Thursday, April 21, 2022

Movie Review: The Batman

I usually try and avoid spoilers in these things, but The Batman's been out for a month and a half and there's enough talking in riddles in the actual movie, so... SPOILER WARNING.

One of the first movies I reviewed for this blog was The Dark Knight. I'll save you the trouble of clicking on the link: in short, I said it was a really good movie, but not all that good of a Batman movie. Jump ahead fourteen years, and we find ourselves with the opposite. Matt Reeves has given us a great Batman movie that's sort of mediocre when considered independent of the title character.

Oddly, The Batman almost works as a direct sequel to The Dark Knight in a timeline where the third Nolan movie never came out. It picks up at about the same point in Batman's career, with similar power levels and villains who feel stylistically identical to those in the Nolan movie. If it weren't for some minor continuity issues, you could almost handwave this as a chapter in that continuity. 

But let's put a pin in the nerd stuff and talk about this as a movie first. In some ways, I was being unfair earlier when I called this mediocre. Aspects of The Batman are fantastic. This looks gorgeous, the score is magnificent, and for the majority of the runtime it's well paced and exciting. This works well as a crime thriller, which is one of the main things it's trying to be. It's by no means a failure.

The main area I think this drops the ball concerns character relationships. Large portions of the film focus on Bruce's relationships with three supporting characters: Jim Gordon, Selina Kyle, and Alfred. All of these relationships culminate in dramatic scenes, and yet none actually feel earned. The movie seems to tell us that Bruce and Selina form a bond, but we never really see or feel this. You of course can infer stuff from the comics to fill in the gaps, but it's not in the movie itself.

This is even more of a problem with Alfred, because we're expected to assume a familial relationship we're not shown. We're given a sequence where Bruce tells Alfred he isn't his father, followed later by one where he tells him he was wrong. What's missing is any kind of establishing sequence where we're shown Alfred being that father. The end effect is hollow.

I suppose Bruce's relationship with Gordon is a tad better, in that it's more casual so the lack of an establishing sequence is less damaging. It still doesn't deliver much of an emotional punch, though. I feel like they could have devoted more time to all three relationships. The main detective plot (more on that in a moment) could have been trimmed back a bit if they needed room. Honestly, the pacing there is more about tone than story - the Riddler's plan mostly amounts to noise, anyway.

Now that I'm done complaining about all that, let's talk about why this still kind of rules as a Batman movie.

I'll start with the detective stuff. While I think they could have simplified that part of the movie without losing the effect, I thought the basic story was absolutely the right approach. The bulk of the movie is a grounded "world's greatest detective" story. While that's certainly not the only valid version of The Caped Crusader, it's arguably the most significant, not to mention one we've never seen seriously attempted on the big screen.

I also appreciate this adhered to Bruce's "no killing" rule better than any previous live-action incarnation. It's not perfect, mind you: while Batman doesn't appear to kill anyone, there were a few moments where the movie prioritized spectacle and action over clarity. The fight at the end features some blows you could interpret as lethal. Likewise, there's a chase in the middle involving an exploding tanker truck where it's hard to imagine there weren't civilian casualties as a result of Batman's pursuit of the Penguin. I think we're supposed to assume otherwise, given no one brings it up or even arrests the Penguin for causing said explosion, but I found the moment extremely distracting.

Through the rest of the movie, however, Batman is shown explicitly not killing his enemies, and even discourages allies from using potentially lethal force. This is a refreshing step up from the Nolan movies, let alone Batman v Superman.

What made me even happier was watching Batman transition from avenger into superhero over the course of the film. The movie is largely a repudiation of vengeance and even justice as motivations for the character: it's the story of Bruce learning his first responsibility is to give people hope. Would I have preferred a Batman movie start with that? Sure. Would I have liked to see a little more genuine empathy and compassion from Bruce? Absolutely. But this is so much more than we've gotten from these movies in decades.

Honestly, I don't even think that's the primary reason this works as a Batman movie. The element The Batman nails that nearly every other live-action version misses is tone. While ostensibly realistic in its approach, The Batman has a operatic feel, largely thanks to a combination of cinematography and music. While this certainly isn't the surreal Gotham of the Burton movies, the look and sound of the film gives it a sort of mythic character reminiscent of the 90's animated series. Scenes with Bruce and Selina on rooftops could have used a rewrite, but there's no denying the grandeur of it all.

Speaking of Selina, I doubt it's possible to imagine a more perfect casting choice than Zoë Kravitz. That said, I was a little underwhelmed by how the character was written. I realize this is preference, but I'm a strong believer Catwoman should be Bruce's equal. Here, she's more of a sidekick who's out of her league. I really hope she's written as a more effective character in the sequels. 

Unsurprisingly, Pattinson is great in the role. I'd like to have seen him using the Wayne persona more, though they did a good job finding an excuse to downplay it. I will note I was impressed how the movie managed to sell the secret identity by subtly adjusting how Batman's weapons and vehicles were presented. Bale's Dark Knight always felt like a rich guy in a billion-dollar suit; Pattinson's feels like a weirdo who cobbled everything together. Even with Wayne acting and looking like a depressed goth, I never got the impression his secret would be obvious. If anything, it reinforced the image of him as a celebrity's kid everyone dismisses.

