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 ZoĆ« 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.

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