Robert Pattinson is the latest actor to take on the role of the Caped Crusader in The Batman which opened in theaters recently. The film’s storyline takes place two years into Batman’s career as Gotham City’s masked vigilante, which is (as always) in the midst of a crime wave. The out of control crime is the main issue in a mayoral election campaign between the incumbent Don Mitchell Jr. representing the entrenched powers and Bella Reál a young woman trying to enact change.
On Halloween night, as the mayor is watching the news of his sinking polls, he is assaulted and killed by a masked and bespectacled assailant. While investigating the crime scene, a young Lt. Jim Gordon brings in Batman to help decipher the clues left behind by the attacker who calls himself the Riddler, including a letter addressed to Batman himself. From then on, Batman pursues the Riddler who continues to kidnap and kill Gotham’s key political figures, by solving the riddles and clues left behind that hint at who the next victim will be as well as some unnamed menace that will fall upon Gotham City.
During the investigation Batman meets Selina Kyle who, when she is not working as a waitress at an infamous nightclub where politicians and the criminal underworld freely mingle, she is a burglar and safe-cracker (aka Catwoman). With a bit of her help (while she pursues her own personal vendetta) Batman delves into the history of Gotham City and all of its sordid secrets involving the city’s corrupt politics, organized crime, and even his own family. Eventually it is revealed that the city’s wicked past is at the root of the Riddler’s crimes, which climaxes on the night Bella Reál is elected mayor. While giving her acceptance speech, the Riddler and his followers attempt to kill all the remaining politicians and flood the city.
A Darker Take on a Traditional Tale
Batman has gone through many changes and interpretations in film over the years (I’ll leave his comic book persona to my middle son, who saw the film with me). From the campy 1960’s television series, to the grimly humorous portrayal by Michael Keaton and the over-the-top settings in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman and later Batman Returns. Later came the more light-hearted Batman of the 90’s that virtually became a parody of itself with Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever and Batman and Robin with their flamboyant villains and ridiculous storylines (who could forget the Bat Credit Card?). Then came Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy with Christian Bale beginning in 2005 with Batman Begins and Ben Affleck in Zach Snyder’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League in 2017. These films were the product of a post-9/11 world that gave us a more cynical and morose Batman who at times seemed to be only one degree removed from the villains he was pursuing. Pattinson follows in this same dark vein, but with a few noticeable changes.
The Batman envisioned by director Matt Reeves is, for lack of a better term, an “Emo” superhero. We see a Bruce Wayne with raven-colored hair and shadowy eyes (even when not in his costume), with a laconic and brooding (almost petulant at times) disposition who when not fighting bad guys, talks and moves slow. This is not to say that Pattinson doesn’t play the role well--he does--but gone is the image of the millionaire playboy or charismatic superhero. Instead we see a more vulnerable Batman who is not as dominant a figure as we are used to seeing, such as when he is fighting and despite his bullet-proof suit, he at times takes a beating. But we also see a more sympathetic figure when he is moved by the mayor’s son losing his father as well as looking out for and developing feelings for Selina Kyle/Catwoman.
When it comes to Paul Dano and his portrayal of the Riddler, this is no Jim Carrey. He is straight up a brutal serial killer akin to “John Doe” in 7even or “Jigsaw” in the Saw series. Shown as a victim of Gotham City’s political and criminal corruption, he also has a special vendetta against the Wayne Family in whose charitable institutions he was mistreated as a youth. As a result, we see a Riddler ingeniously using cryptographs, riddles, and a 4-Chan-like livestream to lay out a plan of personal and societal revenge for his sycophantic followers to carry out for a great cleansing of the city. As an aside, when Batman finds an old photo of the Riddler as a youth in a newspaper clipping, I thought, “Judas priest, it’s cousin Oliver from the Brady Bunch! He must’ve moved to Gotham City after the show jumped the shark and is now taking revenge on the world for his lackluster career."
