The Batman (Review)

In the perpetual quest to make the darkest, grittiest Batman, The Batman is certainly the darkest and grittiest yet. Darkest and grittiest to beyond the point of self parody and in defiance of sense. It is a film obsessed with a singular view of both the character, and of society, as it spends three monotonous hours wallowing in the monotony of perennial corruption. To an extent, it feels like the realisation of what people thought the Burton Batmans would be, just built off of the back of the Nolan trilogy as well (this movie really wants to be The Darker Knight). In doing so, it misses what actually made the Burton’s good, especially Returns: a sense of style, wit and personality.

Reeves’ The Batman is a very referential film, giving visual (and some shallowly thematic) nods to Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low, and being so obviously indebted to David Fincher’s Se7en. Though sold as a detective story by so many, The Batman is only this in the way that Se7en is: a linear mystery that will be solved on screen, the procedural edges just facilitation for furthering a plunge into the heart of darkness. It centres around an already established Batman character, no origin, just the welcome acceptance that the audience know the character. Here, Batman (Robert Pattison) is solving a serial killer case, in which the Riddler (Paul Dano) — though for now the culprit is a secret from Batman, if not the viewer — has been killing his way through powerful figures in Gotham. It is a high profile case, a destabilising one, and a situation that demands intervention. It’s not a bad setup for a Batman movie and grounds the stakes in a way comic book films usually just don’t.

Unfortunately, the film is just a complete mess. The Riddler is a mishmash of conflicting iconography, created to be striking and cinematic but with no grasp on meaning. He is the movie as a microcosm: just visual noise there for the sake of it, involving potent symbols and themes, but no cognisance of what any of it means. You see, the Riddler is actually fighting corruption. It turns out, and who would have guessed it, Gotham is corrupt to its very core. The people he is taking down are the kind of people the Batman should be taking down. The key difference is Riddler will kill them, Batman won’t. There’s real potential here to interrogate Batman as a deterrent or as an enabler of crime. The film ignores that. Instead, it chooses the path of nonsense. You see, Riddler can’t be a a figure of justice or anti-corruption, he has to be a figure of madness. The eccentric puzzler is refigured as a post-Dark Knight Joker archetype, presented as unstable, psychopathic and utterly chaotic. In this film, the corruption is bad, but the fighting of the corruption is also bad. It’s all damn corrupt, it is corruption all the way down and back up to the top. Because, Riddler is also basically Jigsaw, or the killer from Se7en, concocting macabre traps that display excess. The film can’t be about how institutions are corrupt, it is instead about how those fighting against corruption are the real villains, in the end. It never doesn’t show the revolutionary or more radical mindset as anything but sociopathic. This is especially clear when the Riddler reveals his whole scale plan, where the film’s language pulls from the alt-right and Incel culture. Riddler is any ideology you want as long as it can be perceived as radical, which could be a good comment on pervasive indoctrination and conditioning, but is completely ruined by his initially just aims.

Because, this is a film of nihilism, and everything is just bad. The Batman is defined by punching too hard: he’s excessive. He needs to pull back. If the film preaches anything, it is a liberalist moderation, a need to try the same things again but do them right this time. Systems are not the issue here, it is what preys on those systems. This political view is poorly articulated, lost in a sea of disparate imagery, but is most strongly enforced when we comment on the Wayne family. We are given hurried exposition, from the villain, about the Wayne family (which is later confirmed). The takeaway from all of this is that Thomas Wayne can be linked to the corruption of the city. It is run by mob bosses now because of a fund he set up. The billionaires are the problem. Only, they are not. Very quickly, the film forgives Saint Thomas, recontextualising a key sin (which led to mob control) as a moment of apolitical weakness: a singular stain on an otherwise impeccable character. Yes, all of Gotham is controlled and corrupted due to money given by Wayne, but that just makes these naughty mob people more of the problem. Billionaires should be allowed to be philanthropic, the problem are the pesky criminals. It is a blindingly naïve and stupid framing, and it doubles down on it with the presentation of policing. Again, the problem with policing is not the institution. Policing is good here. The problem is the mob. It all comes down to the mob, the things that hang onto institutions are the issue, cut out that cancer and we have the liberal utopia that Gotham could be. And if that messaging wasn’t already an issue, imagine it being presented in the most bewildering and conflicting ways.

