The Batman Is Dark, Real Dark—Or So It Wants Us to Think
Warning! This review contains spoilers regarding The Batman.
Now, it’s probably official. Batman cannot have or be again fun. He’s the gloomiest of superheroes, haunted by a traumatic past, doomed to skulk around a filthy, lawless Gotham that, at least in the somber vision of Matt Reeves’ BatmanThis is a clear metaphor for 2020s America. Batman’s America is a place where nutso fringe theorists fully armed with automatic weapons can gun down a Black woman mayoral candidate just because they don’t like the direction the country is going in. A movie that is based upon a comic-book character could help us to face our darkest moments.
Oder will it?
Semi-nihilistic but vaguely hopeful vision BatmanIt’s what makes it similar to other superhero films of the last decade or so. But it is not what separates it. It doEs have some advantages over the others: Reeves is a relatively thoughtful, careful filmmaker, and the DC universe he’s working in may offer more freedom than the Marvel woodchipper that directors like Taika Waititi and ChloéZhao has endured. This is a type of processing plant which presses their vision into an particle-board-like consistency that matches the rest of the movies in the franchise.
Batman is a moderately well-made film, with some appealing performances, most notably from its star, Robert Pattinson, and from its cryptically glamorous Catwoman, Zoë Kravitz. It was. Looks like a movie, which used to be something you didn’t even have to say: Batman may be dark, literally—its doomy, underlit ambience comes courtesy of cinematographer Greig Fraser—but at least it’s pleasurably cinematic, a picture that creeps to the edges of the big screen with an operatic flourish. Reeves doesn’t just throw his ideas onto that screen: he’s attuned to how they hit, and if the movie, a bat-hair short of three hours long, features at least three too many endings, Reeves still keeps the story from falling into sluggishness. (I’m among a minority that believes his 2010 Allow Me to In is better—more bruising, and more poetic—than the 2008 Swedish film, The Right One is in, it’s based on.)
It goes like this: Gotham, an impoverished, lawless city, is on the brink of becoming a mayor that offers hope and change. Pattinson’s the Batman, so special he gets his own definite article, appears in the city as needed, which is often, summoned by that yellow tattoo in the night-clouded sky that’s never referred to as the Bat Signal, though we all know that’s what it is. (“We have a signal now, for when I’m needed,” he explains in a gravelly, whispered voice-over, as if this information weren’t already burned into our pop-culture data banks.) The incumbent mayor is killed in an especially grisly manner (mostly off-screen) early on by a mouth breather in a creepy leather masque, with his tiny piggy eyes looking through grimy glasses; the murder weapon in this case is a kind of ugly spade-like tool. It’s Halloween night, and the mayor’s young son, just back from trick-or-treating, is the one to find the body. (Insert the phrase “echo of Batman’s own past” here.) This killer will continue to murder more people and likes to leave small billets-doux to the hero that he knows will show up. These notes are written in riddle form—“What does a liar do when he’s dead?”—that stump everyone but the dour, brainy Batman. Jeffrey Wright’s James Gordon stands by appreciatively, doing everything but muttering “Damn!” whenever his decorously masked friend and colleague solves one of these puzzles.
Paul Dano plays the Riddler as this criminal. An unrecognizable Colin Farrell also shows up as Oswald Cobblepot, otherwise know as The Penguin, though there’s little that would delineate him as such. (Prudishly, Warner Bros. wouldn’t allow Farrell to brandish a cigar.) John Turturro appears as a corrupt mob boss with a link to Bruce Wayne’s dead father. Perhaps, Batman/Bruce Wayne thinks, his own father wasn’t the sterling citizen he’d believed him to be. He’s tortured by ominous doubts, as any modern Batman must be.
At a certain point, Kravitz’s Selina Kyle/Catwoman enters the picture, bringing with her a whiff of tough romance and sexual allure, a rarity in superhero films. The movie allows at most for the existence and enjoyment of sexual desire. And her penchant for taking in strays prompts the movie’s best line, and perhaps its finest little throwaway scene. Batman enters the apartment and a trio feline friends are circling him. He waits one beat, then two, and says, “You got a lot of cats.” For a small moment, the gods of wit smile upon Gotham.
But it can’t last. BatmanThe movie universe is becoming increasingly common, and a fake funereal worldview has the sole ability to give it depth. It is possible to argue that Batman made his bat cave dark in late 1980s. This was thanks to the efforts of Frank Miller, Alan Moore, and others. It was an era when comic-book creators and artists still longed for respectability. These people produced some amazing work but are now perhaps too influential.
Because now, almost all we ever get from comic-book franchise movies—even from the best of them, a category into which Batman may fall—is a sort of appliquéd melancholia, such that darkness barely has meaning. Thanos with his jewelled glove of power, Earth-destroying revenge, and Joker the troubled trickster, whose long suffering provides him a comfortable excuse for his crimes, to Joker. Batman’s Riddler, a forlorn forever-orphan who feels betrayed by the system: in the most facile way, all of these characters wave evil in our faces like a smelly handkerchief, as if it were a scent we’d simply failed to pick up before.
Batman despite its virtues and pleasures—and despite the presence of Pattinson, who brings as much soul to the movie as an almost completely masked character can bring—falls into this trap. The movie’s Gotham is, as always, a semi-New York, but a New York that’s perpetually having its worst night: the streets are swept with bitter rain. Subway evildoers skulk about, looking for unsuspecting victims—it’s notable that the mark a group of these thugs seize upon is an Asian man, a grim reflection of recent events on New York’s real-life streets. There may be a message hidden beneath the surface. Batman is that Gotham—or America—is in its most sinister age. This is what it means to be a “sinister” American. BatmanA film which dares face the worst aspects of human nature.
Is it really possible to pack some dark stuff into an established template? Batman is arguably the most brooding superhero, though it hasn’t always been that way. It is no longer possible to imagine Batman having fun or being interesting. The goofy intentional innocence of Adam West as the drugged-via-orange-juice Caped Crusader, circa 1966, shaking a tail feather with a redheaded vixen on the dance floor, is now almost poignant. Three years after the assassination of JFK, just after the country stepped into a war many young Americans didn’t want, in a nation waging a civil rights struggle that was long overdue, West defied the bleak mood of the time by bringing a meme to life—the Batman dance, or “the Batusi”—that almost every person who has seen a GIF now knows. The Batman dance is silly—and inventive and wonderful—just as that series was.
But perhaps we feel there’s nothing left to invent. It’s impossible to discuss films based on comic books in a meaningful manner. No matter what you say, your wings are pinned between the two posts of “You’re shallow—you only want Have fun,” and “Come on, it’s just entertainment.” It’s an end game of infinity we can’t seem to win. And that’s the big bummer of Batman.