The Batman

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An odd and troubling report regarding The Batman: it puts some viewers to sleep. Why? It’s not boring (though, at four minutes shy of three hours, it is incredibly long) or particularly soothing. I think I may have solved the mystery. It’s dark — literally, visually dark — and everyone whispers all the time, and there’s also the ever-present patter of rain. The goddamn thing may as well be a $200 million sleep app. Deep into the second hour, a nap started sounding softly appealing to me, too. But I stuck it out, and I can testify this is a masterful though sometimes punishing piece of filmmaking. I don’t know that it says much of anything; its thematic threads all tie into a narrative web interrogating different responses to trauma. Not that this is new, even in the context of a Batman story.

One thing I approve of: we don’t have to watch, yet again, the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, which leaves their son Bruce an orphan who dedicates his life to fighting crime dressed like a bat. The movie kicks off when Batman (Robert Pattinson) has already been making his nightly rounds in Gotham City for two years. He works closely with Lieutenant Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), one of the few honest cops on the force. Mob boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) controls everything, with the help of his consigliere the Penguin (Colin Farrell). There’s also Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz), who steals the mob’s booty. And, oh yes, someone styling himself the Riddler (Paul Dano) is going around killing corrupt people in high places.

Enough convolutions for you? This Batman is unconnected to any previous Batman film; it unfolds in its own private Gotham, as did 2019’s Joker. The director here, Matt Reeves, has by now proven himself a force in genre filmmaking; he oversaw two of the recent (and best) Apes films as well as Cloverfield and Let Me In. Reeves knows from spectacle — as if Batman didn’t have enough tsuris, there’s a climactic flood — and he also knows when to let the movie (and us) breathe. A few of the whisper-duets go on a bit; Pattinson and Kravitz have a sort of mopey rapport unbroken by any humor, and they whisper at each other a lot. (When Paul Dano finally shows up as the Riddler, we’re grateful for the theatrical goofiness of his acting; Colin Farrell’s transformation is impressive, but he essentially just plays a thug.) But despite the bombastic fireworks, Reeves is most comfortable with quietude and brooding. Hell, The Batman has probably the first rock song in a Batman film since Me’shell Ndegeocello and the Smashing Pumpkins perked up Batman and Robin, and it’s Nirvana’s morose “Something in the Way.”

Reeves, it should be noted, assembles a lot of other people’s ideas and themes into this mammoth package. The movie is a triumph of craft and design, but original it ain’t. The Riddler’s class resentment is borrowed from The Dark Knight Rises’ Bane; the idea of Thomas Wayne not being a particularly great man has been around. The Batman also continues these movies’ apparent tradition of overpacking the story with villains and, worse, providing a motive behind the killing of Batman’s parents. Once more, from the top: the whole point of Batman is that he wants to prevent anyone else from being a random crime statistic. Emphasis on random. Batman exists to impose his own sense on a world where your parents can just be shot in an alley for no reason at all. But that’s my Batman, not Reeves’.

I’m not sure how much more serious a Batman film can get. The Dark Knight Rises had seemed to be the pinnacle of high-minded adaptation of pulp, but The Batman makes it look like Batman Meets Scooby-Doo. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy was serious but also purposeful and a little show-offy and had humor, even jokes. The Batman seems legitimately depressed — it shares its young goth hero’s moods. That in itself is an interesting wrinkle that sets it apart. Sometimes there’s serious tonal dissonance; a shot of Batman jogging through a crowded precinct hallway is clunky and awkward in a way I’ll probably come to cherish in memory. Perhaps the wittiest thing Reeves does with this Batman is to present his habit of appearing and disappearing wordlessly as an emo dude showing up at a party and then skipping out without saying goodbye. Then he goes to his cave and listens to Nirvana and writes deep thoughts in his journal. This is possibly the first Gen-X Batman. 

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