The Batman

Gotham: a city beset with drugs and crime.  The police are overwhelmed and have sought the help of a vigilante known as Batman (Robert Pattinson).  Bruce Wayne, the man behind the mask, is more than willing to oblige.  After two years, he has instilled fear into the city’s criminals, but criminal activity is on the rise despite his actions.  Within this hellish landscape emerges a man dressed in green and the city’s power structure in his sights.  On Halloween night, he brutally kills the mayor, but isn’t satisfied with committing murder.  Instead, he leaves behind ciphers, a card addressed to Batman and the words “No More Lies” scrawled on the victim’s face.  With each successive murder, the Riddler (Paul Dano) exposes the corruption at every level of Gotham.  For reasons known only to himself, he seeks revenge upon the people in Gotham’s power structure, including the mayor, the police commissioner, district attorney (Peter Sarsgaard) and a “rat” who helped them all put a gangster behind bars years ago.  Surprisingly, millionaire and philanthropist Thomas Wayne is also implicated by the Riddler, making Bruce a target as well.

As Batman and Lieutenant Gordan (Jeffrey Wright) investigate the murders, they discover that the city’s highest ranking civil servants are on the payroll of reputed gangsters Oz (Collin Farrell) and Falcone (John Turturro).  When a potential witness connected to the mayor disappears, Batman looks to her girlfriend, Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz) for help.  She’s not just a waitress at Oz’s club, she’s also a cat burglar who also looks quite fetching in a leather catsuit.  As they descend into Gotham’s underworld, Batman and Selina learn that the corruption the Riddler is exposing (and ruthlessly eliminating) connects to them in unexpected ways.  As the sins of the past are revealed, Batman must figure out how to stop the Riddler’s final act of revenge upon the city before its too late.

The Batman is one of the best superhero movies I’ve seen, and certainly is the best movie to feature the character since 2008’s The Dark Knight.  The movie features excellent acting all-around, starting with Pattinson’s disarming take on Bruce Wayne.  Here, he’s no confident playboy but a troubled recluse.  His night’s spent as Batman serve as therapy sessions, where he takes out his frustrations on petty criminals.  Kravitz follows in the slinky footsteps of her predecessors, but brings enough of her own personality to the part to make it her own.  The movie puts Dano’s unique acting talents to good use, making him a quirky, clever psychopath that is not joking around.  As the gangsters, Turturro and Farrell revel in their depravity, and have a gas while doing it.

The movie is expertly directed by Matt Reeves (Planet of the Apes) bringing a tinge of the Nineties to the proceedings.  Unlike previous Batman movies, this one feels directly influenced by the comics, in terms of its color palate, editing and framing.  The film’s score by Academy Award winner Michael Giacchino, is one for the ages.  Highly Recommended.

The first sign that this Batman movie is different from those that have come before is how it depicts Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson).  Unlike previous films, this version is a recluse.  He’s still a millionaire, but he’s seen in public so infrequently people are shocked when they recognize him.  (This is the source of a funny bit with “the twins” in the middle of the movie.)  He’s not a playboy who mingles in the social circles of the rich and powerful.  He’s a haunted man who rarely speaks, in or out of costume.  He sports a shock of straight, dark hair that falls over his eyes, a pasty complexion and a tendency to wear black eye makeup indoors.  He also explores his feelings in journals.  He’s effectively a thirty something man as a Nineties teenager: part emo, part goth and part grunge.  (The grunge part coming by way of Nirvana’s “Something in the Way”, played several times on the soundtrack.)  All told, Bruce is an angry guy.

Just like Keaton Batman and Bale in Batman Begins, Pattinson’s Batman takes to the streets at night, fighting random villains who terrorize everyday citizens.  The plan is to give criminals second thoughts, but it doesn’t seem to be working.  The criminals know Batman can’t be everywhere at once, so they continue to do what they do because the chances of facing him are small.  This brother’s Batman, but it doesn’t deter him.  He literally likes fighting crime because it’s the only outlet he has for his rage (more on that later).

Batman realizes that he’s not making a difference, but is unsure of what to do about it.  Fortunately, he’s able to put aside his self-doubt when the mayor is brutally murdered on the eve of the election.  Batman inspects the crime scene with Lieutenant Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), which is littered with newspaper clippings and “No More Lies” scrawled on the body.  There’s also a card addressed to Batman with a riddle.  Soon after, a man dressed in a green rain jacket and mask releases a video where he claims responsibility for the mayor’s murder and shows the Commissioner Savage bound and gagged.  The Riddler (Paul Dano), as he is called in the papers, says that he will kill the commissioner and release damning evidence about both, linking them to corruption via a “rat” that he is intent on exposing.  The rat is the person who provided information to the police on Salvatore Maroni’s drug operation, leading to his imprisonment and the dismantling of his criminal enterprise.

