(there will be spoils)
Yes it’s true, comic book super heroes hold too much of a monopoly on movies and television right now. I agree, we get it, but also I enjoy the genre. And of all the ongoing super hero franchises the one I get most excited about is Batman.
Tim Burton’s 1989 BATMAN was a foundational movie for me, and I believe it kicked off the first real era of comic book movies, since SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE didn’t have many riding its coattails. I don’t think it could’ve happened with another character. There was something about the zeitgeist at that time, that the world was ready to see Batman on screen, and the marketing ingeniously took advantage of that. More importantly, the specific psychological and visual qualities of the “dark” Super Friend and his evil clown nemesis attracted Burton and gave him a weirdly perfect canvas on which to fuse his particular talents with blockbuster filmmaking, and create something that felt simultaneously of our past and completely new.
Because that was the first one, a distinct, stylized look was an expected element of comic book movies throughout the ‘90s, paving the way for the likes of DICK TRACY, THE CROW, TANK GIRL… I’d even throw in gaudier digital age ones like SPAWN and THE MASK for at least having their own looks. And Burton’s followup, BATMAN RETURNS, is still one of the most beautiful looking comic book movies to date. It only makes sense, being adaptations of an illustrated medium, but it’s a tradition somewhat neglected in the era of shared universes and realistic CG. I think THE BATMAN is one of the ones that brings it back. It looks stunning, and completely unlike other movies of the same genre, or even about the same character.
(Here’s a piece I did for Polygon ranking all of the ‘90s comic book movies except a couple I forgot)
One thing I love about Batman movies as opposed to other super hero movies is that their interpretation of Gotham City is just as important as their Batman. It can be cool to see the Dark Knight in other settings, but it’s not the same. Gotham is an extension of him and so are its other inhabitants. In Burton’s films the villains are psychological mirror images of Batman. In Christopher Nolan’s they’re an escalation of his own activities. He also has the best and best-known rogues’ gallery of any super hero – in fact, I’d wager the term “rogues’ gallery” is used to refer to Batman villains more than for all other usages combined. The Joker, the Penguin, Catwoman and the Riddler were all known to non-comic-book people before they were even in movies; Bane, Two Face, Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy have great awareness because of the movies; and there are plenty more so-far-unused ones with great cinematic potential.
Therefore, the world of Batman lends itself to varied cinematic interpretations. As much as I recognize and appreciate the differences between the three SPIDER-MAN series’, they pale in comparison to the spectrum of the two Burton BATMANs vs. the two Joel Schumacher BATMANs vs. the three Nolan BATMANs. (I leave out Zack Snyder because he never made a full-on Batman movie, but he did his own thing with the character too.) Each director found a completely different tone, look and world, each unlike any comic book movies that had come before. And there’s plenty of room for other takes, so I get excited for new ones.
There are two ways in which THE BATMAN seems specifically aimed at me. #1, when it was reported that Ben Affleck had decided not to direct it I thought, “I’m not even sure who I would want to direct a Batman movie” and then, “Oh yeah! The DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES guy!” I swear it was announced like a week later that Matt Reeves (co-writer of UNDER SIEGE 2: DARK TERRITORY) was in talks to direct. #2, I thought “Wouldn’t it be cool if the new Batmobile was a Dominic Toretto style muscle car?” And then it was!
Despite that, the overall approach Reeves chose – a non-sci-fi oriented quasi-realistic world closer to Nolan’s take than most comic book versions – is not what I’d wish for. That bench of villains isn’t quite as deep after you eliminate monsters, super powers and characters who can’t be reduced to gangsters, serial killers or terrorists. Fingers crossed that freeze rays are fair game in sequels, but I’m not holding my breath for man-bats or clayfaces. Putting a high premium on verisimilitude also reduces the likelihood that the movies will bring in Robin the Boy Wonder, much less multiple Robins who would grow up into their own different personas, reflecting on Batman more than even his villains do. That’s a major element of the comic books that seems ripe for cinematic exploration – how many different Jokers can we have before we ever have a decent Dick Grayson?
But we are not here to discuss a Batman movie that doesn’t exist yet, we’re here to discuss the one that Reeves chose to make. I think what he made is very good, and in some ways truly great. That’s partly because he fully embraced that other Batman strength I mentioned, Gotham City.
Reeves’ Gotham (production designer: James Chinlund, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, 25TH HOUR, THE FOUNTAIN, THE AVENGERS, THE LION KING) is a malevolent nightmare world. In the space between Burton’s expressionistic gothic atmosphere and Nolan’s gritty realism-ish-ness you find an eerie hellscape reminiscent of THE CROW. There’s no industrial/goth soundtrack like it’s the ‘90s again, but I would not have predicted a Batman movie with a prominently placed Nirvana song. Somehow it works for me.
