theoretically be giving me.  Minute to minute much of Matt Reeves’ filmmaking here is extremely impressive.  Some of the action scenes are a bit choppily editing, but they’re accentuated by some really cool moments that make up for this.  Gotham looks better than ever between Greig Fraser nicely amber brown cinematography and production design that gives the city more of a modern New York appearance than what we’ve mostly gotten out of modern Batman adaptations.  I also appreciated what Robert Pattinson was able to do with the character, especially when he was in costume and taking part in fights.  I think if they had just given Batman a bit more of a break before making this I would have been more excited but Warner Brothers apparently can’t afford breaks anymore.

**** out of Five


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