Movie ReviewsJosh Reviews The Batman

Josh Reviews The Batman

In The Batman, writer/director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) brings us a new cinematic version of Batman.  In this new version, Bruce Wayne has only been operating as Batman for about two years, but he’s already feeling that he’s getting nowhere in his one-man war on crime in Gotham City.  That feeling only gets worse when a serial killer starts assassinating powerful figures in the Gotham City government, and leaving cryptic clues to Batman at the scene.  As people continue to die, despite Batman and Lieutenant Gordon’s best efforts, hidden secrets about the history of Gotham City, as well as the Wayne family, begin to come to light…

The Batman is a terrific film.  Frankly, it’s the type of Batman film I’d longed to see for much of my life.  It’s an ultra-serious take on the character and concepts.  It eschews the more fantastic aspects of the character in favor of telling a very grounded, street-level story.  (I’d never have thought we’d get a more serious, more grounded Batman movie than the ones Christopher Nolan made, but here we are.)  I love the idea of dropping Batman into a street-level crime story.  The Batman more closely resembles David Fincher’s Zodiac than it does any of the recent superhero films from DC/Warner Brothers or Marvel.  I think that’s very cool.

(It’s also, perhaps, the main weakness of the film, in that there’s a part of me that feels that this super-dark, super-grounded version of Batman comes a few years too late.  After Christopher Nolan’s terrific Batman films, I’m not sure we needed to go darker and more serious with Batman.  After a decade-plus of Marvel films that are incredibly faithful to their comic book origins, there’s a part of me that would love to see a more faithful version of Batman in a movie.  None of the live-action Batman films have, for me, ever captured the most classic version of the character.  Though one animated film did — I would love to see the version of Batman depicted in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm brought to life in live-action.  That’s the classic Batman, in my mind, and I’d love to see that Batman in a movie — serious and with strong character-development and emotional realism, but also one unafraid to give us the classic Batman costume (not body armor) and to show us batarangs and Batman swinging from rooftops and the classic colorful Batman villains, etc.  That’s a movie I’d love to see someday.  But because it’s not fair to judge any movie on what I wish it was, instead of what it actually is, let’s put this aside.  And putting that aside, I can easily say that I loved The Batman.)

It’s very exciting to see a Batman film that really digs into the idea of Batman as “the world’s greatest detective” more than a super-hero.  That’s one of the central hooks of Mr. Reeves’ film, and it works like gangbusters.  It’s also very cool to see a Batman film in which Batman is not only actually the main character, but also the most interesting character in the film.  More often than not in Batman movies, I’ve found that one or both of those honors has belonged to the villain(s).  But The Batman is very much a movie about Batman, and we see Batman/Bruce Wayne actually having a true character arc in the film, something we’ve seldom before seen.  The Batman/Bruce we meet at the start of the film is a man without hope, a man devoted completely and utterly to his mission of vengeance.  (I love the way the film plays with the word vengeance as Batman’s almost mantra — so much so that Catwoman starts using it as an affectionate nickname for him.  It’s a lovely homage to one of the most famous scenes from Batman: The Animated Series, in which Kevin Conroy as Batman intones: “I am vengeance… I am the night… I am Batman!”)  But as Batman/Bruce travels through the hell he goes through in the story, he discovers that the true power of Batman is to be something more than just vengeance to the people of Gotham City.  This is one of my favorite aspects of Mr. Reeves’ intelligent script.

I was dubious when Robert Pattinson was cast as Batman/Bruce Wayne, and his version of a young, shut-in Bruce Wayne is one of the only aspects of the film that I’m not sure quite worked for me.  (Mr Pattinson is very ill-served by the ridiculous emo-like haircut they gave him.)  But wow, Mr. Pattinson is incredible as Batman.  He is a terrific Batman — one of the very best.  (Possibly THE best.  I need to let the film sink in a little more for me to be able to truly make a judgment call on this.)  I love that the film allows us to spend a tremendous amount of time with Batman out and about, in costume.  This movie embraces Batman in costume more than almost any previous live-action Batman film, which often tried to hide the limitations of the costume and/or find excuses for Batman to be out of costume or without his full mask.  But this movie gloriously gives us huge amounts of Batman in costume, walking around crime scenes, talking in people’s offices, and it’s terrific.  I love Mr. Pattinson’s presence as Batman, and he has a terrific Batman voice.  It’s not too overdone; it’s just modulated enough from his regular voice.  And while this Batman costume isn’t that faithful to the classic Batman costume from the comics, I think it really works in the film and looks great.  (In particular, they did a great job solving how to make Batman’s cowl work with his neck and cape/shoulders, so he looks cool while also being able to actually move his head.)

