Reeves gives “The Batman” nuance, darkness and an existential crisis

The most recent iteration of the caped crusader in Matt Reeves’s film has grit and depth

Robert+Pattinson+suits+up+as+The+Batman

Photo courtesy of Wikicommons

Robert Pattinson suits up as “The Batman”

Sherm, Adviser

Hey, it’s Sherm, the adviser for the Holly Spirit. The paper is in the middle of a break; between senior trip and junior testing next week, our staff won’t be meeting to cover stories. So, I stepped in to keep us current. Enjoy!

 

It’s the year 2022, and let’s face it: Batman has been through a lot.

He’s been remade a number of times and given a number of different backstories. He’s fallen in love and had to conquer insurmountable odds. He’s had to speak through farcical, even comical dialogue; he’s been made darker, grittier; he’s been brought back to life so many times and in so many iterations it’s hard to keep track. From Michael’s Keaton’s 1989 Batman to Val Kilmer’s 1995 Batman (forever) to George Clooney’s (absolutely ridiculous and awful) 1997 Batman, it was looking more and more like Batman was going to be locked in superhero comic land, in which the caped crusader was doomed to be more cartoonish and more absurd than the last.

Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy offered some hope. Christian Bale’s Batman was darker, more subdued and more reclusive. The backstory was believable and nuanced, and (Oscar-winning) cinematographer Wally Pfiser’s work on the 2008 “Dark Knight” reframed how audiences see and experience the superhero. It was a Batman we could all get behind.

Unfortunately, Zach Snyder and the “Justice League” franchise undid all the work that Nolan and Bale had put into the “Dark Knight” series. Recast through Ben Affleck, this Batman was more brooding, but not much else. The film’s re-release promised to (again) be darker, grittier; but again, the story was lost behind an explosion of special effects and one-dimensional characters.

So when Warner Brothers, who owns the rights to DC Comics, announced another remake of the Batman, I audibly groaned and moved on.

I am happy to announce that, after seeing the film this weekend, I was pleasantly surprised.

Matt Reeves directs this new flick, titled “The Batman,” as if he was sweeping all those other unpleasant iterations under the rug. This new Batman, played with force by Robert Pattinson, is dark and gritty, sometimes to a fault. In the suit, Pattinson is dynamic and nuanced, a superhero who seems to be aware of his own limits. Gotham City is (as it ever was) a sea of crime and corruption, and since the cops are so (sometimes cartoonishly) bad, Batman has no choice but to clean up the mess.

“It’s a big city,” Pattinson as Batman growls through the beginning montage over the sweeping darkness of Gotham. “I can’t be everywhere at once.” Good point.

As with other Batman flicks, this film is chopped with bad guys, some of whom you might recognize from the classic comic book series. Paul Dano plays the Riddler, a creepy masked vigilante who is set on exposing the corruption of the city through a series of gruesome murders. His Riddler is interesting and sometimes manic, and he honestly reminded me of more of the Joker than the Riddler. Colin Farrell plays, for some reason, the Penguin, a slimy mob toadie who acts as the number two guy in Gotham’s mob syndicate. The choice for Farrell is puzzling, because couldn’t they have gotten any guy and plastered him with prosthetics? Maybe not; Farrell’s Penguin is compelling even if a bit cliched; he adds a sense of playfulness to the character who is supposed to be purely sinister, and Reeves puts in a few winks to classic fans of the stereotypical Penguin character (there is a scene where Ferrell, as the Penguin, is forced to literally waddle down the street, not unlike Danny Devito’s performance of the Penguin in 1992’s “Batman Returns”).

There are other big names to this cast. Jeffrey Wright is an outstanding Officer Gorden (not yet commissioner) who’s morality and inability to be bought off lands well. Peter Sarsgaard plays a corrupt DA who I thought could have had more air time (no one plays sleazy like Sarsgaard). And John Turturro is mob boss Carmine Falcone (which is literally the most mobster name ever), and it’s light work for him to play a corrupt big city hustler. I also enjoyed Andy Serkis’s Alfred, who didn’t get much screen time, but is effective at playing Alfred with a bit of a secret, around which the plot revolves in Reeves’s “Batman.”

Alongside Pattinson’s smoldering Batman, who seems to talk through his teeth whenever he’s suited up, Zoë Kravitz suits up as Catwoman. Like Anne Hathaway’s ambiguously-righteous Catwoman in Nolan’s 2012 “The Dark Knight Rises,” Kravitz’s Catwoman also has a shaky past. Her romance with Batman is much more subdued (but just as steamy), and her involvement in the city’s corruption is at the core of the conflict in the film. Kravitz plays Selena Kyle with ease, slinking around in high-heeled boots with a voice so smooth it sounds like she’s purring. When she dons the Catwoman suit, like Pattinson, she’s otherworldly.

Just like the cast, the plot is lengthy with lots of ups and downs. The Riddler wreaks havoc on the city as it approaches a mayoral election, for which the heart of the future of the city is at stake. Batman is tasked with unpacking the murders, which leads him down dark city streets, dark clubs, dark offices — hell, it’s pretty dark throughout the whole film. Does Gotham have a day time? And also, why does it seem to be raining constantly in this city? Some Batman tropes — darkness, rain — are overplayed. When they become noticeable, it disrupts the film-watching experience. I think Reeves could have let up on the grittiness now and then.

Beyond the plot and cast, two other aspects make this film noteworthy. For one, Greig Fraser’s cinematography throughout is powerful and dramatic. We see through the Riddler’s lens while he’s stalking his prey; we fly with Batman as he leaps off a skyscraper; we get a glimpse of the Batman approaching the Penguin’s mangled body after a thrilling car chase. The camera closes in on the Penguin’s delight after causing an explosive pile-up, contrasted with his alarm and fear as the camera follows Batman’s heavy-booted footsteps through puddles and debris. Part of the reason why this is so good is because overlaying the shots is a hair-raising musical score, composed by Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino, who really lays on the bass keys of the piano as Batman slowly approaches. Giacchino’s artful utilization of Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” is chilling and hits on all the right tones to give Pattinson’s Batman some depth.

Pattinson’s Batman is threatened with an existential crisis and wonders, is wearing the mask helping or hurting the city? Our society has been faced with similar questions about the masks we wear; are the platforms and anonymous algorithms we use helping or hurting us?”

I can’t actually talk about what I think gives this film depth beyond the acting and effects without giving spoilers. The ending is, as with many Batman movies, a bit over-the-top, but Reeves grounds it in some interesting psychological and political questions of the time. There are moments at the end which will strike audiences as eerily familiar to some of the most explosive political moments in our recent history (particularly the riots on the Capitol of January 6), and what Reeves (and Batman) really seem to be suggesting is that, in this day and age, it’s becoming harder and harder to find objective morality and justice. What one individual classifies as vengeance, others seem to posit as unnecessary violence. Pattinson’s Batman is threatened with an existential crisis and wonders, is wearing the mask helping or hurting the city? Our society has been faced with similar questions about the masks we wear; are the platforms and anonymous algorithms we use helping or hurting us?

With a run time of just under three hours, I worried about this film dragging. However, I was surprised to find that I never felt bored. At some moments, the plot slows and then seems to have to speed through important plot points to catch up, but it wasn’t disarming. 

Reeves’s “The Batman” is a welcome response to the dirt that the character has been dragged through in the last few years, and he infuses the caped crusader with nuance and ambiguity, something previous directors have struggled with. Here’s hoping there’s more to this ride.