It’s been two months since the last new superhero film hit theaters, and six months since the last new DC Comics film. Between Oscar season and unwanted studio castoffs, it’s been such a drought for viewers who’ll only leave the comfort of their homes for comic-book films. At last The Batman is here to save them. Not that I’m complaining too loudly about this cinematic rescuer, as it’s one of the Dark Knight’s best films in over a decade, maybe longer.
Though it isn’t set in the same continuity as any previous DC films (fine by me), it assumes the audience is familiar with the cast and saves time by skipping everyone’s origins, a wise decision on the part of director/co-writer Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, the last two Planet of the Apes sequels), who’s as tired as the rest of us watching Thomas and Martha Wayne buy the farm again and again. With the Bat-mantle passed on to the Robert Pattinson, the Caped Crusader is two years into what his journals refer to as Project Gotham. He’s graduated from rookie status, accumulated quite a scar collection, defeated at least one supervillain, and learned to stash Bat-equipment all over his Bat-armor, not just in his Bat-utility belt. If some dastardly evildoer wants to disable him and stick him in a deathtrap, they can’t neutralize him simply by stealing his belt; they’ll have to remove his entire costume. I imagine Twilight fans will be okay with this.
Two years in, the city remains a wretched hive of scum and villainy populated by six million criminals and roughly 5-10 would-be Samaritans who refuse to leave because they swear they can change it and their relationship with their hometown totally isn’t toxic. But it’s hard to change an entire city one block at a time when so many in power are as corrupt as your least favorite President, and it’s hard for those 5-10 folks to keep tabs on a metropolis with such vast square mileage. Every landmark is bigger than every real-world counterpart. Gotham Square is twice the size of Times Square, Gotham Square Garden dwarfs Madison Square Garden, and one can only imagine the size of as-yet-unseen landmarks such as the Gotham State Building, the Gotham Trade Center, the Statue of Gothamity, the Gothamheim Art Museum, President Ulysses S. Gotham’s Tomb, Original Gotham Ray’s Pizza, Famous Gotham Ray’s Pizza, Gotham Original Ray’s Pizza, and Gotham Famous Ray’s Pizza.
Evil has so many places to hide, and yet so much of it flounces around in the open…until and unless Batman emerges from the nearest shadow like Darth Vader at the end of Rogue One and trounces them in spectacular fashion, which looks keen when it happens, but he can’t be everywhere. Once per year he also has to appear in public as Bruce Wayne, billionaire recluse who’s neither a playboy nor a philanthropist. Presumably he’ll grow into those roles in future years; Pattinson’s Bruce isn’t in the classic mold. He makes no time for crashing parties or dazzling ladies, so for now his public perception is that of a silent trust-fund baby everyone tolerates only because of his dead parents.
As if riding herd on two million street punks in his real persona isn’t enough of a hobby to occupy his time, there’s a new serial killer on the loose. Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood, Little Miss Sunshine) is a masked madman calling himself the Riddler. With all traces of wackiness purged from his soul, he retains the question-mark motif and an obsession with proving his superiority by asking silly questions that only he and sometimes Batman can answer. He’s otherwise gone cinematically grim-‘n’-gritty at last, having watched at least three different David Fincher films a dozen times each and reinvented himself as a Deep Web cult figure who skulks in whichever shadows Batman isn’t hogging. He’s working through his list of authority figures whose sins have failed Gotham. He has a fondness for crafting his own Jigsaw torture devices that are sinister distant cousins to the far-fetched contraptions of Frank Gorshin and John Astin, except his actually work. Like any amateur handyman he also loves him some duct tape. If not for Bat-canon, local Gotham media might’ve dubbed him the Duct Hunter.