Jeffrey Wright is magnificent as Lieutenant (not yet Commissioner) James Gordon.  Mr. Wright is definitely the best live-action Gordon we’ve gotten so far (though there have been several great Gordons).  I love the film’s depiction of Batman & Gordon’s friendship.  I love that they have a backstory that the film doesn’t give us; but that somehow they’re already established as allies and friends.

Zoë Kravitz is easily the best live-action version of Selina Kyle/Catwoman we’ve ever gotten.  This is the most unabashedly heroic version of Catwoman we’ve gotten on screen so far, which fits in with what the Batman comics have been doing in recent years, focusing on Catwoman as a heroine and love-interest for Bruce/Batman, rather than as a villain or even anti-hero.  Ms. Kravitz is very compelling in the role.  I like this Selina: she’s tough and intelligent, and her rough-and-tumble background make her an interesting counterpoint to the born-super-rich Bruce.  It’s interesting that the film never calls her Catwoman, nor do we even get a sense of her as being a cat-burglar.  (She breaks into the dead mayor’s home, but only in an attempt to help out her friend.  Though she’s skilled enough at cracking his safe that I guess we can assume she’s done that a few times before.)  She does have a sort of cat-shaped hat that she wears.  But this is enough for me!  It works in this very street-level story.

Paul Dano has made a career out of playing intelligent psychopaths, and his version of the Riddler is a strong addition to his collection.  This version of the Riddler is far removed from his comic book origins.  (They don’t even call him Edward Nygma — in the film he has the more normal, and more boring, name of Edward Nashton.)  This isn’t a silly villain dressed in tights; this Riddler is basically the Zodiac killer.  He’s a stone-cold serial killer and an off-the-deep-end psychopath.  He’s a terrific, very menacing threat for Batman, and Mr. Dano plays the character just right.  He’s loony but never not dangerous.

Colin Farrell is absolutely unrecognizable under terrific make-up and prosthetics as the Penguin.  I love this version of the Penguin as basically a thuggish mid-level mobster guy.  He runs the iceberg lounge, but it’s not the elaborate fantasy casino type establishment as it’s often been depicted; it’s a skeezy hangout for powerful lowlifes.  That’s great.  I love the look of the character — he’s sort of disfigured, almost like a Dick Tracy villain, but realistic enough that he fits well into this grounded universe.

Andy Serkis does strong work as Alfred, though he’s in far less of the movie than I expected.  I was surprised at first by the almost antagonistic relationship the film showed between Bruce and Alfred, but this fits into the strong character arc given to Bruce/Batman and I liked the way it all played out.

John Turturro is terrific as crime boss Carmine Falcone.  I loved getting to see the slick boss Falcone as another villain in the film, contrasting with the thuggish Penguin and the attention-grabbing Riddler.  Mr. Turturro is always fun to watch, and I loved the way he played Carmine with a smoothness but also a clear ugliness.

Michael Giacchino’s score for the film is incredible.  It’s a very unusual and very memorable score.  I was quite taken with the throbbing, oppressive theme Mr. Giacchino crafted for Batman.  This is worlds away from the iconic superhero themes of yore, but it’s very distinct and memorable and far superior to many of the superhero movie scores we’ve gotten in recent years that have, for reasons I cannot fathom, often seemed averse to giving their main character a distinct musical theme.  This music has really stuck in my head in the days since I saw the film.

I loved the look of Gotham City in the film.  It’s not as outlandish as anything seen in Tim Burton’s Batman or the other follow-ups from the nineties, and it has more distinct character than the Gotham seen in Christopher Nolan’s films (which was basically just Chicago).

OK, the film is great, you get that!  I’m now going to dig into some slight SPOILER territory as I continue and explore the film’s story a little more deeply, so stop reading here if you haven’t yet seen the film.

