The Batman | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Wednesday, May 25th, 2022  

The Batman

Studio: Warner Bros.

Mar 22, 2022 Web Exclusive
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Director Matt Reeves’ much-anticipated reboot of this monumental franchise has not failed to please fans and persuade skeptics. The Batman possesses all the necessary traits of a modern American epic—a top-notch cast, sociopolitical relevance, explosive big budget action sequences, and a bold willingness to move its franchise in a fresh direction. Reeves’ controversial casting of Robert Pattinson in the film’s titular role, coupled with his bleak reinterpretation of the franchise’s mythology, ensured The Batman’s notoriety prior to its theatrical release, but the quality of Reeves and Peter Craig’s screenplay, along with the collective skill of the film’s cast and crew, distinguishes and elevates it from the hype, and in the process renders Pattinson something of an underdog idol, for whom many cannot help but root. Overall, it’s easy to see the appeal here, as Reeves’ take on the iconic masked crusader and the equally iconic city he inhabits delves far deeper than previous installments, providing a stirring portrait of a society in distress as it struggles toward some semblance of grace and meaning.

Overrun with violence, poverty, addiction, and widespread corruption, Reeves’ Gotham bears a disturbing resemblance to America in its current state. Gone is director Christopher Nolan’s sleek and stylish metropolis, replaced instead by a seemingly depthless cavity of sickness and suffering. The hollow shell of an empire now cast in late capitalism’s strange half-light, Gotham possesses decaying corridors, its institutions infested with crooks and charlatans who, at this point, hardly feign interest in the city’s plight as its disillusioned denizens scrape by beneath them. Gotham’s decline, in all its grit and grime, casts a shadow as imposing as any of the film’s numerous antagonists, with Reeves taking a page from director David Fincher’s playbook, introducing the city itself as an essential character. Fincher’s own masterpieces Se7en and Zodiac—to both of which The Batman has been compared—famously include their respective locales among their casts, the director writing as much grim charisma into the former’s rainswept urban crypt and the latter’s phantasmagorically reimagined Bay Area as he did both films’ leads. There is no beauty to be found in Gotham, its crumbling infrastructure and revolving door of criminals reflecting the cynicism and neglect of the civic officials once tasked with protecting their city from these very ills. Even the film’s affluent settings possess the same dingy air as its underbelly, with Gotham’s elite frequently commuting back and forth between them. The echo of the city’s distress call resonates loudly, its desperation for a savior apparent from the film’s opening scene.

Enter Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne—portrayed here as being far more “hands-on” than Christian Bale’s version—who fittingly possesses the slumped posture and sunken features of a jaded detective this time around, as opposed to the unearned confidence of a slick playboy. One can instantly fathom the influence of Kurt Cobain in Pattinson’s performance without reading his and Reeves’ confirmation of the fact. Like Cobain in his time, Wayne is a popular outcast, living in self-imposed exile. Also like Cobain, Wayne appears to exist in a state of perpetual dejection, his obvious discomfort personified in his despondent demeanor and rumpled clothing, which rarely seems to fit him as well as it ought. The film’s use of Nirvana’s 1991-released gem “Something in the Way” drives this home, Wayne’s Gotham beginning to resemble Cobain’s personal Seattle—a shadowy alternate realm of gloom and anguish, reminding the viewer that both owe as much to grungy mentalities as physical locations. In embodying Cobain’s essence, Pattinson’s Wayne, while never lacking in advanced gadgetry or impeccable combat skills, also possesses a more brooding and intuitive intelligence, which tends to find him, if without sanction, leading each investigation, his ability to decode and interpret almost uncanny.

Pattinson, like his co-star Colin Farrell, is another former heartthrob-turned-underrated character actor, having spent the past decade portraying pathological personalities in numerous art and indie films. While Bruce Wayne has little in common with, say, The Devil All the Time’s devious Rev. Preston Teagardin, Pattinson’s comprehension of damaged psyches allows him to humanize the insulated billionaire in ways previously unseen, exploring the wickedness inherent within Wayne’s socioeconomic privilege and the depressive reluctance undergirding his hero complex. While this Batman is fierce, a symbol of vengeance emerging from the darkness to crack skulls and paralyze the underworld, the sorrow and reclusive tendencies he carries remain evident within his every step. In fact, Pattinson’s Batman has more than a bit in common with Watchmen’s Rorschach—another hyper-intelligent masked detective with a penchant for brutal vigilantism, midnight strolls, and the documentation of his city’s downfall through succinct, gruffly-narrated journal entries. Never has there been a Bruce Wayne/Batman of such human depth, Pattinson ultimately having proved his critics wrong, blazing an entirely new trail for the character.

Reeves’ knack for casting is on full display in his curation of this ensemble of talented character actors, seeing the director eschewing Nolan’s penchant for packing his films with A-list leading women and men. Supporting roles by Zoë Kravitz (whose witty and determined Selina Kyle, while a strong performance, is tied unfortunately to the film’s least interesting subplot), Jeffrey Wright (whose James Gordon is by far the franchise’s most sympathetic), and Andy Serkis (whose Alfred Pennyworth is regrettably not given as much screen time as he deserves) each serve to strengthen the film’s plot in their own unique senses. Regarding the latter, it is easy to lament Wayne’s initially caustic and misdirected mistreatment of Alfred, who has devoted his life to caring for him. This intensifies the pain and regret when Alfred becomes the recipient of an attack intended for Wayne himself. Ultimately, Reeves’ decision to strip Alfred of his status as a central character leaves much unexplored in his relationship with Wayne.

