“The Batman” — one for the batfans

Every time a new batman film comes out reviewers will remind us that there is this struggle inside of the franchise between the infamous 1960s silliness of the Adam West TV series (Zap! Pow! Bang!) and the darkness of Frank Miller’s incredible Dark Night Returns comic series in the late 1980s. This is… true, but at this point, a little played out. Tired.

Since Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’ in 1989, if the films don’t suggest that Bruce Wayne is not at least quite a disturbed guy, or at worst, very much part of the problem – provoking and creating grotesque criminal rivals just so he can do battle with them – it’s not really been “a Batman film.”

This is certainly something writer-director Matt Reeves knew when making this latest 2022 offering. And on many levels, or rather, on all levels Batman fans probably care about, he does a great job: there’s no camp, no super-powered characters, an even gloomier setting than Christopher Nolan’s trilogy – even his mask and costume, with hints of Miller’s version, look realistic enough to almost convince us they’d be more help that hindrance in a brawl. The violence is neatly brutal and quick, with few superhuman feats of athleticism – Robert Pattinson does an excellent job of making the caped crusader seem physically vulnerable, but just that much better at fighting than his foes.

So if you like Batman comics, and like the the Nolan trilogy, you will probably enjoy this three-hour slog. Yes, three hours. Three flipping hours. Okay almost three hours, but with ads at the start and so on, it’s three hours of your life – and The Batman doesn’t really do enough different… stuff in those three hours to justify your sitting there if you’re not a loyal devotee.

The first hour introduces almost all characters and also, almost all scenes: there’s a great night club fight that you will then see several versions of for the remaining two hours. This is bad film making. This is bad editing too: you know all those directors who cry about editors ruining their films? One could have made this piece a lot better.

The plot is pretty solid, actually far simpler than Nolans convoluted and rushed yarns (which are still better films overall) with Batman once again set against a city whose politicians and police are riddled with corrupt connections to Italian-American mobsters – the last ethnic-criminal trope you are allowed to use, it seems. The Riddler is cast as an avenging psychopath killing off these corrupt officials and its a classic race to crack the whole thing open between the nutter with pointy ears who won’t use deadly force, and the nutter with the even creepier outfit who will.

Jeffrey Wright does a great Commissioner Gordon, Andy Serkis does his best to make the incredibly anachronistic role of Alfred the butler make sense, and Zoë Kravitz does an okay stab and a boringly-familiar Selina Kyle (Catwoman) – who, yes, can throw high kicks to defend herself, and rides a powerful motorbike, but is very much decoration and an appendage to Pattison. During a plot-critical conversation she cuts him off with a kiss. Irrational, sexual, impulsive, beautiful – a collection of attributes no one has ever given to a female action role before, really quite groundbreaking. The only other woman is Jayme Lawson who is also extremely young and beautiful – somehow a mayoral candidate for a city the size of New York at age 24.

You can, and I say this as a Batman fan, with a disgusting number of comics rotting in my mothers attic, gender swap any of these roles. It would make a lot of sense for the person who raised the orphaned Bruce to be a woman, and we have, in the comics, already had age-appropriate women police commissioners. Why not even have the waitress/seductress/cat-burglar role be a man instead, opening new possibilities for blackmail and intrigue.

Gender cliches aside, the problem is quite simple: Reeves is too faithful to the comics for the big screen. What works on the page is often cringe when played by real humans. Reeves breaks a lot of Batman-film rules, like cut down the amount of time the protagonist is seen in costume to the point of them being almost ethereal, and never, ever have them saying bland niceties like “Take care of yourself” — how was Catwoman meant to respond to that – “No worries babe, will text you when I’m home”? Masked up, Batman should be utterly inhuman.

If you’re going to follow Nolan by going darker, then why not go even further with the realism, and apply the same level of gritty creativity as Todd Phillips brought to 2019’s incredible surprise masterpiece Joker? Rather than having him as a superhero who can be beckoned by a big torch in the sky, why not try as hard as possible to think about what Batman might look like in the real world – probably an obsessive independent researcher, a twisted, libertarian, steroid-using gym-nerd loner, who rarely and sparingly actually has to somehow fight men with guns? Or give him a gun too – this is America after all.

Full marks must go to the filming, costume, setting and score: Gotham and Wayne Manor have never been this gothic, and with long-haired Pattison, sporting black make-up around the eyes, moping through the city to a brilliantly repurposed Nirvana track, neither has Batman. Go for those alone.

– Redeye

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