Let's talk gadgets. I'm glad the Batsuit finally looks good, though there's still room for improvement. I love that the eyebrows are reminiscent of the Adam West suit when they catch the light. I do wish we'd gotten some version of Bat-a-rangs. Likewise, I found the realistic wingsuit silly looking. I suspect it was sort of supposed to be: they wanted that sequence believable, which it was until he walked away from what should have been a crippling impact.

I was pleasantly surprised by this version of the Batmobile. It was a nice blend of believably low-tech and impossibly effective. That seems to be a constant design theme in the film: the movie wants the audience to suspend their disbelief while still allowing for silly, over-the-top comic book sequences. And for the most part, it works. I'd personally like to see them drift away from realism in later installments, but this is absolutely a good start.

One area I was less keen on was action. The fights weren't bad, but they weren't spectacular, either. I hope they put more effort into stylizing them in future installments. Comics and animated shows depict the Caped Crusader as almost inhumanly efficient and effective. As much as I despise Batman v Superman, they came close to translating that idea. The Batman feels like a step back in that respect. Again, this is a subjective observation: if you don't care about the comics, this won't bother you.

Overall, The Batman isn't the best live-action movie about Batman, but I think it's likely the best live-action Batman movie. They get the world and character right in a way the last two iterations did not (three if you count the overrated Joker movie). I think weak writing prevented relationships from standing on their own, which is a problem, and the finale was underwhelming. But at this point I prefer a flawed movie that gives us a decent Batman than the alternative. I like this thing quite a bit and look forward to the sequels.

Friday, April 1, 2022

Movie Review: Moonshot

I assume it's entirely coincidental, but it's a little odd this movie was released on HBO Max just a day after Disney+ premiered Moon Knight. The two projects are nothing alike, though oddly Moonshot's tone feels closer to the generic MCU than the surprisingly dark Moon Knight. This one isn't about superheroes, though - just ordinary people. More accurately, it's about an ordinary person and an exceptional person, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Moonshot is a romantic comedy/science fiction hybrid, though it's a long way from an even split. Despite some light thematic commentary, the sci-fi stuff is almost entirely here as a backdrop. As far as the story and tone are concerned, this is a pretty straightforward breezy romcom. It's just set on a space ship flying towards a Martian colony three decades from now.

Overall, I don't consider that an issue, though there's part of me that wishes the "light thematic" stuff offered a little more meat. We get a very light ribbing of corporations and billionaires in the form of a minor character reminiscent of Elon Musk who shows up late in the film. He's the butt of several jokes, and the movie makes a point of reinforcing the message that corporations aren't looking out for our best interests, but I still felt like they treated him with kid gloves.

Likewise, environmental themes come up, but not in a way that carries much weight. This is the sort of messaging you'd expect from a kid's movie: we should care about our world and try to fix it. We're only ever given hints and brief glimpses into what we're supposed to be fixing, though. Trash is used repeatedly as a symbol, but that's as far as the movie's critique goes. We're not exposed to suffering as a result of environmental degradation or climate change - we're just kind of told there's a lot of garbage.

Again, I'm not certain this is an actual problem with the movie, because it's not trying to be serious science fiction or satire. This is first and foremost a romantic comedy with an unusual setting. The obvious comparison is The Princess Bride, though it feels unfair bringing that up. Moonshot isn't a tenth as good as The Princess Bride (what is?), but it is a solid entry in the subgenre.

Solid, but not exceptional. That said, it seems aware of its limitations and comfortable with what it is. This isn't trying to delve deeply into its characters or make them exceptionally complex. These are simple people with simple problems, and it's pretty obvious a few minutes in where the story's heading. Moonshot isn't dark or psychological. It plays at exploring existential questions, but - again - that's all setting. This is a simple love story about young adults, and the target audience is younger than that.

How much younger? Arguably, quite a bit. There's nothing in Moonshot I'd hesitate to show to a seven year old. It's rated PG-13, so I'm assuming there are a few swears I missed, but beyond that it's pretty tame. There are very brief references to sexuality, but nothing explicit. Likewise, there's no violence and virtually no danger. This is trying to be light and fun, not tense or suspenseful.

The reason it mostly works is it actually succeeds at being fun. It's a funny situation, the leads do good work, and - most importantly - the script is actually funny. It isn't hilarious, but it's good enough to be entertaining. "Good enough," might be the ultimate summation of the movie in a nutshell.

If anything, I might be underselling the movie a bit. While this is a long way from brilliant, there are a handful of clever decisions that make it impossible to write off. The design is both colorful and evocative of corporate branded properties in a way that offers a little more commentary than anything actually said in the film. It's also worth mentioning the cast is diverse - unlike some versions of the future, this one isn't populated exclusively with straight, white men.

I was also impressed the movie subverted the cliché of having the leading man be a mediocre white guy by making that textually the character description. He's essentially the same generic lead movies like this typically feature, but for once the world doesn't automatically elevate him to some sort of icon (or at least it doesn't without commenting on doing so). I nitpicked the movie for surface-level critiques of capitalism and climate change, so it's only fair I credit them with a surprisingly intelligent spin on this trope.

Aside from that, there wasn't much exceptional about this. But the flipside of that is that there wasn't anything particularly bad, either. The movie is enjoyable and funny enough to make the experience pleasant... just don't expect anything all that memorable.