The Batman, 2022, 176 mins, 4K UHD
Who knew I needed another Batman? Certainly not me- I was still rueing the ill-luck of Ben Affleck who seemed to me the definitive Batman, wasted in the artistic/commercial carnage of Warner/DC’s ill-fated attempts to duplicate the success of Marvel Studios output. Affleck wasn’t alone, mind; one could well argue that Henry Cavill’s Superman deserved better than he got. Whether we have truly seen the last of them, time will tell, but I believe Affleck has (yet another) cameo playing Batman due in someone else’s movie -next year’s Flash – and there are all sorts of rumours regards Cavill. But hey, I suppose the only certainty in life other than death, taxes and Star Trek’s endless plunge into ruin is that we’ll always have another Batman, Superman, Spider Man in some new movie…
So here we are with Robert Pattinson as a very, very dark, very, very noir, young Batman. I’ll make that distinction re: his age because Affleck is still my favourite, if only because I’m more inclined towards enjoying his older, world-weary Batman. Pattinson’s Batman isn’t yet the proper, genuine article; this is a Batman still in gestation, finding his place and gaining the experience to really be the Batman, an arc that is a central element of the film’s narrative.
Which reminds me, as someone who scoffed at the very idea of Affleck donning the cowl when I first heard news of his casting, that one should never jump to conclusions at initially bizarre casting news, because the truth is… You. Just. Don’t. Know. Because yes, Pattinson is actually very good here in a film that concentrates on the Batman rather than Bruce Wayne, a narrative decision which is a great plus in my book- yes, here’s a film that lives up to its title, this is THE BATMAN.
Batman is likely the most fascinating of all American comicbook characters- created in 1939, he has been reimagined and developed over the decades by generations of comicbook writers and artists, sometimes a dark and haunted soul, sometimes a jolly camp crusader in a colourful world of villainous misfits. Sometimes he is used as a lens to investigate our fractured society, sometimes he’s an escape into a simpler world in which good always triumphs over evil. Curiously these different approaches in comicbooks and graphic novels have been reflected in television and film incarnations, from the Adam West television series to the gothic-noir of Tim Burton’s 1989 film, through the colour-saturated kinetics of Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, and Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman and Justice League.
I appreciate that this film has more than its fair share of detractors. Some balk at its lengthy running-time (nigh on three hours, something I thought was a typo when I first read it), some just don’t like the casting, some don’t like the (slow, almost glacial at times) pacing, some don’t like the relentless darkness. I can’t say I’m surprised; its so indebted to films like Seven and Taxi Driver that sometimes it doesn’t feel like a superhero film at all, which is a big plus in my book after so many of them but I appreciate alienates some comicbook fans possibly more used to Marvel’s output. Its a Marmite movie, maybe?
Well, I fell in love with this film right from the start- you know how some films just click with you, and immediately you can tell its right on your wavelength, visually and narratively, and you can just relax and go with it? Well, that’s how The Batman was for me. The darkness, the rain, its absolutely gorgeous cinematography and brilliant score. It was somewhat like my experience watching Blade Runner back in 1982. I was just sold right from the start and it hardly put a foot wrong. I even loved the film’s third act, when you can just tell the film-makers are toeing to superhero film convention by throwing in a big spectacle finish. Probably something dictated by the Studio, while it feels a little incongruous from what has featured before, I think at that point the film had earned it. Absolutely brilliant film, for me; when it ended I had this buzz I haven’t felt in quite awhile.
As someone who adores Villeneuve’s output, and the slow pace of his films, particularly Blade Runner 2049, I had no problem at all with how The Batman is paced, slowly unfolding its story over those near-three hours. I love films that can take their time and not rush things. I suppose this is actually ironic, considering how much the films noir stylings harken back to those film noir of old which pared down their narratives to sometimes just eighty or ninety minutes despite having more plot-turns and character twists than would fit in a two-hour plus picture today. I have watched so many film noir these past few years and grown to love them so much that it possibly doubt left me more inclined to relish the stylings of this film, but yes, it is a little odd that a film that is such a film noir distillation of the Batman character and Gotham City manages to run twice the length of the films it is so inspired by/indebted to.
