Film: The Batman
Principal cast: Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano, Jeffrey Wright, Colin Farrell, Andy Serkis, John Turturro, Peter Sarsgaard
Director: Matt Reeves
Running time: 2 hrs 56 mins
Where to watch: In theatres
Before I divulge my thoughts on the film, I must lay bare a brief portion of my association with Batman and related characters. Six years ago, in the wake of my dissatisfactions after the release of present-day Internet demigod Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), I had written rough treatments of stories based on characters from DC Comics that I queerly envisaged as viable film adaptations; I somehow refused to let the envisagement be extinguished by the explicit gore in the stories or my spontaneous reconfiguration of said characters into fugitives and political insurrectionists.
One of the ideas was, as one would presume, an introductory tale featuring Batman; at the time, the take seemed novel to me because it was rooted in a mixture of appreciation for darker detective fiction and some of the character’s more unbound escapades from the comic books. More deranged versions of the Mad Hatter and Victor Zsasz, as “villains”, adorned copious amounts of the plot, which I could only describe as blood-soaked neo-noir horror. This was certainly partially a response to Ben Affleck’s Batman from the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), a veteran conqueror of inconvenient storylines who casually fashioned a nearly flawless suit of armour that defeated the invincible Superman and, upon being enquired about his enhanced powers in Justice League (2017), ever so humbly quipped, “I’m rich”. Barring a half-baked cameo in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad (2016), we never saw this Batman grappling with the unceasing struggles of the streets.
It might not always be as cinematically groundbreaking as it speciously claimed to be, but director Matt Reeves’ The Batman hews closer to that child’s militant imagination than any other Batman film thus far. The film is a gritty and gripping celebration of film noir that expands the horizons of its eponymous vigilante by hauling him back to his unsparing roots.
Far from belligerently waltzing with extraterrestrial beings, we find the Batman of The Batman in a wonderfully tender position. Without compelling one to sit through another sequence of Thomas and Martha Wayne being shot in an alleyway, the film dives into a Gotham City where a young Bruce Wayne (Pattinson) has been donning the Batsuit for only two years. Bruce, therefore, is neither unfledged enough to be utterly awestruck by every crushing revelation, nor is he seasoned enough to become complacent in his strategies.
The vicissitudinous intermediacies of this uncertain period are exploited to unravel a flawed and unembellished detective who is quietly hobbled by a throbbing crisis of trauma. This is a Batman who uses a motorbike more than he uses the Batmobile; he has not yet established a sprawling Batcave filled to the brim with elaborate technological innovations, nor does he have access to a gadgetry-supplying business manager in the vein of Lucius Fox. He erroneously translates ciphers, hesitates before using his gliders, and is generally reticent in matters of ascertaining the trajectory of his involvements.
The plot thickens when Bruce, at this stage of his vigilantism, is brought by Lieutenant James Gordon (Wright) into an exigent investigation surrounding the murder of politician Don Mitchell Jr. (Rupert Penry-Jones), the incumbent Mayor of Gotham City who was seeking to be re-elected in an ongoing mayoral election. As he unpacks the case, he is hurled into the tenebrous crevices of the city’s underworld and its venal administration by the enigmatic Riddler (Dano), the self-professed murderer of glorified thieves and the “lies” of the kleptocratic establishment. Through the investigation, Bruce confronts the uncomfortable mechanisms of urban economic violence in his city and the ambiguities of the legacy of his own family.
In proceeding with this central mystery, the influence of legendary thrillers such as The French Connection (1976), Taxi Driver (1976), All the President’s Men (1976), etc. on the investigative workings of the Batman-Gordon duo is palpable. Filmmaker David Fincher’s visual temperaments and specific elements of his film Zodiac (2007), especially in the common inputs from the modus operandi of the infamous Zodiac killer, also pervade the frames. Admirers of the video game Batman: Arkham Origins (2013) might also peripherally notice visual/thematic similarities.
Cinematographer Greig Fraser, fresh off the plate from his magnificent work in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune (2021), crafts an awe-inspiring visual aesthetic. With the city drowned in hues of black and brown, the contours within each frame are measured and toned. The tactile verisimilitude of the film’s grammar owes most of its credit to the cinematography, which alternates between wide-angle shots to deep-focus close-ups with ease and without compromising on the geometry of a particular shot’s spatiality. For instance, a sequence with a continuous reverse-trolley of Batman fighting a few armed goons in a dark corridor is intermittently illuminated only when the firing of the bullets generates flashes of light. The musical score by Michael Giacchino shines in these moments and complements the rest of the film well.
What also struck me particularly about the tonality of the film is how evocative it felt of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s noted limited series Batman: The Long Halloween (1996-1997), which seems to have exerted a considerable amount of influence on the interactions of the characters as well. Like the series, the film is emphatic about its anti-government inclinations and its detective-noir sensibilities, and similarly depicts a more inexperienced Bruce Wayne made to undergo an exposé of Gotham’s concealed interiors while beholding the transformation of grounded characters such as Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Kravitz) and Oswald Cobblepot/Penguin (Farrell) into larger figures of influence. The dynamic between James Gordon, prior to becoming Commissioner of Police, and Batman is also inspired largely by this series. It is in this cognisance of acknowledging its sources of inspiration, including other comic book series such as Batman: Year One (1987) and Batman: Ego (2000), that The Batman manages to effectively tip its cowl to a legion of comic book enthusiasts while presenting a narrative that is lucid enough to be considered by the completely uninitiated.