That brings up another strength of Batman movies: very high musical standards. Danny Elfman’s BATMAN is to me one of the best movie scores ever, Hans Zimmer’s for Nolan’s trilogy, particularly THE DARK KNIGHT, are outstanding and paradigm-shifting, and even Schumacher’s have a really good theme by Elliot Goldenthal. So I’m very impressed that Michael Giacchino (MY BROTHER THE PIG, SPEED RACER) lived up to that tradition with his simple but evocative music, which sounds like a funeral march, is likely the most memorable theme of the modern super hero age, and adds several extra coats of gothic menace to this Gotham.
“Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot. So my disguise must be able to strike terror in their hearts,” goes writer Bill Finger’s famous 1939 explanation of Batman. I was happy to play along with Burton and Nolan’s illustrations of this concept, but the opening scenes here are the first time I really bought it. In noir style first person narration, Batman (Robert Pattinson, the guy from the Cronenberg movies) explains that “We have a signal now for when I’m needed. But when that light hits the sky, it’s not just a call, it’s a warning to them.” He can’t be everywhere, he says, but we see how criminals all around the city see the bat signal and become convinced that The Batman is watching them from the dark shadows across the street.
It’s legitimately chilling! It also doesn’t stop any of them. An armed robber gets distracted and bumped by a car, that’s about it. To his credit, Batman recognizes that he’s not changing anything. All he’s accomplishing is vengeance. And to the credit of Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig (THE TOWN, BLOOD FATHER [book and movie], apparently plays somebody named “Pete” in HOOPER!?), the story is about him realizing that vengeance is not enough.
Some time in his two years as a vigilante, while not occupied with smashing subway station assaulters’ faces in, Batman has developed a relationship with James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright, LADY IN THE WATER), still a lieutenant. They’re close enough that Gordon made that bat signal and brings Batman to a murder scene. The other cops are not happy about it, think Gordon is out of his mind, and look at him with absolute disgust. But Gordon has one pretty good excuse to bring him: the killer left a note for him. As a bonus, he’s way better at solving riddles than they are. (Later, when it becomes clear that Gordon shouldn’t trust other cops, it makes more sense that he’s working with this guy.)
The killer is The Riddler, in a new interpretation transparently based on the Zodiac Killer. This approach is very effectively creepy. I’m not comfortable with real life serial killers being used as inspiration for a Batman story, but maybe turning that asshole into a comic book villain (with an action figure! And a Funko Pop!) will take away some of the fear power he still has over us. I don’t know. A weird thing about this movie that I haven’t seen acknowledged is that about 15 to 20 years ago in the pre-BATMAN BEGINS days the #1 internet nerd wish for Batman movies was for David Fincher to do one. My feeling was always, “That would be awesome… if he’s interested.” In those days it was fair to assume that most directors who were already getting movies made would not be interested, and it didn’t seem wise to force them into it. Anyway, now we have a different director making the movie I’m sure many of those internetters were imagining. With its older/younger-Black/white duo following the cryptic clues of a preachy mastermind journal-scrawling gimmicky sadist serial killer in a rainy city it seems more inspired by SE7EN than by ZODIAC or any other movie.
One kind of silly topic of debate around the movie is whether or not it lives up to Reeves’ promise of a detective movie. No, it’s not the first time this aspect of the character has been on screen – BATMAN has Bats figuring out how the Joker’s poisoning scheme works, and THE DARK KNIGHT has some good C.S.I. shit with that bullet. But yes, this puts more emphasis than previous Batman movies on following a trail of clues, trying to get ahead of this killer and discover his identity. It also has a bit of a noir feel with its narration and beautiful night time cinematography (director of photography: Greig Fraser, LET ME IN, SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN, ZERO DARK THIRTY, ROGUE ONE). Batman’s work with Gordon is largely just playing the game that the Riddler wants him to play (in that sense it’s a little like DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE too), but on the side he has a whole undercover agent infiltrating corrupt officials with mob ties.
That’s because one of the Riddler’s clues leads him to an underworld club run by The Penguin (Colin Farrell, DEAD MAN DOWN), where he notices waitress Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz, reprising her role from THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE) reacting to the photo of a woman he’s trying to find. So he follows her home, one thing leads to another, next thing you know she’s Catwoman robbing a safe and he convinces her to wear contact lenses with cameras to work and get information for him. That is detective work! Or maybe espionage.
I think Pattinson (THE ROVER) is an exciting new Batman because he balances a different spin with strong tradition. He does not do “billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne” – he’s more like sensitive, quiet weirdo Bruce Wayne – but he’s still the last person anybody would expect to be Batman. This might sound like a joke, but I think one tiny example of Pattinson’s acting prowess is that he has two different scenes where he gets into The Iceberg Lounge by asking, “Do you know who I am?,” but he doesn’t sound like an entitled douche either time. The first time he’s Batman, the second time he’s Bruce Wayne, both times he’s asking the question sincerely, just being practical, trying to discern how many words or blows will be required to get inside.
