Friday, 25 March 2022

REVIEW: The Batman

This is the... let's check... ninth live action Batman solo feature film. If you add in the animated features, old serial films, and shared universe movies, there have been... a lot. It's tough, against this background, to make a Batman film that stands out, not least considering that previous iterations have included some of the best superhero films ever made (although, admittedly, also some of the worst). Like Spider-Man a few years ago, this seemed like another hurried reboot far too soon after the last one. Just as then, though, Matt Reeves's new take on the now octogenarian franchise shows how well it can work when someone who really gets the character has creative freedom.

The Batman sets itself apart with its title, which now seems to be the method of dispensing with an uncertain past and heading off in a stronger direction. We've had The Suicide Squad, and I wholeheartedly look forward to The Superman, The Wonder Woman and, of course, The The Flash. It's a bit pretentious, that definite article, but it fits with the very serious, self-conscious tone of the film. Batman works best when it's taken seriously but also accepts the campness and absurdity in its concept. The Batman only really does the first part of that, and this leads to quite a dour experience. It's dark – so dark that it's hard to make out what's going on in some scenes – and by gum it's long, and on the whole it's extremely well done. Still, I do miss when a Batman film was entertaining (in live action at least – the perfect remedy to this is The Lego Batman Movie, this film's antimatter twin).

It's had a long and torturous upbringing, this film. Initially an intended as an installment of the DCEU, and virtually a vanity project for Ben Affleck, it was completely reworked when he dropped out and Reeves stepped in. One thing I continue to love about DC/WB's current approach to its films is the creative control it has given writers and directors. While the MCU becomes ever more expansive, swallowing up earlier franchises, it also threatens to become more and more homogeneous. DC, having failed to emulate the Marvel model (not for lack of trying) have allowed something different here. Unique interpretations of classic characters that can sit alongside each other, with no single one being the official, definitive version.

This is, semi-officially, the cinematic Earth-2, where a younger version of Bruce Wayne has only recently donned the cape and the cowl. I like how we've side-stepped the origin story (no need to cover that again) yet are still dealing with a very young version of the character. Yes, the death of the Waynes weighs heavily on the storyline, but this is still Batman as an established force in Gotham City. Only two years established, however, and still in the angry, emo phase of the Caped Crusader, stunted at an adolescent stage of development.

The casting of Robert Pattinson is perfect for this version of Batman. Like many, I was doubtful, but after previously surprising success stories I was happy to wait and see how he turned out. (Heath Ledger's Joker, of course, being the most famous example of “trust the casting director,” but most of the previous live action Batman castings have met with a undeserved backlash.) I was sniffy of the images of emo Bruce Wayne, with smudged make-up and lank black hair, but the character has always been an angry emo kid in a big bloke's body. This was just the first time he looked the part. Really, though, Bruce's character is almost – almost – irrelevant here. Pattinson's Bruce barely has an identity beyond Batman, subsuming himself entirely into the role of the vengeful vigilante.

(A side note – the current main actors for Batman, Superman and Spider-Man, the three most bankable superheroes in the world and often considered quintessentially American characters, are now played by Englishmen. Funny old world.)

The cast are all impressive. Jeffrey Wright is, for me, the best version of James Gordon we've ever had on the screen; gruff, straight-down-the-line and noble. Not yet the commissioner of lore, but still an established figure, much like the young Batman. There's a mystery about what happened during the last two years that made Batman such a notorious figure, yet one trusted by Gordon, but I suspect we'll learn that in time. Andy Serkis gives a version of Alfred who's both recognisably the butler and pseudo-father figure we know and a more formidable character, a veteran who you'd never cross and who has almost lost faith in his charge.