Batman’s lucky to have a few allies along the way. His longtime work-friend Lieutenant James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) is blessedly on his side to compare notes, share intel, and run interference for him with both sides of the Gotham PD schism — the usual corrupt tools, and the decent fellows cool with letting Batman wander crime scenes. (As Gordon points out, he is wearing gloves.) Faithful butler Alfred (Andy Serkis) retains the useful skill sets of his storied pre-Gotham resume and acts as a supportive father figure, more down-to-Earth than the usual snarky curmudgeon. And he makes a new acquaintance: Zoë Kravitz (High Fidelity, Mad Max: Fury Road) is Selina Kyle, an acrobatic burglar posing as a waitress/minion at Gotham’s hottest club, where only one of her ulterior motives involves a big money heist. She’s self-assured to a point but likewise still growing in her chosen profession. As with many tales where she’s been more antihero than bad guy, Selina has good reason to partner up with Bats, a subplot involving a close friend in need. His first impulse is to manipulate her, same as he would any generic thug who might have some limited usefulness to him. Soon he realizes she’s got potential to be so, so much more. I’d have to agree with him — she might just be my new favorite Catwoman. I’ve never even liked Catwoman. (Dumping the cat puns helped.)
Alas, this three-hour Bat-extravaganza has plenty of room for bonus shenanigans beyond just the Riddler’s. Selina’s subplot ropes in her boss/mark at the Iceberg Lounge: enter Colin Farrell as Oz Cobblepot, a.k.a. the Penguin. Closer to street-level than Penguins past, he’s Mob middle management whose accent hails from Gotham’s goombah district and whose outrageous energy level and makeup poundage recalls Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder by way of Mike Myers’ Fat Bastard. There’s no good complimentary analogy to capture the important thought here that Farrell’s Penguin is one of the greatest fat-suit performances of our generation, demonstrated nowhere better than in one delightfully prideful scene where he’s the only guy in a confab who’s bothered to learn Spanish grammar. For once I didn’t find myself wishing they’d saved money and simply cast a character actor with the acting chops and the natural resemblance to their role (as opposed to, say, House of Gucci, in which many thousands were squandered to transform Jared Leto into Gallagher).
Subplot and plot gradually become one as everything’s connected, Gotham goes full L.A. Confidential, and a bona fide detective drama ensues in Reeves’ majestically seedy panorama, stitched together from film shoots in multiple cities, including the bridge-overshadowed streets of downtown Chicago (the sole returning cast member from The Dark Knight). Batman’s sleuthing side is an aspect uncommonly demonstrated to this gratifying extent, apart from several comics and arguably in a few Adam West escapades. Despite his creepy fantasy fatigues, Pattinson’s crime-fighter has more in common with cheap-suited noir private eyes than with his gaudy DCU peers, none of whom would fit into this vision without burying them in leftover shadows. In the few instances where mere intimidation isn’t enough and melee is warranted, he’s built for action courtesy of costume designer David Crossman (a Star Wars veteran) and concept illustrator Glyn Dillon (likewise), himself a former comics artist (2000 A.D., Shade the Changing Man). In his thrillingly solid fight scenes we believe Batman really can outpace his opponents despite carrying seventy more pounds of gear than they are, and we’re not giggling at the amusingly glossed-over hindrance of a staunchly starchy Bat-collar. (Reeves can’t resist allowing the baddies one maneuver that brings to mind Edna Mode screaming, “NO CAPES!”)
But the core of The Batman isn’t an all-ages theme-park daredevil stunt spectacular…well, okay, one such exception is allowed, and it’s glorious. You’d think the trailers spoil the big car chase sequence between the Penguin and Our Hero in his latest tricked-out Batmobile (definitely not an electric car), but those free samples were stingy appetizers sliced carpaccio-thin from the complete auto-carnage showdown straight out of Fury Road or Final Destination 2. It’s easily The Year’s Best Car Chase and as soon as it’s on YouTube I’ll need to watch it eight or nine more times in a row, or maybe spring for my own physical copy, which I almost never do anymore, and wear that out instead.
So apart from that, the core of The Batman isn’t an all-ages theme-park daredevil stunt spectacular. Christopher Nolan may have broadened the scope of what Bat-films could mean and how thematically complex they could get, but after The Dark Knight Rises sprawled out of control and into belabored tedium, I was nearly ready to go back to those groovy, campy ’60s. Whereas the Ben Affleck version was mostly a concierge for Zack Snyder’s Jack Kirby’s Fourth World, Reeves rejoins the ambitious path where Nolan once dared to tread, yet explores his own forks in the road. Class warfare is downplayed a tad, government corruption will of course always pervade Bat-stories, faith in our institutions and our leaders will always be near zilch, justice and especially vengeance remain overriding concerns, and bad guys fancy themselves the only real heroes doing what “must” be done for their interpretation of the Greater Good, By Any Means Necessary.