An interesting, believable touch to this Batman is that he says the nights have started to blend together so much that he has to go home and watch his recordings of what happened and write journals to keep track of things. That’s where the narration comes from. I was thinking it was gonna be that he records tapes about what’s going on in his life to send to his high school French tutor, but I’m not sure where I got that from.
Other reasons he’s a good Batman: he has a square jaw, he knows how to remove the bat symbol from his chest and use it as a knife like some cool action figure gimmick, Selina’s cats seem to like him.
In BATMAN BEGINS we got to see Bruce Wayne coming up with the idea of Batman and trying to make it work. I love how this starts two years in and doesn’t let us know at first just how much he has his shit together. Gordon doesn’t seem clear on it either. He gives Batman an opening to escape police custody and seems to assume he knows what he’s doing more than he actually does. Batman flees the interrogation cell, discovers that he’s on a high floor and has to jump. He leaps but is clearly scared, uses inflatable squirrel wings to glide to the ground, but they look silly and he totally bites it and is grunting in pain when he gets up. I think he even looks around to make sure nobody saw him. He’s good at other things – more than one bathook rappelling technique, for example – but I suppose there’s gotta be a first time for every trick in the bag and it’s not always gonna be a success. Not at this point, anyway.
I’ve never really liked that the Batman costume in movies is always armor. BATMAN’s being rubber was a clever conceptual choice – Keaton’s Bruce Wayne is an everyman, not a muscleman, so the suit transforms him. But since then we’ve been stuck with that even when the actors are buffing up. In the Nolan movies it became tactical, which bled into the comics as artists added visible seams, plating, traction on his boots, grip on his gloves, and other details. THE BATMAN continues the armor approach (batsuit designed by David Crossman & Glyn Dillon, SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY) but brings back a comics tradition these heavy suits have always robbed us of in movies: he carries the suit around and changes into it when needed! Of course, he has to wear baggy clothes and a backpack to do it, but that’s a pretty good disguise for this local celebrity.
Andy Serkis (wearing a mocap suit to control a CG model that looks identical to his actual self ) plays Alfred, which seemed like kind of odd casting, but it really works. I love that he takes it upon himself to start solving the Riddler’s cyphers. He also has some great emotional scenes with Bruce, discussing their not-quite-father-and-son relationship. They’re going for the tough guy Alfred and I’m not sure if he’s even supposed to be Bruce’s butler – he’s implied to have been a spy turned bodyguard for the Waynes, and said to have taught Bruce to fight. I hope in a sequel we see him do Batman’s straddle-a-guy-and-punch-him-in-the-face-a-ridiculous-number-of-times move so we know that’s where it came from.
The fight scenes are handled really well – generally shot pretty close up, but framed and cut in a less chaotic fashion than Nolan’s fights. You can generally see what’s happening.
And often there’s some clever staging, like the shot where he’s taking out gunmen in a dark hallway and we only see him when he’s lit by muzzle flashes.
As in Nolan’s trilogy, my favorite action scene is the car chase, but Reeves’ approach here is very different, keeping us mostly inside or close to the cars, surrounded by trucks, darkness and rain. It’s not BOURNE-style shaky or anything but it’s a similar philosophy of using some amount of disorientation and limiting of perspective to heighten the sense of danger. There’s a car crash that I believe is shot similar to the memorable one in Reeves’ LET ME IN. The atmosphere is more like a horror movie than THE FRENCH CONNECTION or some shit.
Earlier I mentioned Batman’s supporting characters having parallels to him. With these versions of Batman, the Riddler and Catwoman we have three orphans acting out against ways they feel they were wronged in life. Batman is fighting street criminals, believing someone like them killed his parents, recognizing that this isn’t getting him anywhere, but not yet knowing what else to do. Catwoman is trying to steal ill-gotten gains from her deadbeat dad (John Turturro, EXTERMINATOR 2) that she believes can repay her for his neglect. Riddler is exposing the genuine corruption behind a system he feels cheated by (but murdering people to do it).
The Riddler explicitly compares his life to Bruce Wayne’s. He lost his parents too but didn’t have any money to fall back on and no one knew to feel sorry for him. He doesn’t know that they also have creepy journals in common. Reeves’ filmatic language also points out similarities between the two; in the opening scene we take on the perspective of the Riddler’s binoculars spying on the mayor from across the street, and at first we’re not sure if it’s him or Batman watching. Later, we get a similar shot that’s Batman watching Selina Kyle in her apartment, changing into her Catwoman costume, important information for him and a violation of her. They’re both taking justice into their own hands, but Batman doesn’t killing anyone, while Riddler works primarily in the medium of killing.