Batman and Gordon decipher the clues left by the Riddler at the next crime scene, and learn that the mayor frequented the Iceberg Lounge and was friendly with one of the waitresses, Annika.  The lounge happens to be run by Ozwald “Oz” Cobblepot (Colin Farrell), who reports directly to mobster Carmine Falcone (John Turturro).  Batman forces his way to see Oz, who denies knowing anything about the waitress or the mayor’s connection to her.  Batman crosses paths with Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), a waitress who was friends with Annika.

After they get past some initial trust issues, Batman and Selina decide to work together to determine the extent of Oz’s connections to Gotham’s civic leaders.  With Selina’s help, Batman learns that many of them are on Falcone’s payroll.  After a riveting car chase, Gordon and Batman confront Oz with their theory that he’s fronting the Riddler.  Oz denies this, but leads them to another location filled with clues: the Gotham Orphanage.  The Riddler then provides damning evidence to the media that Thomas Wayne, Bruce’s father, was behind the death of a reporter intent on exposing sensitive Wayne family secrets.  

Eventually, everything the Riddler has exposed helps Batman realize not only who is at the center of Gotham’s corruption, but the likely source of his father’s death and the last target on Riddler’s hit list.  All along, Batman has been trying to keep up with the Riddler’s game, which ends with another possible cataclysmic end for the city.  Will Batman, Commissioner Gordon and Selina be able to save the city’s residents and the mayor-elect from certain doom?

Prologue

I’ve seen all of the Batman movies in theaters.  I’ve enjoyed some more than others, and there have been very few I would choose to not watch again (see my ratings below).  There are fans of Batman & Robin, and Zach Snyder and Ben Affleck’s take on the character.  I am not among them.  My feelings towards the various Bat-movies are middle-of-the-road.  Similar to James Bond, I’m perfectly fine if the latest entry colors outside the lines, provided that it delivers the goods and does not descend into self-parody.  I appreciate when the filmmakers treat the property with a modicum of respect.  If I want to see a funny Batman, I’ll check out his Lego movie.

Generally speaking, all Batman’s on screen incarnations have included the same ingredients:  

  • Batman’s accessorized costume
  • The Batmobile
  • Alfred (played by a respected male English actor)
  • Commissioner Gordon (played by a respected male American actor)
  • a sexy romantic interest that intermittently distracts Bruce Wayne
  • mobsters/gangsters who make life difficult for Batman
  • an exciting car chase
  • the Bat-signal
  • a crazy villain intent on leveling Gotham
  • Batman saving Gotham from certain doom

Comparing and contrasting the various incarnations of the above would be incredibly time-consuming, and I really don’t want to choose between Michael Caine, Jeremy Irons and Michael Gough.  Instead, I’ll focus on why I enjoyed this movie, and why I believe it’s the best Batman movie I’ve seen in fourteen years.

Analysis

The Batman is the tenth movie that Warner Brothers has released that features the namesake character.  The movie faithfully follows the above recipe but deviates from it in one important way: the movie has a decidedly angry tone throughout.  Even more surprising is that this feeling of rage is no longer the exclusive domain of the villain(s), but includes Batman himself.  He’s been angry before, notably in Batman V. Superman, but this is different.  Batman isn’t angry over one person or one thing–he’s angry at the world.

This Bruce has all the expressiveness of a burnt match.  His muted emotions really are just a front for the rage he still feels over his father’s murder all those years ago.  Proof of this is the relish with which he beats up criminals.  He’s so violent, he even scares the people he’s saving.  Bruce may talk about how he’s become numb to cope with the death of his parents, but his rage is always just below the surface, itching to come out.

The underlying sense of rage is foreshadowed from the beginning.  The title cards for Warner Brothers, DC and the movie’s title are shown in bright red against a black background, symbolic of the character’s dead heart and propensity for violence.  Next, the Riddler claims his first victim in a vicious and wordless attack.  When the Batman makes his first appearance, the soundtrack gradually fills with menacing drums and baleful horns.  This is the first superhero movie I can think of where its musical themes are influenced by Holst’s “Mars, The Bringer of War”.  His vigilante attack on the subway contrasts sharply with the cold and passionless words of his voice-over narration (a first for a Batman movie).  Batman may claim to have his emotions in check, but his actions speak otherwise.