That last bit hides in the rafters until the subtle emergence of its final form. In a crucial climactic sequences (one of several in a row; much patience is suggested), Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig diverge from recent interpretations — not just of Batman, but of big-screen DC heroes themselves. As mysteries are resolved, ties are revealed and severed, and the scope of villainy threatening Gotham boasts of the fact that Batman is an inspiring figure to many citizens. To some he inspires fear; to others, he inspires poor interpretations of his objectives, his methods, his flamboyant vigilantism. Less wordily put, he realizes the line between “good guy” and “bad guy” has become perilously blurred; if he’s to take Gotham back and truly make a difference, then the people he’s saving need to be able to tell him apart from his foes. It’s a slam against grimdark Batman imitators and grimdark Bat-takes in and of themselves.
More shockingly, it’s a virtuously old-fashioned reclamation of the “hero” in “superhero” that meant more to Bat-fans of yore before a legion of future writers took all the wrong cues from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Yes, he’s vengeance. Yes, he’s the night. But a surprising part of his journey is figuring out how to be the beacon that the people of Gotham need, a light in the all-consuming darkness. I doubt the direction was encouraged or mandated by Warner execs and their currently domineering “Everybody Loves Evil” marketing paradigm. Where other DC films have stumbled face-first into their own moral muck, The Batman finds a reassuringly upright footing. In the emotionally heavy aftermath, the Bat-symbol on his chest stands for “hope”.
If you don’t catch it in an upgraded, supercharged theatrical experience, a few flawed comics-to-film artifices will distract a bit more. At multiple points the vibranium Bat-armor absorbs enough damage to kill at least three average heroes, including at least one calamity that should’ve torn Pattinson’s jaw off (yet isn’t needed for a non-costumed character in one shockingly survived explosion). Crime-ridden Gotham bemoans its misfortune yet everyone keeps their drapes wide open so it’s easier for neighbors to case their joints and/or stalk them from afar. While Dano’s performance is wildly jarring once he’s eventually revealed, his puzzle trails are ludicrously convoluted (which, again, Bat-canon), rely on nearly impossible leaps in deduction, escalate ad absurdum as if he’s trying to impress New York Times crossword addicts, and reach near-Emmerichian preposterous proportions by the end.
It’s to Reeves’ credit that I kind of forgave all that. It’s one of the most consistent, most deeply engaging, most enthralling Bat-film in ages, nary a single weak link in the ensemble, tied together by Pattinson’s narration (his Bruce Wayne speaks more offscreen than on-) that feels natural and not like a growly simulation of toughness or a bad Wolverine impression. It’s all wrapped in a Michael Giacchino score which reduces John Williams’ “Imperial March” to its four purest notes and then sculpts myriad intricate variations from them, each loftier than the last, up to and including a Chopin-esque piano piece over the end credits. I won’t get into comparative rankings against other Bat-films, considering I’ve only seen it once. I prefer to let some time pass before reassessing whether a given new film holds up. But The Batman is up there. Way, way up there.
Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Corrupt officials include Peter Sarsgaard (The Lost Daughter, Green Lantern) and John Turturro as Mob boss Carmine Falcone (played in Batman Begins by Tom Wilkinson and by The Wire‘s John Doman on Gotham). Con O’Neill (one of Chernobyl‘s negligent supervisors) is a police chief.
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there is indeed an itsy-bitsy extra after The Batman end credits. For those who tuned out prematurely and really want to know, and didn’t already click elsewhere…
[…insert space for courtesy spoiler alert because it’s a callback to a tiny item in the film’s first half…]
…after the legal boilerplate is recited and scrolled away, we return to the Riddler’s site whose domain he purchased for the singular, explicit purpose of chatting with Batman exactly once if and only if Our Hero followed the precisely convoluted steps to reach it. Someone types in his green retro font, “GOOD BYE?” The question mark is in brackets, which I can’t reproduce here due to confounding HTML. The message blinks, alternates for a split-second with his official Spanish URL from his second murder, and then powers off.
And yes, that link leads to a live site packed with Bat-goodies that require puzzle-solving to unlock. Give it a few days and someone online will have solved them all. It’s late, I’m tired, maybe some other time. Or you could go check it out. Have fun!