The film’s smorgasbord of villains also boasts some phenomenal performances, with John Turturro’s plotting crime lord Carmine Falcone and Peter McDonald’s crooked cop William Kenzie emitting sinister auras throughout each scene in which they appear. However, it is Farrell’s Oswald “Penguin” Cobblepot who remains the most memorable. The transformation undergone by the actor renders him unrecognizable here, his portrayal of the physically corrupted and morally bankrupt mobster oozing sleaze with every syllable. The Penguin, in all of his repulsively slimy entitlement, is guaranteed to elicit laughter of disbelief from the audience, serving as the film’s sole source of comic relief.

An obvious homage to both the Zodiac Killer (“This is the Riddler speaking,” cryptograms, etc.) and Se7en’s John Doe (a creepy apartment crammed with psychopathic esoterica, a paranoid “cause” of immeasurable cruelty and fear, etc.), Paul Dano’s Riddler ultimately fails to maintain the sophistication of either. Initially a fascinating figure, the Riddler emerges as a bespectacled, mission-oriented serial murderer, hellbent on exposing the true nature of Gotham’s ruling class through a variety of grotesque contraptions and cryptic messages only Wayne seems to comprehend, before swiftly diminishing himself into a sniveling man-child more akin to John Hinckley Jr. or Mark David Chapman by the film’s end. Dano, another of his generation’s top character actors, fumbles this role by choosing to play it too maniacally in the film’s second portion, details such as his sudden recital of “Ave Maria” feeling especially forced and cartoonish. What makes figures such as the Zodiac Killer, John Doe, or even Heath Ledger’s Joker so terrifying is their ultimate lack of humanity, and in Zodiac and Joker’s case, legitimate motives. This mystique elevated these men to almost metaphysical statuses, each shedding his mortal flesh to become a spirit in the night, a demonic phantom stalking the shadows, lying in wait to wreak hellish havoc. While Reeves’ desire to right the perceived wrongs of Nolan’s The Dark Knight—in which the Joker not only overshadows Batman as a character, but is also lent the appearance of a rockstar or rebel prophet, whose ravings sound almost sensible at times—is apparent, it sometimes feels as though he and Dano miscalculated the Riddler’s balance of evil and humanness.

Ledger’s Joker became an indelible presence in popular culture, his likeness influencing far more than cinema and comics, quickly finding its way into political campaigns and ringing in a new era of terrorist chic. This phenomenon, while not the first of its kind and certainly not the last, begs troubling questions regarding the eroding social morale experienced in the ’00s, as well as the resultant cultural schism now dominating American life. Sure, it is possible that Reeves was seeking to help remedy this issue by revealing the film’s major antagonist as nothing more than a deluded and self-righteous narcissist, merely a loser in search of a purpose, a nobody who has grossly overestimated his own significance—a fair assessment, and often true of violent criminals (Zodiac, Doe, and Joker included)—but so much more could have been done with the role. Perhaps the often mythologized image of terror is still worth analyzing.

Yes, the film tends to rehash nuggets of common knowledge—government and organized crime share a bed…indeed they do, and always have. Politicians are lying to you and profiting off your ignorance…of course they are, it’s the nature of the business. Never underestimate the internet’s prevalent role in radicalizing various misfits…an astute observation, though not realized in its entirety here—but it treads this familiar territory with enough enthusiasm to maintain the viewer’s interest. Certainly, some of the film’s deliveries feel too heavy-handed to praise as being genuinely artful, but there is no doubt that Reeves and company’s hearts are in the right place. Still, there is much left to admire in The Batman, and despite its shortcomings, the film succeeds in its exploration of other issues, most notably its central theme: identity.

Throughout the film, we are watching the dissolution of individual and collective identity in the modern era. This is evident in the face of each gang member, mobster, representative, and cop, living and dead. The very essence of Bruce Wayne is gradually dismantled before our very eyes. This proves a transcendent experience for Pattinson as an actor, whose Batman dissolves into the film’s climax, eventually being retranslated and projected upon the collective, at which point the costumed crusader finds himself united with the rest of Gotham in the water below. The sequence calls to mind Don DeLillo’s assertion that “the future belongs to crowds,” a quote drawn from his 1991-published novel Mao II, which, like The Batman, also explores the politics of reclusion and the aesthetic of terrorism. Unlike that of Mao II, however, there exists a peculiar sensation of hesitant optimism in The Batman’s conclusion, as Wayne takes on a new form and the city appears to unite. The intimate sensitivity with which Pattinson portrays Batman in such scenes is sublime, the character developing a layer of humility only attainable through the loss of self and the mutilation of meaning. This is intelligently written into the film’s script and masterfully handled by both Pattinson and Reeves, providing The Batman with an unusual sense of complex emotional substance.

The Batman may not please every fan, and its less subtle political and philosophical implications may aggravate certain viewers, but Reeves is admirably willing to gain new fans at the expense of alienating others—a price many artists must pay sooner or later. The Batman marks a turning point in the superhero genre not seen since the publication of Watchmen nearly four decades ago. Blatantly left open for a sequel, The Batman’s legacy will certainly persevere as it morphs into its own franchise, hopefully providing fertile ground for the refinement of the innovative techniques and weighty ideas explored here. Until then, the reboot provides more than enough for any viewer seeking exhilarating action and insightful reflection—an often challenging synthesis attempted with some success by Matt Reeves and his team, reminding the viewer that this generation’s creatives still have plenty to offer. (www.warnerbros.com)

Author rating: 8.5/10

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Average reader rating: 7/10



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