Oh, but Gotham City- what a place it is, in this film. Previously, my favourite Batman film was possibly Tim Burton’s 1989 film, mostly because it seemed, with its own gothic-noir art direction, to take place in a particular kind of twisted, nightmare metropolis that seemed to be a better fit for the crazy characters that inhabit it .As nutty as Bruce Wayne dressing up as a bat might seem, it makes more sense when its a reflection of the crazy place he’s living in. I know Christopher Nolan’s films will likely always be more popular, but Nolan’s attitude to his film’s setting, picturing Gotham City very much as an ordinary modern metropolis, leaning particularly towards modern Chicago, for me leaves his own trilogy lacking a major character- that of Gotham itself. Not so here; Matt Reeves’ film takes place in a fascinating, breathing, twisted location that’s one of the most memorable settings since, well, LA2019. Indeed, its a big part of the film’s success for me: in just the same way as I spent decades revisiting LA2019 in Blade Runner over the years, soaking up into bewitching ambience as its dystopian view became, rather sneakily, utopian compared to the changing real world I was actually living in, I rather suspect part of The Batman‘s appeal will be just its sense of place, its own sense of reality.
The impression of Pattinson’s Batman not being the fully-formed article helps, too. We don’t really see his Bruce Wayne, certainly not the playboy alter-ego he will (likely) later become. Instead this is the Batman in development, finding out what works, and often painfully, what doesn’t. Maybe some viewers are alienated by this almost unrecognisable Batman but I find it quite exhilarating. Likewise the Bat Gadgets are more basic, the Batmobile not the sleek machine we are used to. This is not a world familiar with superheroes or superpowers, its a gritty film with a more tactile reality.
Indeed, is The Batman really a superhero film? One has to wonder, if one compares it to Marvel’s output, or Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman: The Movie (a film I consider the definitive superhero film) while neither is it a deconstruction of the comicbook tropes that Zack Snyder’s Watchmen film was. The Batman is something rather less, at the same time rather more. Its a film noir, definitely; its a murder mystery, a narrative set in the seedy underbelly of a fragmenting, disintegrating city full of political and judicial corruption. The Batman itself suggests its about the failure of vengeance, and the meaning of hope – a message that feels a little trite, by the end, but narratively it makes perfect sense and earns it. Batman begins as an agent of vengeance, believing that only violent justice might clean the streets and offer redemption for the murder of his parents, but finally learns he has to become some other Batman; this one an agent of hope (which we’ll hopefully (sic) see in the next film). Its so much more sophisticated than Snyder’s “Martha!” was, and possibly suggests that maybe Burton’s film was missing the point with its own origin arc, in which defeating Jack Nicholson’s Joker was literally avenging his parents: life isn’t that neat (thankfully we also aren’t subjected to yet another retelling of Bruce Wayne’s childhood trauma witnessing the death of his parents).
Disc extras are surprisingly substantial, although it misses the commentary track/s that the film really deserves. I miss the days of the Matrix films on DVD with multiple commentary tracks: those things are the likes of which we will never see again except from boutique labels but on the whole the extras here are indeed more than we usually get these days. Of particular interest to many will be the deleted scene featuring the Joker in more detail than the dim cameo sneaked into the film’s coda. It was wisely deleted- I’ve seen quite enough of the Joker in previous Batman films and I hope any sequel has similar restraint. On the subject of villains, isn’t Colin Farrell’s Penguin quite brilliant? Some have questioned the wisdom of burying him under all that prosthetic wizardry, but he’s burning prime Robert de Niro under all that stuff: part charming, part terrifying, something de Niro was brilliant at, and I think Farrell channels him well here (maybe he was aiming for Al Pacino, who knows). I thought those prosthetics were great; the design telling us things that the film then no longer has to literally- the scars on his face that suggesting a life of crime that we can only imagine, and that last shot of the Penguin about to seize control of the criminal underworld brilliantly evokes he’s paid his dues and his time has come. That’s storytelling.