‘The Batman’ is a triumph

Images courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

9/10 The Batman is a grueling marathon of angst and anxiety, the perfect balance of a wannabe-hardcore crime story and the real fears that undergird its telling. It is a bold statement of and about Batman in media that could only exist as a Batman story. 

Gotham City, Thursday, Oct. 31- A year into Bruce Wayne’s campaign to defeat violence as a concept through superior firepower as Batman (Robert Pattinson), violent crime is up throughout the city, and his crusade appears to have had little effect. A serial killer calling himself the Riddler (Paul Dano) begins a string of vicious murders of Gotham’s political elite, leaving clues for the police, cryptic messages for news media and greeting cards addressed to Batman personally. The case takes him into the epicenter of Gotham’s criminal underworld. 

Batman changes dramatically through the decades, and he has changed again in The Batman. The film lays out the entire recent history of the character in media like a roadmap to the deteriorating mood of the 21st centuy.

The first thing to know about The Batman is it is not for children. It is the “Hamlet” of Batman films, an antisocial 176-minute march in which every scene is drawn out, thorough, a little bit miserable and frequently testing to the viewer. It’s easy to feel the spots where separate chapter titles could have been inserted, and the whole thing could easily feel disjointed were it not for Michael Giacchino’s relentless, operatic score tying it all together. 

Greig Fraser and his anamorphic cinematography is the other hero here. Fishbowls frequently surround characters in the dead-center of the frame with diluted colors around the warped edges, making the frame a dim spotlight. James Chinlund’s production design is flat-out magical, from Oz Cobblepot’s (Colin Farrell) seedy club to Wayne Manor’s gothic interiors. 

All of this sterling work exists under the herculean effort of writer/director Matt Reeves, who reportedly worked on the project with Kubrick-esque obsession since his March 2017 hiring from the first draft with cowriter Peter Craig to the last cut with editors William Hoy and Tyler Nelson. 

In many movies, bullets that don’t go into people seem to vanish into thin air, but The Batman makes sure its hails of bullets land on the surrounding environment. In this way, it actually feels more dangerous than many PG-13 films, despite the gallons of missing blood.

The Batman began its life as a DCEU entry to be handled completely by Ben Affleck as writer, director and star, back when Warner Bros. was trying to differentiate itself with “master directors,” until he dropped out because he never really wanted to do it in the first place. Major elements of his treatment remain, including the focus on Wayne as a world-class detective and master of disguise, but the key signifier of Affleck’s portrayal of the character is the bone-crunching action blitz from his first appearance, bringing the fantasy of Batman fully to life for the first time. 

The Batman opens a torrent of this style of action and drives it to outrageous extremes from his first scene. You can almost hear a Warner Bros. executive telling them to tone things down between some shots to maintain a PG-13 rating, creating the film’s only real void – blood. This is a bitterly violent story about shattered skulls and necrotic-looking bruises, and the screen screams for carnage. 

We’re in a moment in history where wealth inequality is worse than it has ever been and the working class is more aware of that than it has ever been, and particularly a moment where it is clear that Bruce Wayne could buy off a lot of the world’s problems if his goal was really to help people, but instead he chooses to beat the tar out of people who might, for the most part, just need a way out. The Batman reconciles this contradiction by removing it. This Batman has explicitly stepped away from philanthropy and chooses violence not to achieve a greater good, but because he’s a misanthropic, sexually frustrated insomniac whose billionaire thrill-seeking hobby was learning how to beat people more-than half to death. He is a proto-fascist who speaks explicitly about crime as an elemental force that can only be fought by beating “them” to a bloody pulp. His violence in the film is feral, sadistic and completely reckless. 

Though his own orphaning is thankfully not recreated, Wayne crosses paths with several orphaned characters, confronted each time with his refusal to move past his own trauma.

This is the first focused Batman movie since Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, the late-’00s epics in the shadow of which all DC movies still live. It seems to lift several elements from each movie separately, such as the batmobile chase from Batman Begins, the prison interrogation from The Dark Knight and the focus on institutional corruption from The Dark Knight Rises. It also lifts elements directly from “Year One,” “The Long Halloween” and “No Man’s Land” stories that those movies were directly adapting – when you reboot the same character twice in a decade, you’re going to bump shoulders a bit. 