Good but not Great
The Batman returns to the Detective Comics roots of Batman and tells a basic story of solving a crime and capturing the villain. It contains a stellar cast such as Zoë Kravitz, Jeffrey Wright, Paul Dano, John Tuturro, and a completely unrecognizable Colin Farrell as Oswald “the Penguin” Cobblepot. The story and the setting of a Gotham City as a rainy and gloomy dystopian New York-like city is moved along by the film’s lugubrious soundtrack with Nirvana’s song “Something in the Way” acting as Batman’s theme and piano melodies by the film’s composer Michael Giacchino that are reminiscent of the peevish adolescent improvisations of a victim of an unrequited love. Thus despite the film’s nearly three-hour run time, the story moves along at a fast pace, with only the ending seeming to drag on when the Riddler’s plans are discovered, only to be revealed that there is more to it again, and again, and yes again.
Moreover, there is a sense that The Batman will be seen differently according to sensibilities of a Gen-Xer like myself and a Gen-Z like my son, as it is clear that I am not the target audience. One way in which this comes out is through the obligatory “wokeness” that is added to the movie for younger audiences. According the online film critic Midnight's Edge, the director Matt Reeves comes from “the Bad Robot [a film production company run by J.J. Abrams] school of film making that is all about subversion and deconstruction.” This was partially seen in the character of Selina Kyle/Catwoman who is your standard empowered black female who tosses around thugs twice her weight, and who utter phrases that are (according to Midnight’s Edge) “expressed markers of the film's subtext and underlying themes.”
Thus she coldly dismisses the Riddler’s victims as just “entitled white males a**holes” or when at the end of the movie she invites Batman to come with her and leave Gotham City together so they can knock off some “greedy hedge fund CEO.” Although, Zoë Kravitz’s portrayal of Kyle/Catwoman is (according to my son) in keeping with her persona in the comics as a free-spirited character looking out for her own ambitions, what Reeves’ portrayal of her does is to downgrade that iconic figure into just another stock character type used to push “the narrative” that we have all grown accustomed to. This is unfortunate since Kravitz does an admirable job in bringing Kyle and her backstory to life.
However, where the film really shows its woke bonafides is with the sub-story of the mayoral campaign. All of the criminals and politicians, like the incumbent mayor are older, white men who represent a corrupt power structure and who utter the same empty and smarmy talking points that all politicians do to stay in power. By contrast, the mayor’s opponent, Bella Reál, is a single young black female that speaks plainly and forcibly about wanting to change things by uttering the all-purpose magical Progressive mantra of, “transparency” and “accountability.”
By the film’s end we can see the resolution of Reeve’s subtext in the fates of the main characters. The mayor Don Mitchell Jr. is killed, and thus the old patriarchal power structures is destroyed and washed away in a Old Testament like flood. The new mayor says that what is needed is to rebuilt (as in “building back” or “reseting”) “our trust in our institutions and with each other,” which in true woke fashion, she gets the order wrong- after what are “institutions” made up of but other people? Meanwhile, Batman and the Catwoman share a moment together in a cemetery--where Bruce’s parents and Selina’s mother are buried--and discuss their futures.
Selina feels that Gotham is beyond saving, and only envisions a life taking care of herself in an uncertain and hostile world. Batman for his part, decides to stay and keep on fighting the kind of mission that Ron Capshaw over at The Federalist called “doomed to failure, especially in the urban hell that is Gotham City, and deep down beneath all his wounded psychological layers, Batman knows it” and yet as Batman says in a voiceover, “Our scars can destroy us, even after the physical wounds have healed. But if we survive them, they can transform us. They can give us the power to endure, and the strength to fight.”
All in all, the story, is good but not great. Nonetheless, this version of Batman should not only appeal to Pattinson’s Twilight and Harry Potter fans, who are now all grown up, but also his Lighthouse and Tenet fans like myself. And, it's story is well-written enough that its ideological leanings can be ignored.
Photo Credit : screenrant.com