You just get the sense the film doesn’t care. It wants to be the cool and dark Batman movie, and it’s certainly dark. The script is populated by attempts at noir zingers, but just falls leaden. Noirs need panache, style and at least a visual wit. This is drudgery, the cinematic equivalent of purgatory. The dialogue is painful and the plotting very poor. It is a film where simultaneously too much happens and nowhere near enough. We are suffocatingly placed with Pattinson’s Batman for the whole movie, but nothing is really done with him. A lot of plot and progression is thrown in, to the extent that there is no time for divergent moments or pauses to build anything (be it character or theme) but all of this plot feels throwaway. It is just a collection of stuff to be sat through, heading to a conclusion that is utterly ludicrous. The final act has hilariously dumb imagery and throws grounded out of the window. It also throws narrative or character cohesion out of the window, just presenting the audience with the contractually obligated big final act: a bonus fourth act that has the scale we expect from a comic book film. It is bad.

The way here isn’t much better though. The film has a definite aesthetic, but it is a very monotonous one. It is visual noise and the constricting imagery just gets boring. After a point, I don’t know why they didn’t just film it in 4:3 if they were going to be so up close and limited. The widescreen photography seems like a waste; the odd composition is interesting but the film is so over the top, visually, that it becomes bland. A car chase is just a bewildering mess, made even more this way by the film’s complete lack of geography and sense of place. Gotham is just rain and one club. The rest of the city is a backdrop for action scenes and its reality as a location is never sold. It is a video game backdrop to a narrative constantly aiming for complete reality. It doesn’t work. Also, for a film about how Gotham is suffering under corruption, it is utterly blind to its people. Though its geography is poorly displayed, the film only thinks of Gotham as geography. Nobody really lives here, citizens just fill the edge of the frame as homogenous groups, functioning as narrative shorthand. People are there to be rescued, or to look sad, but they mostly aren’t there. The film is about Batman being Batman, which makes the social injustice arc ring completely hollow.

We also have Zoë Kravitz as Catwoman. She gives a very engaging performance, but has so little to work with. She steps in and out of the narrative, cordoned off by the only ever functional storytelling. At one point Batman and Catwoman kiss. For no real reason. Pattison’s Batman isn’t allowed to be interesting or compelling due to the script and has no discernible personality outside of punching dudes a lot and saying pretty stupid things. It seems like a contractual obligation that the two very attractive actors must kiss. We also have John Turturro as mob boss Carmine Falcone (which the film keeps pronouncing different ways) and Colin Farrell as the Penguin. It’s a lot and nobody is well used. Each performance is promising but the narrative is a linear slog that only cares about pushing Batman through a ridiculously contrived mystery. Even the score won’t shut up. It’s a pretty interesting musical backdrop but is really limited by the key theme’s closeness to the Imperial March.

All of this is just a slog. It is only ever in one gear and it is exhausting. There are funny moments but only because the film is so stupid and is taking itself so seriously (at so many points, I was laughing directly at the movie). It pushes for Se7en when Se7en is so of its time, and is not a three hour superhero film. It should push for The Abominable Dr. Phibes, a clear inspiration on Se7en and such a fun film. Dano should be channelling Vincent Price, fun should be allowed here. But, no, only rain is allowed here. This is a one-note non-world full of the thinnest characters as we stretch very little actual story out over three hours by having an abundance of pointless plot. So much will happen, none of it will matter. It won’t build to anything and it will be actively irritating. The stupidity of the thing is completely antithetical to its posturing and attitude, and to its overwrought final sequences. Sure, it is the darkest Batman yet, but I’d like to be able to see something. I would like some juxtaposition, some light to give the darkness meaning and some sense of purpose. Fundamentally, I just don’t want this, whatever this is.

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