Monday, March 7, 2022

Movie Review: The Batman (2022)

Time to take a little break from talking about Oscar fare (although, who knows...) for a look at a brand-new theatrical release, one that I've been breathlessly anticipating for a good two-plus years.

Broodingly swinging into cinemas this past weekend, Matt Reeves' suspense thriller epic The Batman impressively manages to honor previous cinematic iterations of the iconic superhero while also presenting him and his universe in a fashion we've never seen before on the movie screen.  While Christopher Nolan's vaunted Dark Knight trilogy for the most part kept the character grounded in reality there were still fantastical elements to each film - the microwave emitter designed to vaporize the water supply, the citywide network of cellphones rigged up to transmit sonar imagery to Batman's goggles, etc.  But Reeves and his team have taken Nolan's realism-based approach one step further, presenting the story in grimy, believable detail in a manner akin to 1970s crime drama, via a 1990s David Fincher aesthetic.  

The Batman in this universe isn't a superhero at all, but a tortured, vengeance-obsessed vigilante prowling the streets and looking for criminals to punish.  He's inexperienced, only two years into his grand mission to redeem the dysfunctional, corrupt hellscape Gotham has become, and aside from idealistic Lieutenant Jim Gordon (a terse-lipped Jeffrey Wright), he's seen as a freak and a troublemaker by the GCPD.  

But Gordon needs Batman's help more than ever when the police stumble onto a series of grisly murders carried out by another masked "crusader" calling himself The Riddler (Paul Dano in a frighteningly unhinged performance).  The killer is targeting respected public officials and leaving clues specifically for Batman to solve, hoping to catch the attention of the cowled avenger who seemingly inspired him.  The clues lead Batman deep into Gotham's dingy underworld as he investigates possible connections to crime boss Carmine Falcone (a gravel-voiced John Turturro), his deputy Oswald "Penguin" Cobblepot (Colin Farrell, unrecognizable but having the decadent time of his life under all those prosthetics), and a mysterious cat burglar who moonlights as a mafia nightclub hostess (a sultry Zoe Kravitz who conveys intense chemistry with her costumed costar, in the most three-dimensional Selina Kyle cinematic characterization to date).
Of the plot I won't spoil anything further, but it pays homage to films like Se7en, Zodiac, and even Saw, while also including the occasional nod to Nolan.  Suffice it to say you'll be kept guessing until deep into the third act.

Matt Reeves and cinematographer Greig Fraser (fresh off his Oscar nominated work for Dune) have crafted an oppressive, murky, rain-soaked Gotham City that's as much a character as it is a setting.  Batman's cobbled-together gray and black body armor blends right into this film noir metropolis (no pun intended) and the only time we seem to catch a glimpse of the sun is during its laborious morning rise.  The look of this film combines a bit of Tim Burton's stylized, Expressionist sensibilities with Nolan's living, breathing 21st century urbanism, and the result is maybe the most purely immersive Gotham to date.  

As for Batman himself, he's front and center throughout the film, present in nearly every scene, and spends probably 80% of the movie in the cape and cowl.  This version of Bruce Wayne is unconcerned about pretending to be a public-facing billionaire playboy in the hopes of preserving his parents' legacy.  Instead he's addicted to assuming his "true form" and beating a raincheck into the city's bad guys.  Still he's far from an optimist, revealing via journal voiceover that he doubts his nocturnal activities will end up making much of a difference in the long run.  "Still, I have to try," he says, defeatedly.  This Bruce Wayne hasn't yet learned how to be a symbol of hope, only one of fear.  Pattinson keeps Bruce's emotions close to the chest, delivering a sullen, understated turn that fits right in with the film's pulpy noir interpretation.  This Bruce Wayne is not ready to inspire by example, but there's plenty of room for him to grow into the role of Gotham's savior.

Spread out over an intimidating three-hour runtime, The Batman nonetheless keeps us riveted, if not on the emotional level of Nolan's take, most definitely on a cerebral level.  This film is a detective story first, exploring this aspect of Batman's mythos in ways heretofore unseen on the big screen.  Strangely this proved to be both an unusual take on Batman while also being in many ways the most true to the source material.  More than any other live-action adaptation, The Batman feels like an honest-to-goodness graphic novel come to life.  At the same time it transcends the superhero genre even moreso than The Dark Knight trilogy, steeping the story in austere crime-film realism and exploring very relevant themes such as socioeconomic inequality, paranoia, government corruption and internet fame.  This is both a Batman film we never thought we'd see AND maybe the most direct cinematic adaptation of the comic's original and modern sensibilities.

If I have any nitpicks about it, they'd be related to first-act pacing; such care was taken in bringing comic book panels and tableaus to life that the characters often move in strangely deliberate fashion, which was a little offputting at first.  Likely 15-20 minutes could've been trimmed to make the movie a bit more palatable, but at the same time the 175 minutes didn't feel overly long to me.  When it was over I couldn't wait to see where else Reeves et al take this version of the character and his rogues gallery.  This version is as welcome a Gotham City shakeup as Batman Begins was in 2005.  The Batman part 2 can't get here soon enough.

I give The Batman **** out of ****.

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