Thursday, June 20, 2024

‘The Batman’ Lets The Batman Be Weird

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Damn, The Batman is a great movie. It is a baroque maximalist, punk-infused, soaring, steamy superhero film that isn’t afraid to let its characters be weird. Yes, the film suffers from a terminal case of “too many endings,” but if a movie can have me throwing my hand hands up in exasperation and then have me weeping mere seconds later, then it’s a home run in my book. 

I was not looking forward to Matt Reeves’s The Batman. At forty-two years old, I’ve seen as many Batmans as I’ve seen Lears, Bonds, and Miss Marples. Frankly, with Batman, he has become increasingly “gritty” and in a way that is all too tedious. The run-time was another aspect that inspired eye-rolls, as far too many superhero films think they must be an epoch in length to be epic in feel.

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Selina (Zoe Kravitz) and the Batman (Robert Pattinson) 100% stare longingly into each other’s eyes.

But praise be! The Batman is gritty, yes, but it’s more grimy than gritty and that’s not because it wants to be “realistic” — far from it. So many superhero movies are obsessed with being believable rather than being interesting. Reeves, instead, has chosen to go naturalistic, meaning, yes, it takes place in a realistic world, but the movie in no way feels chained by this fact, and instead uses it to enhance the emotions and awe of the Batman (Robert Pattinson).

Pattinson’s Batman is a man possessed by his rage and grief at the death of his parents. A death we, thankfully, are finally spared from seeing. He cares for nothing but vengeance. But far from making him some brutal, bloodthirsty, Frank Miller wet dream, Pattinson plays him as a depressed man trying to find the good in people but only finding the likes of a serial killer, the Riddler (Paul Dano), and other thugs. Reeves and Pattinson give this Batman a longing and yearning almost gothic in nature.

Whenever Pattinson’s Batman sees a small child, he becomes transfixed, the sight dredging up memories and pains while inspiring his need to protect. The Batman has given us a Batman who cares despite his base distrust; he loves people but doesn’t know how to express it. Reeves manages to accurately diagnose the trauma-obsessed Batman in a way that leads to him understanding that he must change, that hope is more powerful than merely being a scion of vengeance.

I loved this movie so much that even the stuff I didn’t care for has almost no meaning. Though I will say that while Kravitz has said in interviews that she played Selina as bisexual, the movie decidedly does not share that belief, though it does give us brief glimpses. Sadly, much like Birds of Prey, the queer element is a blink and you might miss it that is becoming far too standard for Hollywood’s increasing comfort in progressive posturing.

Reeves collects a myriad of disparate threads from other genres and movies and weaves them together to make one of the more visually sumptuous, haunting, enthralling superhero movies in years. As the credits rolled, I felt elated and breathless, unable to believe that I had just seen a Batman movie that was moody, yes, but also dared to have actual moods.

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Detective Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) and the Batman (Pattinson) solving crimes.

Greig Fraser makes The Batman look like something ripped from the pages of a pulp noir. Light and shadows dance together, illustrating the twin worlds in Gotham and inside the Batman himself. At times scenes felt ripped from the pages of a comic book, a compliment of the highest order. Fraser and Reeves aim to make every scene elicit something inside you, from melancholy to yearning; The Batman is a movie awash in vibrant imagery.

Fraser and Reeves make Gotham feel like a character in a way it hasn’t since the 90s while at the same time feeling like a love letter to Chicago. Gotham is a city flushed with opulence and ravaged with poverty. Fraser’s camera loves dwelling in both places and showing how both are beginning to creep onto one another.

On paper, the story, co-written by Reeves and Peter Craig, had the potential to make me rub my temples and murmur, “Again?”. I’m referring to how The Batman shows the not-so-many differences between Dano’s Riddler and Pattinson’s Batman, but Reeves and Craig make it work. It’s partially because it’s done so well, but mainly because the realization isn’t meant for us; it’s meant for the Batman. The look in his eyes when the Riddler says, “We were partners,” is filled with confusion and terror as he realizes what living off the fumes of his grief and anger has led him to.

The rantings of Dano’s Riddler eerily mirror his own, but the latter’s are twisted and seem to stem from his belief that others must pay. The Batman believes this too, but he believes in the concept of the innocent, whereas the Riddler harbors no such beliefs. For much of the movie, Dano is a wannabe Jigsaw, a serial killer who puts his victims into elaborate traps to expose their base sins against the civic trust. But then, towards the end, he is revealed to be just an angry white man with a talent for demagoguery. He doesn’t want a revolution; he just wants to hurt people.