Unlike previous Batman movies, this Bruce Wayne is not a socially active playboy or an aloof dispatcher of justice.  Robert Pattinson is a bit younger than Michael Keaton and a bit older than Christian Bale when they initially played the role, but his take on the character feels younger than both of them.  He’s an angry young man, taking his frustrations out on random criminals.  He says that he’s vengeance, but who is he seeking vengeance for?  In the one scene where he saves a subway rider from a gang of Joker-styled thugs, the rider never called out for help, let alone Batman.  Before focusing on the doings of the Riddler, this Batman was taking his rage out on random criminals.  When he says that his actions haven’t made the city any safer, his lack of self-awareness is telling.  Beating up petty criminals will never make a difference because the source of the crime is still out there, having his way with the city.

Just as anger gives Batman a huge blind-spot, it does the same for his love interest, Selina Kyle.  With her mother long dead and her mobster father never giving her a passing thought, she’s been left to fend for herself, earning a living by working as a waitress in Oz’s club.  Her ability to earn a living depends upon her willingness to allow herself to be exploited.  For the male power brokers of the city, she’s just another woman there to satisfy their desires.  While her anger is generally directed at men, Selina is contemptuous of her father, Carmine Falcone.  She’s long suspected as the one who killed her mother, but could never prove it.  In a key moment, she leaves her girlfriend Annika unprotected to retrieve her passport.  Later, she puts herself at risk when she attempts to steal money during one of Oz’s drug buys.  She insists on making her father pay for the life she’s been forced to lead, to the point where she recklessly puts her own life and that of her girlfriend at risk.

The Riddler Decrypted

For as much rage as Batman and Selina have, neither can match the Riddler.  Born an orphan and raised in poverty, he always wondered why his life turned out as miserably as it did.  He always felt invisible and uncared for, which is understandable for an orphan.  However, when he learned the secrets behind Thomas Wayne’s Renewal charity, he became enraged.  The power brokers of the city, under direction from Falcone, turned a charity designed specifically to help children like the Riddler into a honey pot to enrich themselves and further their criminal interests.  With every murder and video he releases to the media, he exposes the corruption at the core of Gotham’s power structure, as well as the lies fed to the people to keep them in check.  In actuality, the city’s power brokers don’t care about the people they were elected to serve at all.

Some have described the Riddler as an “incel” or representing “white male rage”.  Those comparisons are lazy, premised solely upon the fact that Paul Dano, the actor playing the Riddler, is white and posts angry missives on the internet.  The basis for his rage isn’t imagined or self-inflicted: it was tangible and unbearable for many years of his life.  His anger is fueled by his discovery that the entire system of government is a fraud; everyone in charge is on the take and a gangster actually runs Gotham.  The Ridder isn’t delusional, he has evidence, receipts if you will, and eagerly puts them on display for all to see.

Questions Asked And Answered

In the Riddler’s mind, trying to change the system is impossible because all layers of government are corrupt.  He’s bent on revenge, so leaving the city is out of the question.  His plan is simple yet diabolical.  First, kill the members of its corrupt power structure.  Next, sow doubts among the people that their elected officials are all corrupt.  Last, kill the incoming mayor and throw the city into chaos.  Mayor-elect Bella Reál may be the city’s first uncorrupt leader in years, but the Riddler doesn’t see her as a “real” solution.  From the Riddler’s perspective, every leader of Gotham’s public institutions is corrupt, or will soon be corrupt.  If the new boss is the same as the old boss.  So why not kill her too?

While the Riddler’s ire at Gotham’s power structure is understandable, his hatred of Bruce Wayne is more personal.  The Riddler wants to kill him not because of anything Bruce did, but because of what he represents.  “Poor Bruce Wayne,” the Riddler tells Batman.  Everyone was so obsessed with the suddenly orphaned millionaire that they completely forgot about the orphans living in bleak poverty.  While Bruce was able to grow up comfortably in a mansion, the Riddler had to deal with rats gnawing on his fingers.  The Riddler’s rage towards Bruce Wayne is no different from anyone else who lives in dire straits, only to witness the media fawn over the problems of rich people day after day.  His spiel to Batman about Bruce Wayne’s charmed life is as powerful an indictment of the media’s obsession with celebrity culture at the expense of everything else if there ever was one.

The Riddler’s feelings of rage also extend to Bruce’s father as well.  Based on Thomas Wayne’s connection to the reporter’s murder and the way the Renewal charity was subsequently abused, the Riddler believes the elder Wayne is guilty of blatant hypocrisy.  As a child, the Riddler was forced to sing Ave Maria in a choir while Falcone and the rest of Gotham’s leaders raided the Renewal charity at will.  How much of the blame of this could be laid at the elder Wayne’s feet is debatable, but as a millionaire, he should have put controls in place to prevent the rampant pilfering of his namesake charity from happening.  Unfortunately, Renewal wound up being an example of yet another charity that mainly served to enrich those entrusted to run it.  From the Riddler’s perspective, describing Thomas Wayne as a good man is ridiculous, given Wayne’s purported connection to a mobster and the fact that his charity only benefited criminals.