Where the Dark Knight films were tied to post-911 anxiety, The Batman is a wide-ranging nightmare of 2022, incorporating climate anxiety, deteriorating trust in elected officials, boiling class tensions, the opiod epidemic and the conspiracy theorist aesthetic that drowns otherwise sensible concerns in masculism and domestic terrorism. A sane man could boil down the Riddler’s grand revelation to a single, easily provable sentence, but he opts instead for gruesome, public murders as a performance for his online followers. 

As the film works steadily from grisly murders toward set pieces out of a Saturday morning cartoon, the realism that has defined the character since Nolan’s run gives way to something much more stylized and narrow. As The Batman drifts in and out of reality like the troubled waking dream it is, the real trick is how seamless they make everything. This film can be grim, titillating and goofy in many of the same moments without ever contradicting itself. 

This ability shines most clearly in the magical gadgets Batman is associated with, which remain magical in The Batman, but their slimy haphazardness denies viewers of their traditional romance. The contact lenses through which he records his nights feel more gross than they do impossible with their brown footage and the insistence on eyeball close-ups. The Batmobile, which still manages to look like a hell-spawned thing, is just a Dodge Challenger with some deathproofing and an afterburner strapped on – the only thing super about it is the enraged maniac behind the wheel. In profile, we can see that the magical utility belt of Batman tradition can’t bend the laws of physics quite enough, and he has to wear some of his supplies in an awkward, bulky pack on his right leg that ruins the whole look. At one point while Wayne takes off his armor, we can see that, instead of his traditional lead-packed gloves, this Batman protects his fists with 25 cent wraps. 

It’s more noticeable in some moments than others, but the entire film is a steambath of harsh oranges.

The Batman pulls in a broader range of influences from there. It obviously takes after the early work of David Fincher – everybody thought the first trailer made it look like a remake of Seven, which it could be accurately seen as, and Dano said he looked at the Zodiac killer to inspire his Riddler. It’s also got a sharp Taxi Driver edge to it and shares DNA with films noir with particularly disaffected anti-heroes, less in the detective focus – it’s more of an awkward buddy-cop movie between Batman and defacto partner Lt. Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) than it is a detective movie – and more in the character’s overt sexual frustration. 

While superhero movies in the MCU era have mostly been kept as sexless as they are colorless, The Batman’s overt sexual tension is another way it stands out among contemporaries. This movie isn’t about sterile, smooth action figures, it’s about hot young poly athletes who want to drop all this and fuck, one of whom, Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz) is aware of this and the other of whom is in denial. Kyle’s and Wayne’s stunted attraction drives the plot and brings us deeper into Wayne’s psyche, the arrested development he hides behind his cynicism made plain as he insists he doesn’t want to go to bed with Kyle the way a child would insist he doesn’t want to go to bed at all. 

This is a movie about the vanity of being Batman, his self-mythologizing contrasted against his privilege and wealth of other options at every moment. The self-styled “nocturnal animal” who criminals see in every shadow is really just a weird dude in a costume who nobody wants to talk to. I was prepared to criticize him having another magical bulletproof suit here, as in the Affleck portrayals of the character, but we wouldn’t be able to have this movie otherwise. The fact that this version of the character is constantly getting pegged with gunfire is a huge part of its point. 

The experience of seeing The Batman in a theater is worth well more than the price of admission, so AMC, the biggest theater chain in the world, is charging more. Certain tickets are hotter than others every week, and it makes perfect sense for distributors to charge more for them. This decision goes beyond the rabid anticipation for the movie and to the new 45-day theatrical window Warner Bros. negotiated during the height of the pandemic, which means The Batman could hang glide onto HBOmax as soon as April 19. Theaters have got to make hay while the sun shines now. 

You should clear your schedule and be part of that. The Batman is not just a big-screen blockbuster with a big, wide aspect ratio, detailed photography and bombastic sound that will be better appreciated in a theater, it’s a fun, thoughtful and deeply satisfying movie. They knocked this one clear out of the park, the kind of home run that seems like it’ll keep on flying into orbit. See it as early and often as possible. 

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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1 Response to ‘The Batman’ is a triumph

  1. Pingback: Checking in on Netflix’ big ‘every week’ originals push | Reel Entropy

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