Still here?  Let’s continue…

As you probably know, the film is almost three hours long.  That’s really longer than a movie like this should be, but I’d be hard pressed to suggest anything that should be cut out.  The film has an unusual structure as it basically ends when Batman and Catwoman have their confrontation with Falcone… and then there’s still about another hour left to go.  That last chunk of the movie is great and contains many of the film’s most important thematic elements.  So this isn’t to say the way the film shifts gears and moves into that last hour is bad.  But it certainly is an unusual structure.

On the other hand, I was never the least bit bored by the film.  It roars by at a ferocious pace, and it had me hooked from start to finish.

There’s not a tremendous amount of action in the film, but the movie is suspenseful enough that I didn’t miss it.  We do get a terrific batmobile chase sequence that is a highlight of the film.  I love the look of this batmobile, and even more than that I love the SOUND it makes.  Very cool and creepy.  That chase with the Penguin is very exciting and well-done.

I was a little bit surprised that the film depicts Batman as smart enough to figure out the Riddler’s big plan at the very end… but not smart enough or fast enough to actually stop the Riddler from wreaking tremendous devastation, devastation that the film’s ending weirdly leaves unsolved/unfixed.  (In that respect, the film’s final chunk reminded me quite a lot of the ending of Batman Begins, when Batman also fails to stop the villain from devastating huge portions of Gotham City — in that case, it’s the League of Assassins’ fear toxin that is unleashed in the Narrows and drives the entire population into craziness — and the movie ends with the Narrows still “lost” to chaos.)  Actually, Batman fails to save much of anything/anyone for most of the film.  (In that way, it also resembles Mr. Nolan’s second Batman film, The Dark Knight, which I’ve read some refer to as “Batman Loses” because Batman fails again and again and again in the film.)  There’s part of me that would have liked to have seen Bats get a few more wins over the course of the film.  But I do enjoy the way the film continually ratchets up the tension on Batman as things get worse and worse.

I didn’t need the Riddler’s super-villain plot at the end and all the theatrics with Gotham City getting almost drowned.  The movie turns briefly into a big-budget spectacle in that last sequence, and while the pyrotechnics are fun, I didn’t think the film needed all that.  (I also thought the film lost a little bit of its storytelling clarity at the end, as certain pieces didn’t quite fit together.  For instance, we see that the Gotham Arena is full with refugees, but after the waters rush in it weirdly seems almost empty.  Also, the new mayor gets shot — and then almost drowns in dirty water (I hope those wounds aren’t infected!) — but then weirdly she seems mostly OK at the end when Batman helps her out from under the wreckage…)

I’m intrigued by Matt Reeves’ choice to link Falcone with the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne.  I don’t think that was needed (it guilds the lily of Batman’s perfect origin story in the same way that the 1989 Batman film did by having Jack Napier be the shooter), but I was pleasantly surprised that I thought it worked in the story.  It fits thematically with the film’s over-all story about the secrets of Gotham coming to light, and it works as part of Bruce’s journey to grow up and, while still being Batman, move beyond the trapped, hopeless creature he is when the film opens.

In a similar vein, in the early scenes in the film, I didn’t care for Bruce’s dour voice-over monologue.  It felt too ripped off from Watchmen’s Rorschach to me.  But by the end of the film, when the voiceover returned, I understood it’s place in the film and I thought it worked.

Peter Sarsgaard is strong in a small role as corrupt Gotham City attorney Gil Colson.  I really enjoyed his scenes!

I could have done without the scene between the Riddler and the Joker.  After The Eternals, I’m a huge fan of Barry Keoghan, but I wasn’t quite taken by his Joker.  The heavy prosthetics looked weird.  And the scene felt out of place in the film, like an awkward tease of a sequel.  (Not nearly as smooth as Batman Begins’ wonderful tease of the Joker in its final scene, which was directly adapted from the ending of Batman: Year One by Frank Miller & David Mazzuchelli.)  This scene might have worked better as a post-credits scene.

All right, time to wrap this up.  I’m extremely impressed by Matt Reeves’ audacious, epic-in-length Batman crime film.  The Batman is adult, smart, and fiercely entertaining.  I loved it, and I can’t wait to see it again.

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