I’ve spent a lot of time discussing the Riddler’s justifications for his actions.  This is a credit to Matt Reeves and Peter Craig giving his character a believable edge.  Even though Batman literally has a rogue’s gallery of villains to choose from, the only one who has ever worked for me has been the Joker.  However, while the Joker’s sense of anarchy is always a blast, there’s often little justification for it.  Director Chris Nolan reached for something deeper with Ra’s al Ghul and Bane, but I was never convinced by the meathead philosophy they espoused.  With the Riddler, Batman finally has a villain who has a worse story to tell than he does.  Given that the Riddler is still alive at the end of the movie, I’m curious what Reeves will do with this character next time around.  The Riddler probably spent years devising his master plan.  What will he come up with now that he’s in Arkham?

Three Sides Now

Individually, Bruce Wayne, Selina and the Riddler are filled with anger at a society that has failed them.  While they each cope with their anger differently, they are actually sides of the same triangle.  On one side is Bruce Wayne, who channels his anger into fighting crime working within the system.  Selina is on the opposite side, wanting nothing more than to steal enough money to leave Gotham and start over.  The remaining side is the Riddler, who takes the most extreme actions of the three.  

Previous Batman movies have utilized a similar triangle, particularly in Batman Returns (Batman, Catwoman and the Penguin) and The Dark Knight Rises (Batman, Catwoman and Dane).  While I liked those movies, the one constructed in The Batman had more emotional weight for me.  The actions of the villains in Batman Returns are very personal acts of revenge: the Penguin is driven by his parents abandoning him and Catwoman had a horrible boss who tried to kill her.  In The Dark Knight Rises, Dane is a pseudo-intellectual thug who is  following-through on Ra’s al Ghul’s plans and Catwoman is a willing accomplice who gets buyer’s remorse.  The movie tried to capitalize on the Occupy Wall Street movement, but those references came off as both superficial and opportunistic.

The Batman, however, speaks to rage that has been simmering for years.  The feelings expressed by Batman, Selina and the Riddler are rooted in childhood trauma that they have never come to terms with.  These characters haven’t moved on because they don’t know how.  I suspect they really don’t want to, because rage is all they have to keep themselves from falling apart.  The three are all about getting vengeance because without that goal, life wouldn’t be worth living.  Unlike the previous two movies with character triangles, The Batman manages to make the turmoil felt by these characters relatable.  They may be superheroes and/or supervillains, but their source of their individual torment is something that is much more human than the typical superhero movie is willing to delve into.

Above the Line

The acting throughout The Batman is superlative.  Robert Pattinson was an inspired choice, one that seemed odd when it was announced.  In retrospect, he was a perfect fit for the movie, able to bring out the strange dichotomy of his character.  His haunted and broken Bruce contrasted so sharply with the violent and determined Batman that this movie was the first time I felt that the character suffered from split personality disorder.

Zoë Kravitz turns in a memorable Selina Kyle/Catwoman, bringing enough of her personal attitude to the part to make it her own.  I wish the movie had given her more to work with.  Both this and Anne Hathaway’s take on the character haven’t changed much since Michelle Pfeiffer’s vampy performance in Batman Returns.  As before, the filmmakers have settled on giving her a chip on her shoulder, a skin-tight outfit and sly violins accentuating her every move.  However, The Batman steps beyond the historical stereotyping of the character by finally recognizing her bisexual nature and in giving her a pussy riot hat to wear.  I’m mentioning this to say that Kravitz does a nice job despite the screenplay not giving her much to work with.

Like Tom Hardy before him, Paul Dano spends most of the movie behind a mask.  It isn’t until the last act that we get to see him do some real acting.  I discussed his character’s motivations at length previously, so I won’t repeat myself here.  The reason why I found the Riddler such a fascinating character was due to Dano’s monologue.  Dano is such an oddball actor, with his moon face and sing-song voice, he makes playing a disturbed character look so easy.  The Riddler is an intellectual lunatic, not an easy role to pull off successfully.  He had a shot at a Best Supporting Actor nomination if he weren’t behind the scenes in the story so much.  His performance is right up there with Heath Ledger’s Joker.