Selina (Zoe Kravitz), however, wants both. A waitress and a small-time thief, she and the Batman find themselves thrown together as they try and unravel an increasingly byzantine and terrifyingly personal mystery about Bruce’s family, the founding of Gotham, and the murder of his parents. Kravitz pulls off the hat trick of being a fascinating character while also being the personification of the lyric “sex on fire.”

She plays Selina with a swagger and a coyness without ever making her just a cipher for the Batman’s own lust. Instead, she is a character with her own wants and needs, some of them include the alluring moping dark knight, and others include her own tortured family history involving the new Gotham crime boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro). 

Selina, like the Batman, is torn between her anger at the corruption and her helplessness to do anything about it. The two are drawn together, the spark of desire only burning hotter whenever they happen to come across each other. 

Modern superhero movies have long been filled with pretty people, but only in an aesthetic sense. Our heroes do not have urges or lusts; they are paragons of virtues. But, blessedly, the Batman and Selina are far from virtuous, and even though they share, if memory serves, only one kiss, the spark between the two is intense. Reeves even allows Batman what appears to be a foot fetish, as the first things he notices about Selina are her thigh-high laced leather boots, something that he begins to associate with her.

But this is not a one-sided affair. Selina is fascinated by the moody, brooding caped crusader. She feels his eyes on her and visibly enjoys it. In a way, it was almost odd to see two grown people in a superhero movie being so, for lack of a better word, horny. 

This is largely because of all the Batman films, of all the superhero films, The Batman feels the most voyeuristic. Film itself is an act of inherent voyeurism. We, the audience, are peeping into these characters’ lives. Reeves and Fraser cleverly use the camera to give us a sense that we are literally peeping toms. Whether it’s the Riddler’s heat vision goggles as he observes his next victim or the Batman looking at the world via the high-tech video recording contact lens that he wears, they make us aware that the characters may be peeping, but so are we. 

Bruce Wayne obsessively rewinds footage of Selina in the club, freezing it and gazing upon her, transfixed. Reeves delights in playing with the perversity that inherently runs through a world where grown people dress up in elaborate leather and latex suits roaming the streets at night. Part of the reason there’s no sex scene, I am convinced, is because in that kind of weather, in those types of outfits, there’s no way anyone is looking sexy peeling those clothes off, not to mention the smell, woof.

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The Penguin (Colin Farrell) being sleazy and answering questions.

One of my favorite aspects of The Batman, however, is Colin Farrell’s Penguin. Almost unrecognizable in his fat suit and make-up, he steals almost every shot he’s in, which is saying something. In his purple tuxedo and gregarious demeanor, he seems to be channeling both Danny Devito and Burgess Meredith. Farrell delights in playing Penguin as a slimeball gangster out of an old detective novel or a classic film noir. He’s the type of guy who smiles at you, and you feel like he’s not smiling at you so much as what you could do for him. 

It could also be because Penguin is part of the car chase scene, an action set-piece midway through the movie that is riveting both in spectacle and in dramatizing just how obsessed and myopic the Batman can be. A scene so poetically kinetic it feels as if Fraser and editors William Hoy and Tyler Nelson tore a page right out of Mad Max: Fury Road and The Matrix Reloaded and created a truly gripping piece of action that left me gasping.

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The Batman (Pattinson) tries to help the D.A. Colson (Peter Sarsgaard) out of a tricky situation.

My other favorite aspect was Michael Giacchino’s lush, whimsical score that hums and sings throughout every frame of The Batman. Modern blockbusters so rarely have music that does anything but take up ear space. But Giacchino’s music rounds out the whole ensemble, giving The Batman its mythic feel while also having a bit of play about it. Whether it’s the Batman and Selina fighting that turns into a dance of sorts that ends with the two flushed against each other, the music is constantly just under the surface, like a spice; it makes every scene already great, just a little bit better.