Zoe Kravitz plays Catwoman (for the second time – see again Lego Batman), or rather the Cat, as the character was originally known. Her version is more Selina Kyle than Catwoman, but you can see her slowly going down the route that Bruce himself has and being subsumed by her alter ego. Catwoman is always best as a morally complex antihero rather than a straightforward villain, and, of course, a romantic interest for Bruce to further muddy the waters. Kravitz portrays Selina as a sexually-charged figure, but this also comes across as just as much a mask for someone who has had a brutal and exploitative upbringing. It's an excellent performance.

The main villain, though, is the Riddler, virtually unrecognisable from his comicbook counterpart and previous big screen outings. Paul Dano's version of Edward Nashton (no Nygma in this telling) is a twisted but ultimately sympathetic individual. Dano's performance is remarkable, giving us a young man who is clearly mad as a jacket full of question marks, yet on whose every word we hang. Even under a mask that makes Batman's seem revealing, Dano gives Edward a depth and power, and he deserves to be remembered as one of the great Batman screen villains.

The gangsters are strong too. Colin Farrell is utterly unrecognisable as “Oz” Cobblepot, the Penguin, lathered in latex and donning a broad accent. We might ask why they didn't cast someone who looked and sounded at least a bit like the character they wanted, but Farrell's performance is suitably impressive. This scarred, arrogant version of the Penguin works, as the best iterations of the Penguin do, as a power-hungry crook who's out-of-his-depth. Perhaps the scariest of the villains is John Turturro's Carmine Falcone. No outlandish make-up, no scary mask, no voice modulation. Just a man who's cruelty and greed is outstripped only by the power he's accumulated. Tying him into the Waynes' murder is a good idea, giving the story greater structure, much as Tim Burton's Batman tied in the Joker to the origin story.

The Batman's strength as a story is its deconstruction of the vigilante hero's existence, positioning him as just as much a threat to the safety and structure of Gotham as the villains. Throughout, it's made clear that a noble mission can be easily perverted by human weaknesses, be it in Thomas Wayne's poor judgment in the face of a threat, the various lawmen and politicians of Gotham giving into corruption and greed, or Bruce's own spiral into violent vengeance. Like all the best Batman stories, it positions Batman as a reaction to Gotham's brutality, but also as a catalyst for the worst to come. It's far from the first story to suggest that Bruce's costumed crusade acted as inspiration for the various outlandish villains who came after him, but it makes it explicit and holds him to account for it. (It's exactly the opposite take to the last “young Bruce” attempt, the Gotham TV series, which had it entirely the wrong way round.)

Notably, it's not entirely down to the Batman's example, but the insidious, ongoing radicalisation of young men (particularly young white men) online. Edward commands a small but loyal following of angry men, and he has broken away from a deeply isolated existence into a world where violence is the only means of making the wider world pay attention. Like Joker, which similarly explored the explosion of violence that lies beneath masculine social conditioning, it has its real life reflections in young men and boys who dressed up in Joker make-up before shooting at cinemas full of people. We don't know the backstory of the Joker in this version of events (a recently released deleted scene gives some hints, but it's clear why it was deleted, not least because it's almost impossible to make out what Barry Keoghan's version of the Joker is saying), but it's easy to imagine that the Riddler is inspired by both the Joker and Batman (he's long been something of a Joker copycat, after all).

There's a note of hope in the climax, as Bruce turns away from the pursuit of violence and starts to actually help people, rescuing those in danger rather than simply beating up villains and abandoning their victims. Still, it's hard not to think that he's missed the point. It's an improvement, sure, but as the new mayor has been trying to tell him, his money would be put to better use in philanthropic programmes than in whatever else he's been spending it on. Thomas Wayne's failure at the last doesn't mean that his goal of using his wealth to improve people's lives was wrong.

Visually, musically, and directorially distinct, The Batman succeeds in standing out as its own animal amongst all the many Batmen that have gone before. It's a strong, solid dark detective story with an important message, but one that's a bit muddled in the telling. Clearly open for a sequel (with an entire new Bat-verse franchise planned, whether or not this is a wise direction), it's not quite the triumph some are making it out to be, but it has the potential to be the start of something truly great.

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