Jeffrey Wright has been so good for so long, I take him for granted.  His take on Commissioner Gordan was a nice change of pace, someone who’s risen through the ranks but still sounds like a beat cop.  I liked that Gordon and Batman had such a collegial relationship, bordering on friendship.  Wright really sells his character’s practicality.  If this guy in a cape and cowl can help me solve crimes, why not use him?  Heck, he even works for free.

Much has been written about Colin Farrell’s performance as Oz.  Why did the filmmakers cast a skinny guy for the role and put him in heavy makeup and a fat suit?  Farrell is an incredible actor and makes this role his own.  It’s a showy turn, but Oz is a larger-than-life character (no pun intended).  If people want to hate a performance solely on the basis of prosthetics, that is their prerogative.  I enjoyed every minute of it.

Last but not least is Andy Serkis as Alfred.  Known mostly for his motion capture work in The Lord of the Rings and The Planet of the Apes trilogies, he does some nice work here, bringing a tough edge to the typically refined English man servant role.  If Alfred really did teach Bruce Wayne to fight, this version of Alfred is the only one I’d believe capable of doing that.

Below the Line

Before this movie, Matt Reeves had an eclectic list of films to his credit.  Cloverfield utilized the found footage tactic to turn in an effective horror movie on a modest budget.  I didn’t care for Let Me In, an inferior remake of Let the Right One In.  His two Plant of the Apes movies were incredible, however, both showcasing his ability to create an all-enveloping world and garner sympathy for an unlikely collection of characters.  Even still, I never would have guessed he would be capable of taking such well-known characters and turning in such a firefly, expressive and riveting three-hour superhero movie as this one.  The Batman is the best superhero movie I’ve seen so far in 2022, and is one of the best I’ve seen, period.

Reeves and Peter Craig co-wrote the script and delivered a riveting movie from start to end.  In addition to the character triangle I described above, I appreciated that instead of rebooting the character to his beginnings, or continuing with the older version of the character from the Snyder movies, Reeves and Craig take us to when Batman was just two years into his superhero career.  He’s nowhere near as calm and self-assured as he’s been in the past.  This Batman is still figuring things out.  He has an eye for details and can beat up criminals, but he’s still a ways away from being known as The World’s Greatest Detective.

My only complaint about the screenplay is that when it arrives at what feels like the natural conclusion to the story–Batman confronting the Riddler in Arkham, the movie still has thirty minutes left.  All along, the plot had been building towards answering two questions: who the Riddler is and why was he killing the people he killed.  His monologue with Batman answers both of those questions, providing a chilling coda on everything that happened up to that point.  If the story had ended at that point, the movie still would have been a very entertaining one.  However, the Riddler reveals that there is one last act to his diabolical plan, which involves shooting mayor-elect Reál.  The Riddler is correct when he says that Batman can’t stop what’s coming; all he can do is prevent the Riddler’s followers from killing Reál.  While the movie’s final action sequence is thrilling, all it does is prove to the people of the city that Batman is committed to reform.  It doesn’t alter the outcome of the story at all, since the Riddler is locked up and Selina was always destined to leave the city.  For a movie that had a lot going on, it was a bit  unnecessary.

From a technical standpoint, The Batman is one of the best looking and sounding superhero movies I’ve seen.  The cinematography by Greig Fraser is exceptional, especially his use of graphic novel color schemes throughout.  At times, the movie feels inspired by German cinema of the 1920s.  For my money, Stephan Czapsky, the cameraman behind Batman Returns, remains the most beautifully shot Batman movie I’ve seen.

Kudos to production designer James Chinlund for bringing another unique vision of Gotham to life.  Instead of the retro-Forties of the Tim Burton films, the Chicago backdrop of Chris Nolan’s trilogy or the uber-glam of Zach Snyder, this movie feels influenced by the Nineties.  In addition to Bruce Wayne’s personal influences, Oz’s club is a rave straight out of the period.  Additionally, the Riddler feels like a direct homage to David Fincher’s Se7en.  Overall, the movie has a more rough and jagged aesthetic than I can remember for a Batman film.

Michael Giacchino’s score is simply amazing.  After checking his bio on imdb.com, I had no idea he wrote the music for so many of my favorite films.  Of the four movies released in 2022 that he’s written music for, his work on The Batman is the best one by far.  He won an Academy Award for his score for Up.  If he isn’t nominated for his work on this movie, I’d be surprised.

Batman movies rated

Batman (1989) A

Batman Returns (1992)  A

Batman Forever (1995) B

Batman & Robin (1997) F

Batman Begins (2005) B

The Dark Knight (2008) A

The Dark Knight Rises (2012) B

Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice (2016) C

Justice League (2017) C

The Batman (2022) A

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