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The Batman

(2022) **** Pg-13
176 min. Warner Bros. Director: Matt Reeves. Cast: Robert Pattinson, Zoe Kravitz, Paul Dano, Colin Farrell, Jeffrey Wright, Andy Serkis, John Turturro, Peter Sarsgaard.

/content/films/5201/1.jpg[Spoiler-free review:] With superhero cinema dominant in the film industry, it has become a common courtesy to shout out comic book creators—the writers and artists that most directly inspired the filmmakers—in "Special Thanks" placed deep into the end-credits scroll. The new trilogy of Batman movies launches with The Batman, and everything about it—including the Special Thanks—affirm director Matt Reeves' self-professed lifelong enthusiasm for the character; he's no tourist here. Naturally, Jerry Robinson gets an acknowledgment: next to Batman creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger, Robinson was a foundational figure, credited with co-creating the Joker and Robin the Boy Wonder. And the thanks extend from other beloved old timers (Dick Sprang, Bob Haney...) to the new guard (Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka...). But the best-represented era of Batman artistes in these "Special Thanks" should surprise no Bat-fan who makes it to the film's 176th minute.

Since first commenting publicly about The Batman (and, yes, even that "The" speaks volumes to longtime fans of the character), Reeves made known his intention to honor an aspect of the character that has been deemphasized, if not neglected, in his movie-star career: his bona fides as a detective. And so it should come as no surprise to see the names Dennis O'Neil and Neal Adams thanked, along with many other writers and artists from the Bronze Age of DC Comics that rescued Batman from decades of silliness by returning to his noirish roots and paving the way for Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Miller and David Mazzuchelli's Batman: Year One (yep, they both get thanked too). Like Reeves, I grew up on the kid stuff (years of Sprang-illustrated fisticuffs and space adventures, the camp-classic '60s TV series), but found my intellect engaged paging breathlessly through the narration-heavy O'Neil stories that recalled the Batman's dark 1930s origins and re-identified my hero as the Darknight Detective.

Christopher Nolan's Batman films inescapably owe a debt to Tim Burton for laying a stepping stone from campy adventure to something weird and cheeky but expressionistic and serious, and with The Batman, Reeves unquestionably stands on the shoulders of Nolan. In many ways, The Batman represents a lateral move from Nolan's prestige approach and more grounded tone. But the new film can easily be viewed as a corrective that—while retaining requisite elements of blockbuster action cinema—decidedly shifts the focus to pulp fiction. From the moment you arrive in Reeves' Gotham, The Batman feels more like a Batman story than a Batman movie, and that's an achievement in itself. Burton's Grand Guignol-inflected circus and Nolan's Joseph Campbell-meets-James Bond epics were brilliant in their ways, but those filmmakers relegated the Batman's detective work to fleeting plot devices, while Reeves makes mystery his main course. (As for Zack Snyder's machine-gunning Batfleck, which to be fair, can be traced back to 1939 comic books, Reeves wisely returns a character who is, after all, a traumatized victim of gun violence to his longstanding "No guns" policy.)

The story begins on October 31, in what's both a hat-tip to Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's enduringly popular Batman: The Long Halloween and the first instance of a mask motif that runs the length of the film. Reeves and co-screenwriter Peter Craig counterpoint the murder of one of Gotham City's elites by a serial killer in winter-combat mask and field jacket (Paul Dano's The Riddler) to the rescue of an anonymous Gotham citizen from a makeup-smeared gang by a cowled vigilante (Robert Pattinson's Batman). When GCPD Lt. Jim Gordon escorts the Batman into the murder scene, the film begins delivering on Reeves' promise by shifting our perception of Batman from vigilante (two years into his crime-fighting career, he still sees himself as one, proclaiming to the cowardly lot of street toughs, "I am vengeance") to consulting detective (albeit with high-tech private eyes recording every detail). You'll get no details out of me, but what follows is a "Mousetrap" plot, if you will, that gets right down to it but also plays a long game with the audience. If The Dark Knight is Batman's Heat, this is Batman's Se7en.

Reeves' immersive vision of Gotham as an alternate-universe NYC painted in sickly amber and red-light-district alarm compliments an almost entirely humorless story. One could fairly knock The Batman for refusing to have fun, but by finding no place for levity, Reeves instead acknowledges the mood of our dying empire, Gotham's dark, dirty hellscape evoking not just a city or country on edge but a whole world on the brink ("Maybe it's beyond saving," our hero muses of his city). The Riddler scrawls, "NO MORE LIES" across a victim, and the way his murder spree inspires a QAnon-esque following of widespread hate and violence pointedly reflects the irony of post-truth America, and the emboldenment of civic anger and domestic terrorism, in ways that feel more disturbingly on point than Nolan's riff on post-9/11 fear as a means of exploiting and corrupting a populace. 

The Batman tells a classic Gotham City story of the criminal element, again represented by mobster Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), bleeding into corrupt civic leadership and encouraging Gordon to rely on Batman. Colin Farrell plays this film's Penguin (or "Oz," presumably for Oswald) like Robert De Niro's Al Capone from The Untouchables, a rapacious, corpulent, insatiable human monster bearing little resemblance (outside of an understated dandy-ish flair to his wardrobe) to the traditional depictions of Oswald as an overcompensating victim of lifelong bullying (but stay tuned, as Farrell will reprise the role at length in an upcoming HBO Max series, while another HBO Max series will focus on Arkham Asylum).

And what of Bruce Wayne? The theme of the liberating power of the mask asserts that Wayne more or less died with his parents, and here, the character is recessive to a fault. Where Batman Begins made Wayne a clearly damaged figure, the origin story allowed us to walk with him in his pain, his reeducation, his struggle in personable ways that Reeves eschews to focus on telling a Batman story without feeling the obligation to tell the Batman story. This Wayne, like every Wayne, is grimly determined, but can barely be bothered to make a dry joke or kiss Selina Kyle (the bisexual cat burglar ably embodied by Zoe Kravitz). This Wayne is more than grim, he's recognizably depressed, going through compulsive motions feeling nothing but anhedonic despair.

/content/films/5201/2.jpegReeves partly modeled his Wayne on Kurt Cobain, with Nirvana's "Something in the Way" serving as one of the film's two anthems—the other being Schubert's plea for salvation "Ave Maria." Pattinson, his full face rarely glimpsed without raccoon eyes testfiying to Wayne's true identity, gives an appropriately anti-movie-star performance as the antihero whose task is to hurt, grimace, and fight for justice until the job is done...which is never. Pattinson and a typically superb Dano share an interrogation scene to rival Bale and Ledger's in The Dark Knight (suggesting an Oscar nod for Dano's Zodiac-style Riddler won't be out of the question).

Ultimately, The Batman proves most fascinating for the ways in which it plays the game of blockbuster cinema while feeling every inch an unconventional superhero epic. The Batman lives closer, tonally, to his deeply disturbing Let Me In than his Apes films or Cloverfield (Michael Giacchino's insinuating score likewise recalls his work on Let Me In). Sure, a Batman film comes with certain requirements by now: a shirtless scene to prove Pattinson worked out, a showcase Batmobile sequence, and the personal rescue of a young boy, which this film stages not once but twice. Reeves' greatest accomplishment is to finesse these moments in ways that either don't invite the audience to see them for what they are (movie star pose, toy advertisement) or use them to a higher purpose (more than merely kid-viewer buy-in, the rescued child here a distinct mirror to Wayne's forever traumatized inner child). This Batman may not be fun, but Reeves comes by the cathartic despair honestly: perhaps the time has come for Batman to be a bummer.

[For more Batman reviews, see the sidebar on the right.]

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