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Review: The Batman

Review: The Batman

Impressive casting and a gritty story close to its comics source inject new life into the long-in-the truth franchise.

Under the influence of Rotten Tomatoes, film critics have developed three approaches for reviewing comic adaptations:

  1. Fanboys geeking out in the form of complete devotion or full contempt
  2. Slumming film snobs of the “It’s good for a superhero movie” school
  3. Anti-woke police keen to dismiss a movie for blockbuster subversion of traditional values.

What results is a climate in which superhero movies strive to appease disparate groups that, in their own particular ways, have opposing views of what constitutes quality.

In the case of the latest iteration of The Batman, prerelease buzz was built upon its status as deep cinema. AMC Theatres made headlines when it designated the film worthy of its artisan label for its “noir-inspired take on the Dark Knight,” an accolade that all but assured abundant references to film noir in the movie’s critical notices. On the other hand, the Daily Wire’s Megan Basham dispenses with critical evaluation entirely in what’s more a clickbait ad for her own self-importance than an actual review, deeming the movie unworthy and boring because it uses the words “privilege” and “system” in its dialogue and is thus “woke” (nevermind that the narrative directly undercuts what amounts to a brief dialogue exchange halfway through its running time). Whether due to their own pretensions or the demands of SEO, critics generally fail to assess superhero films on their own terms. Like the western, historical epic, and Oscar-bait drama, comic-book movies don’t exist in a vacuum and have their own thematic bents. The genre is merely the delivery mechanism that any legitimate critic should at minimum look beyond. Within this context, The Batman offers a distinct and complicated take on the Caped Crusader that challenges easy definitions of privilege and activism on its own terms.

Though The Batman adopts a gritty sensibility, it is not, despite critical consensus, a film noir (a hardboiled detective story set amid urban decay that gained postwar popularity in the 1940s featuring seductive femme fatales and downer endings). Instead, director Matt Reeves’s film owes a more direct debt to the vigilante franchises of the 1970s that succeeded noir like Death Wish and Dirty Harry–a film that The Batman pays direct homage to in its voyeuristic opening scene of The Riddler (Paul Dano) stalking his prey. Likewise, Reeves works in the tradition of contemporary director David Fincher’s own updates of the 70s paranoid style on display in Se7en and his own Dirty Harry riff, Zodiac—influence that blurs the lines between superhero blockbuster and critically lauded genre picture.

Consequently, Robert Pattinson’s Batman is not a cynical hero experiencing postwar trauma in the Humphrey Bogart mode, but a rich kid with psychological damage who can’t figure out if his desire to do good with his unlimited assets stems from vengeance or a sense of obligation. Pattinson has unfairly been saddled with the weight of Twilight for much of his impressive career working with name directors like Claire Denis (High Life), David Cronenberg (Cosmopolis, Maps to the Stars), and previous Batman helmer Christopher Nolan (Tenet). However, as a Bruce Wayne who spends most of the film letting his Batman side run roughshod, he provides a unique take on the hero’s psychosis that renders boring comparisons to his predecessors moot.

The Batman’s central thesis examines how the ruling elite’s drive to maintain its power inflicts damage on future generations, which Reeves probes by mining the Victorian trope of orphanhood through Wayne, The Riddler, and Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz)’s pasts. The dimensionless ragging of critics like Basham aside, the film presents such conflict as hurdles its trio of central characters must overcome. In Reeves’s Gotham, elected officials are toothless—corrupt like those the Riddler targets or idealists in Squad mode like mayor-elect Bella Reál (Jayme Lawson) whose rhetoric of change and equity immediately proves useless in the face of the viral serial killer’s own woke mob.

What makes The Batman work is not its inventive dark and desaturated style or its perfect casting of Pattinson, Dano, and Kravitz as well as supporting players like John Turturro, Peter Sarsgaard, Jeffrey Wright, Andy Serkis, and Colin Farrell (whose complete transformation into the Penguin is a definite standout). It’s the film’s insistence on capturing a reality in which those aiming to do good must first acknowledge the world’s resistance to the Manichaen and unwillingness to bend to utopia. Woke indeed.

In theatres and premiering on HBO Max April 18th.