The thing is, Riddler is the evil/psychotic one, but likely doing more good for the city than Batman by exposing police and politicians and ending their corrupt schemes. Batman recognizes this and it fucks him up. In fact, Riddler’s attempt to murder Bruce Wayne has a huge effect on the world because it causes Batman to see his late father, and therefore his whole mission in life, in a more complicated light than before and decide to evolve beyond his quest for vengeance.
I’m a little wary of these villains who are right but evil (see also environmentalist Ra’s Al Ghul in BATMAN BEGINS and revolutionary Bane in DARK KNIGHT RISES). It’s meant to make them more interesting, but has an accidental South Parkian “well, best to do nothing about this” taint to it sometimes. I’m more into Catwoman, who is right and not evil. I love that this actually has a scene where Batman realizes she was right about something and apologizes for what he said about it. Some Patrick Swayze shit right there.
I already loved Kravitz from FURY ROAD, High Fidelity, GEMINI and KIMI, but she’s a perfect Selina Kyle, from the very down-to-earth characterization to the more pulpy touches like the cat-inspired fighting style and just the way she looks, whether in the costume, out of the costume, or in silhouette. Selina pointedly calls people “honey” or “baby,” knowing the effect it will have on them. We see her employing it as a waitress, as an undercover investigator, we also see her being flirtatious with Batman. And in the great tradition of Catwoman stories we want it to be real but remain cautious that it could be manipulation. I love that the truest expression of love between these two is in their costumes, riding their motorcycles through a graveyard together before splitting off FURIOUS SEVEN style. A beautiful moment between two weirdos who are kind of exactly the same and kind of exact opposites, but whose lives don’t quite fit together right now.
The whole cast is really great. Dano was of course the most natural actor to cast opposite a Batman whose favorite move is punching somebody in the face. He’s hidden behind the mask and a voice distorter for much of the movie, but is even skeevier when they catch and unmask him. He stays reserved enough to take advantage of his authentic creepy nerd face (reminded me of his role in TAKING LIVES) before going a little over-the-top. And all of it is perfectly balanced by having Pattinson in the scene silently reacting to him.
Special shout out to Wright, who makes a perfect Gordon. They have a good buddy-movie vibe at times, like when Batman tells him “No guns” and he says, “That’s your thing, man.” Turturro is also doing top notch work as a more subtle character than anyone around him, while Farrell is really funny as his exasperated and as far as we know not particularly interested in birds or umbrellas gangster character. Yes, it’s weird that Farrell has to wear makeup to look completely different from himself, but its seamless. It looks real but not too real – you wouldn’t find a real guy who looked quite like that.
There’s only one scene in this movie I didn’t like. After the Riddler has been captured another inmate at Arkham Asylum, whose face we don’t clearly see, starts giving him a pep talk, and we’re clearly meant to understand that he’s the Joker. He’s played by Barry Keoghan (THE GREEN KNIGHT), who I think is a really good actor and interesting choice for that character, but I really don’t think he works in this scene, and it’s the only thing in the movie that plays like a standard franchise-building teaser. I was relieved to read that Reeves did not intend it that way and does not know if he’ll even bring back The Joker. An earlier scene with him was filmed but cut as redundant, and this almost was too until they realized without it it would seem like everything was better in Gotham now and Batman is a fool not to leave town with Catwoman. (I mean, he still is, but…)
So other than that I was loving the movie the whole time. But when it ended I did feel there was a little something missing. As has been widely discussed, the movie is almost 3 hours long, and though everyone I’ve talked to about it liked it, they all say it’s a little too long, it doesn’t earn it. I see it a little differently: I like the length, but I don’t think it quite gets the payoff it earns – the action/disaster climax is cool, but feels a little underwhelming compared to the sorts of feats Batman has to pull off in the Nolan movies. Could use a little more triumph.
At least that’s how it feels on a first viewing. What it does have is this journey of Batman learning and changing through the course of the investigation. At the beginning he approaches his mission by trying to scare the shit out of people, and he’s such a mystery that the guy he rescues from being jumped by a gang begs, “Please, don’t hurt me.” At the crime scene, and later the funeral, Batman/Bruce stares at the deceased mayor’s son, obviously relating to him, helpless to do anything for him. In the end he comes out of the shadows to carry people from the flooded ruins of a stadium, and literally reaches his hand out to the mayor’s son. Using hands to help his fellow man instead of as fists of fury.
I enjoy most of the modern comic book movies, but usually I just see them and then forget about them and wait for the next one. THE BATMAN doesn’t feel disposable or episodic like that to me – I’m already itching to go see it again, dig into it deeper, get immersed in its Gotham again. But I sure won’t complain when they greenlight THE BATMAN THE RETURNS, where he goes into dark territory, gets a haircut, etc. Keep the bustin.