All of this would have been good on its own, but Reeves’s wry sense of humor helps alleviate the potential insufferable pomposity. There are no “jokes” per se, but humor runs through the film. From little exchanges such as “That suit’s about to be covered in blood.” “Yours or mine?” To funny little moments like the twin bouncers at the Penguins Ice Lounge who keep popping up throughout the film. At one point, the Batman shows up as Bruce Wayne, and the bouncer opens the door, sees who it is, closes it, and opens it again to reveal his brother and says, “See? Told you.”

One scene has the Batman holding up a detached thumb connected to a USB drive and mumbling “thumb-drive,” making Detective Gordon (Jeffery Wright) gasp at the twisted mind of the Riddler, but also showing how both the Batman and Riddler think alike. Wright plays a thankless but important role as Batman’s straight man. The lone voice of reason and honor in the corrupt Gotham police force.

While everyone else looks at Batman like he’s some goofy emo-party monster who wandered in off the streets, Gordon plays the mediator. The Bat-signal is a way for the two to communicate. He’s the Batman’s partner, his co-conspirator in this social experiment. Wright’s presence is a reminder of just how alone the Batman is, something that is hammered home by Alfred (Andy Serkis), his loyal butler and exasperated parent figure.

You may have noticed I keep referring to Pattinson as the Batman and not Bruce Wayne, and that’s because Reeves and Craig give us a Batman who is more Batman than Bruce Wayne. The long-standing accepted truth of Batman is that Bruce Wayne has always been the alter-ego; Batman is who he is. Yet, here Wayne is barely a character. That’s by design. He’s in a fugue state of sorts, unable to focus on anything that isn’t connected to the Batman. So much so that one scene has Bruce Wayne in a situation with a man who has a bomb strapped to his neck with a card labeled “To The Batman” on his chest. We can see the yearning to just drop the whole charade and open the letter in Pattinson’s eyes. The fact that there’s also a darkly comic element where Pattinson is conflicted about whether or not to just dive for the letter or help the man that is quintessentially the Batman in a nutshell.

But Reeves and Craig then have the audacity to pepper The Batman with language. Far too many films of this genre have rote dialogue filled with snarky pop culture references. But here Craig and Reeves have their characters speak in ways that are neither rote nor quirky. Yes, there are clever one-liners but they are delivered and written in a way that fits the vibe Reeves has so meticulously crafted. While not overtly stylistic I appreciated the way the words sang and carried weight as characters bantered and struggled to communicate their innermost feelings-or in some cases conceal them.

Most intriguing is the way Reeves and Craig seem to understand the complex emotions that stem from acknowledging our institutions are corrupt and broken but also feeling hopeless in the face of how to fight, re-build, or re-invent them. Similar to Joker, a film whose aggressive mediocrity I positively loathed, Reeves attempts to tap into the zeitgeist. But whereas Joker was only able to tap into the anger without any desire or clue of how or why the systems are broken, The Batman wrestles with the ethos of “Eat the Rich” with a superhero who is himself unfathomably wealthy.

The Batman finds himself adrift upon discovering the way the powerful have carved up Gotham for themselves, among them his father. He learns that while his father was no angel, it was the system that ate him up and spat him out, a system he helped build. How he comes to terms with that and how it shapes his burgeoning moral ethos is one of the many narrative threads Reeves and Craig effortlessly juggle throughout the expansive runtime.

The Batman is the rare superhero movie to have its hero do heroic things. By that, I don’t mean he stops the bad guy; I mean he helps people. I don’t mind telling you seeing the Batman help people trapped beneath the rubble and lead them to safety had me in tears. For crying out loud, Reeves and Fraser even have a moment where the Batman is carrying a woman in his arms, his cape billowing in the wind, as she feels safer in his arms than with the firefighters.

I loved The Batman. I loved how it never winked at me or was even the slightest bit self-aware. Its earnestness allows for its sentimentality and richer emotions such as yearning and fear to have more weight. One moment has the Batman flying off the top of a skyscraper, but far from being cool, he looks like a flying squirrel. Yet, the movie never stops and says anything; it just does its thing and moves on. 

The way Pattinson moved in his Batman suit, the bulkiness of it, forcing him to acquire what I have begun to affectionately call the Robocop stomp, is a minor thing that has me giggling with delight even now. Reeves gives The Batman a tactile feeling without ever sacrificing the wonder and exaggerated absurdity of someone dressing up in costumes and beating people up. In Reeves’s Gotham, there are no freaks; the people are freakish enough.

Images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

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