The script, by Reeves and Peter Craig, remains committed to these tonalities and manages to unearth certain crowd-pleasing opportunities from them. The gloom and dispiritedness that the characters inhabit are not pushed to a hilt through overbearing despondency. They feel organic, inasmuch as they are required, but the dialogue suffers from being incongruously ponderous and baroque at times. However, the film is not verbose enough for it to be bogged down by this.
The lingo of Farrell’s turn as Cobblepot, who is graciously left unharmed by literal emulations of a penguin’s dietary or behavioural habits (forgive me, Danny DeVito), is unexpectedly soothing at times. It is a masterful performance overall, with Farrell rendered unrecognisable through both a superbly pitched act and commendable prosthetic effects. Wright hits the mark as the trustworthy and righteous Gordon; the exploration of his equation with Batman receives a welcome amount of screen time. Serkis plays the role of Alfred Pennyworth exceedingly well, but he could have been given a few more scenes in his kitty. Speaking of kitties, Kravitz is noticeably brilliant as the understated Selina, whose Catwoman is possibly at an even more nascent stage than Bruce’s Batman. She effectively exchanges the usual prurient playfulness of the character with a more reserved and conflicted empathy.
The film offers such fertile characterisations aplenty, that will hopefully be explicated further. The composition of Bruce Wayne’s emotionality reminded me of the stoic child at the centre of many a European film, from the neorealist era in Italy to the time of the French New Wave, who is left nearly completely devoid of vocal sentimentality for the purpose of moulding him into a persuasive vessel of his social milieu. Bruce partially serves a similar function here; an a priori foil to urban squalor, who is capable of it by being in the process of discovering newer facets of filth.
Through Pattinson’s performance, however, he is given abundant room for psychological reflection. Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne exudes a withdrawn unsociability that, still under the influence of his cloistered upbringing, cannot bring itself to be overtaken by the appearance of a gregarious billionaire; this iteration bridges the fractures between any contrasting personalities that could have been adopted. This is certainly not his best performance, but he cracks the brief of the morose nocturnal recluse that the character is written to be. There is seldom a determinate location for the shedding of a grief, and Bruce does not receive one; instead, the existential ethos of his moral positions is brought under scrutiny by the revolutionary vitality of the Riddler’s message.
It is in the Riddler and his convictions that the film finds its most remarkable achievement. It is, as the promotional material has already suggested, the farthest cry imaginable from Jim Carrey’s garish portrayal of the character in Batman Forever (1995). Dano, who has previously shoved his mettle as an actor in our faces by sporadically overshadowing thespians such as Daniel Day-Lewis and Jake Gyllenhaal in shared scenes, unsurprisingly delivers the best performance of the film. His Riddler is a baby-faced red-haired cherub who is compellingly sinister and unhinged without being exaggerated. Each movement of Dano’s eye is a chance for him to re-affirm his menacing perceptiveness, but the scope of that menace is never aggrandized.
That remains unnecessary, because the Riddler’s politics is mostly cogent; he is not a serial killer who slaughters for merriment. He has launched his assault on the perpetrators of corruption after having accumulated extensive evidence of the endemic nexus between corporations, the organised mafia, and organs of the government. The infestation of misappropriated capital in the hands of those who engender views on justice enrages him. As celebrated philosopher and commentator Noam Chomsky put it, “For the powerful, crimes are those that others commit”. The Riddler is shown to have received a harrowing upbringing that has made him the eternal “other” to what he sees as the contemptible moneyed melancholia of the “powerful” (like Bruce).
As long as the film expresses fidelity with this politics, it remains firmly engaging. The only disappointment arrives in the final act, when the potent pursuit of the Riddler is watered down (those that watch the film will comprehend the pun) in an underwhelming and vapid villainous extravaganza that undermines his initial concerns and restores the hero-villain binary. The implication of it, that the film could be suggesting, is that the plot views him as an innate psychopath regardless of the cause he champions. In my limited interpretative capacity, I shall seek an alternative to that implication.
A generic Freudian view of a social persona would entail the conception of the ego and the super-ego as elements that “mask” our instinctual drives in the repressed unconscious id. In a scene where the Riddler is confronted by Batman, the former brazenly incites the latter’s visible vulnerability by stating that the mask does not fool him; the Riddler contends that he is speaking to the “real” person only when the mask is worn. This is a subversion that treasured philosopher of obscenity Slavoj Žižek alluded to when he wrote, “Wearing a mask can thus be a strange thing: sometimes, more often than we tend to believe, there is more truth in the mask than in what we assume to be our “real” self.” In other words, the id of every masked crusader dwells in the mask itself.
As a dissection of Batman’s dilemma and his motivations, this disintegration of essentialist non-appearance is important; in a description of the hero’s maddening search for his “true” identity that the villainy of the world robs him of, Žižek wrote elsewhere, “When the subject goes behind the curtain of appearance to search for the hidden essence, he thinks he will discover something that was always there; he does not realise that in passing behind the curtain, he is bringing with him the very thing that he will find”.
For our sake, let us hope that the return of the World’s Greatest Detective in Reeves’ world will correspond with an even more expository enchainment. Till then, The Batman will serve as a reminder of how impactful a grim and unyielding encounter with hope can be.