Is “The Batman” the Start of Something New?
I had been ambivalent about more Batmen movies until I heard an off-color anecdote before a Worst Person in the World screening with friends. Someone I just met mentioned that director Matt Reeves had had problems working with Robert Pattinson. Apparently, Reeves was angry that Pattinson and Kravitz had sex on the batmobile after hours.
This made me laugh. It made me happy. Who wouldn’t fuck on the batmobile if given a fair opportunity? (My partner, for one: “Is it comfy? Is it cold? What does it look like inside?” Matt Reeves would get along great with my wife.)
Whatever truth lies in this Norwegian Paralysis-laced gossip, it was undeniably good marketing. I went from not remembering that The Batman existed and happier for it to buying advance tickets to Opening Night for my bemused partner and I.
After an underpaid and overworked man tore our tickets while handling multiple crises — someone’s red ICEE had exploded onto the not-quite-blue-anymore carpet! Someone had dropped their credit card! My immediate fear was that the card was somehow mine! — we sat in the third row and were uncomfortable for the next three hours. I was also riveted.
I don’t remember any moments of daylight in the film, and you know what? Daylight sometimes feels dishonest. How can it look so fucking nice out there when it’s so dark in here? Get out of here, daylight! And while we’re at it, let’s try to be honest about the shadows in our life.
And I feel like The Batman mostly did that.
I was here for the Zodiac / Goodfellas take on the two main villains. Paul Dano’s Riddler was disturbing, weird, over the top, scary, not easily definable. Colin Farrell’s Penguin is no Joe Pesci, but I like that he reminds me of him, because I like to be reminded of Joe Pesci whenever possible.
The Gotham City we inhabit reflects the Safdie brothers’ Good Time playtime with our newest Batman, Bob-Pat. It’s Sin City but in a way that won’t age as poorly but also won’t inspire me to buy that Jessica Alba poster. It’s Joker, but with more honest pain.
There is feeling on display, and it’s not only anger. It’s not grimdark purely for a visual aesthetic.
I felt empathy toward its villains; and I include Batman in that group, by the way. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the Wayne family is one of our villains. And they are a most effective one, rarely explored enough, and that remains the case after this movie.
Here, Robert Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne was an afterthought, a ghost haunting the mansion, flickers of the WB corporation itself. The sickly pale evidence of white privilege. Reeves and company know that nobody — including and especially Bruce Wayne — really gives a shit about Bruce Wayne. Well, Alfred does, because that’s his job.
(Sidenote: Andy Serkis felt like weird-forced casting because of his kinship with Reeves, but I came away charmed with this Father Figure Watson-like version of Alfred Pennyworth. He’s younger, sure, but there’s more depth than Wry-Wise Old Man Servant. I believe his military experience… except for when he opens mail.)
Given that Bruce Wayne is such an afterthought that I immediately swerved to talking about fucking Alfred, it makes sense that there is much less difference in Bobby-Patty’s voice as Batman versus Bruce Wayne. He’s more honest. He’s not as interested in pretending, and this film as a whole feels like it’s not as interested in pretending its rarefied position in our culture isn’t important, isn’t a responsibility.
In this Gotham City, much like our world, tragedy is a story to be mined for the rich and privileged. For the poor and unseen, tragedy is a numbing, torturous death without room for sympathy, let alone empathy. That I am able to even take the time to write this when I am not being paid to do so is all you need to know to realize which category I fall under.
But this movie is not that serious. Not yet.
In many ways, this is a 176-minute long Halloween movie. And by that I don’t just mean that the film opens on October 31st, but Batman is often utilized like he’s Michael Myers on the prowl and I very much prefer this than to Halloween Kills.
Batman is scored accordingly by Michael Giacchino, doing his best work I’ve encountered. I felt whispers of Danny Elfman’s theme for Batman: The Animated Series, intercut with a crescendoing John Williams’ Darth Vader-like imperial march. These pillars from the past paired with ethereal haunting interludes tell me we’re watching a ghost story. The ghosts of Batmen past, the ghosts of Thomas and Martha Wayne, and the ghost of Bruce Wayne himself, of childhood lost.
Bruce Wayne and Batman’s central conflict is the imbalance of his two identities, his two worlds, and reckoning with their starkly contradicting philosophies.
Despite its long runtime, The Batman only went surface level in this exploration and pulled some of its (many) punches. This film opens the door not just to a sequel, but hopefully to accountability.
This was Part 1 of a two-part (?) story, one where the next part can no longer ignore Bruce Wayne. Or more accurately, a film where Bruce Wayne can no longer ignore his reality. We can’t. It’s time to put the Wayne family on trial, put Gotham City’s finest and wealthiest on trial. It’s time to reckon with how much easier it is to be a superhero when you’re a billionaire and yet only fictional billionaire characters have ever even tried.
This Batman plays in the shadows, lives in the blurry (though that might’ve been my third row vantage point). He is but one of the many rats with wings who had a part in creating the ubiquitous shadows that are inequality, poverty.
This Batman’s objective was Vengeance. Vengeance is even his nickname. But vengeance wasn’t and isn’t enough. Reeves (and now Bruce) understands that superhero movies (and their all too often white protagonists) need to reflect more than vengeance, more than CGI violence, more than punching, more than kewl.
This may sound like an obvious journey, but given the Batman franchise’s recent one-dimensional grimdark direction, it’s something.
But what something that is hasn’t been answered yet.
Aside from a few moments of clunky, cliche dialogue that took me out of the moment (with laughter, so still a win), my anxiety about what that something will be stems from one scene in particular that requires a hefty SPOILER ALERT.
The Joker shows up near the end of the movie, luckily plopped right next door to the Riddler’s cell. I had nothing particularly against what happened in the scene itself, even admiring what appeared to be a bold take on the Joker’s look.
Still… this felt like a different movie than the rest. This was corporate. While this film is violent, dark and dreary, there’s restraint and intention on display. That restraint was gone for this scene. I simply don’t think this movie needed another Joker, another villain — I certainly don’t need another Joker quite yet, and I don’t want a plug for the next movie WITHIN the movie. Don’t point out the seams that are SO hard to forget, particularly in a movie as big as this one.
Of course — I might be in the minority judging from the audience reaction to the discovery that there was nothing but a Riddle after the credits. No end credit sequence promising infinite sequels. My reaction was simply, “That’s what the Joker scene was.”
But the only ones vocal in the audience scoffed, swore, were angry, letting this sour taste sully what felt like a fairly universally captivating cinematic experience for all of us.
“I sat through the credits… for that?” a teenager yelled. Her dad laughed at her frustration. I wanted to yell at her: The movie isn’t even over yet and we need a sequel? We need more? One movie wasn’t enough?
With The Batman, perhaps it wasn’t. It does feel incomplete, because I think there’s more to say. I’m excited and nervous that Reeves and company appear to be heading somewhere. After the Joker scene, I’m unsure where because I have trust issues and because it felt indulgent in the ways superhero movies feel like they have to be to make money. Given the audience’s response to when they’re not given a trailer for another product within the product, WB might be right. But I hope not.
This is a film where Bruce Wayne (and the CIS white males in attendance) realize their privilege and that we’re not doing enough or at least, not what’s most helpful. We can’t ignore this or punch our way out of it. That’s merely attacking the symptoms, not building prevention from the infection, from the shadows we’ve helped create.
The Batman is in theaters now, but you already knew that. If you want more content like this, join my Patreon and subscribe to The Wanderings newsletter.