One of the implicit features of the Batman comics is Bruce Wayne’s kamikaze mission. Batman movies had not addressed it until the newly released “The Batman.” Batman’s goal, intermixed with revenge and unquenchable anger, is simple: destroy all crime. This is the darkest — and hence, more interesting — take on The Batman movies yet.
Such a mission is doomed to failure, especially in the urban hell that is Gotham City, and deep down beneath all his wounded psychological layers, Batman knows it. Yet still he tries.
One can predict his eventual end: bullet-ridden; blood pumping out of the body armor by bullets powerful enough to pierce it because his aged reflexes have finally failed him; surrounded by the broken bodies of the last criminals he would brutalize; and ironically, or maybe not, drawing his last breath in the exact spot his parents were murdered so long ago.
Six Actors’ Approach to Batman
Previous movies side-stepped this doomed mission. Michael Keaton’s turn as Batman was appropriately vengeful but centered around tracking down his parents’ killer. He made a much better Batman than a Bruce Wayne, with smooth, violent movements and a delirious grin as he bashed criminals.
In an unnecessary bit of irony that makes Batman purists (like myself) wince, Keaton’s Joker killed Batman’s parents. Hence, having identified and killed who motivated Wayne toward Batman, the mission was accomplished, and Wayne could hang up the cowl.
Val Kilmer’s Batman was odd given Kilmer’s method acting was one-dimensionally heroic. His attempts at anger were forced and even feeble, as if he couldn’t wait to get them over with and crack some jokes.
George Clooney’s infamous turn downplayed the reason for donning the cowl — Batman’s parents’ murder — and came across as a winged punster. The nebulous mystery that Keaton almost got right evaporated as Clooney’s Batman appeared onstage at charity functions with a credit card in the Batman’s name.
Ben Affleck was better at expressing anger, but he chose an elder statesman approach to the character, turning Batman into a pointy-eared Yoda who counseled the younger, more impulsive superheroes.
Christian Bale’s Batman became the gold standard. Angry, even demonic, this Batman didn’t care if there was little difference between him and the criminals. Recall his brutal interrogation of Heath Ledger’s Joker. What mattered to this Batman was getting the job done. This job was idealistic; to achieve what his gentle father tried to do: to make Gotham livable.
Hence, when Bale finally retired Batman, one sensed the mission was accomplished. But that didn’t play well. Someone as angry as Bruce Wayne couldn’t just switch it off and get married and raise kids.
The Latest Batman Is Scarier
In Robert Pattinson, The Batman’s angry, tilting-at-windmills quality is finally expressed. When Pattison tells Alfred, who mourns what Wayne is doing with his life, “I don’t care what happens to me,” you believe it. You even suspect the character has a death wish.
Pattinson’s Batman rarely calls himself that throughout the movie. When asked by terrified criminals who he is, he growls, “I am vengeance,” implying to the criminals and the audience that “The Batman” isn’t scary enough.
In the early comics, in 1939, when the Great Depression was still going on and war with fascism all but inevitable, The Batman — and how crucial that added word “The” is for the character’s nebulous, even supernatural quality — scared solid citizens as well as criminals. In one 1939 issue, an adventure that appropriately takes Batman into vampire country in an unnamed East European nation, a coach driver sees Batman and exclaims, “The Devil himself.”
This coach driver is mere miles from a castle harboring a vampire and finds a brief glimpse of the Batman as more Satanic than the fanged menace. It shows Batman is scary to more than just criminals.
Cinematography Is Darker
Director Matt Reeves has returned Gotham to its rain-drenched, darkened alleys — the one thing that previous Batman director Tim Burton got right. Burton was always more fascinated by the villains than the more psychologically interesting Batman (no “The” in Burton’s version). Even during the day, Reeve’s Gotham City is darkly clouded, as if there is some kind of evil barrier keeping the warmth of the sun away from residents.
Reeves has said he drew inspiration from 1970s and 1980s neo-noir films, and from David Fincher’s twisty-turny serial killer thriller “Seven,” but this film is really in the tradition of the hard-boiled pulp novels of the 1930s and 1940s. The first writer of Batman, Bill Finger, who was not acknowledged as a crucial part in creating the character by a greedy, credit-hungry Bob Kane until the end of the latter’s life, stated he based the first Batman story on a “Shadow” novel.
The Shadow was a more homicidal, but equally scary pulp vigilante. Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler’s private eyes could not make even a dent in their corrupt societies. The best they could do was solve the case at hand, but no balance was restored and the crimes would continue. Yet, like The Batman, these private eyes kept going.
“The Batman” is David Fincher’s “Zodiac”on speed. The Riddler, always depicted as a prancing, green-costumed punster wearing question marks is now a serial killer who gets off on leaving cryptic clues as much as he does the killing. Paul Dano, who looks more like a choirboy than any actor in Hollywood, uses his angelic looks to great advantage, and you can sense the same type of certifiable anger bubbling beneath the surface as The Batman.
Zoe Kravitz as Catwoman is appropriately sexy and slinky like Michelle Pfeiffer, but she has interesting layers, and has her own sense of mission, albeit expressed through cracking safes. She is clearly fascinated by The Batman, and one senses she may be the one chance The Batman has at a “normal” life by demented standards.
Buried beneath prosthetics, Colin Farrell has a jigsaw face as The Penguin. And there is a dancing evil glee in his eyes that recalls Linda Blair’s turn as the demon in “The Exorcist.”
In the Christopher Nolan films, Commissioner Gordon, played in dorky fashion by Gary Oldman, was as much a father figure to Christian Bale’s Batman as he was the vigilante’s crucial conduit to the Gotham Police Force. In Jeffrey Wright, who radiates intelligence better than any other actor in Hollywood, Gordon, a mere lieutenant, is less a parent and more a “check” on Batman’s homicidal rage, both emotionally and in one instance physically.
“The Batman” breaks new ground by bringing the character back to his detective roots. Pattinson isn’t so mindlessly angry as to not be cerebral. As such, the movie is not only a character study — think a comic book for psychiatrists — but also a detective’s tale.
The action scenes are impressive, and Pattinson pounds the criminals beyond unconsciousness and one suspects to death, in contrast to Keaton’s quick grin and one-two punch or Bale’s bizarre reliance on elbow shots. Pattinson expresses the character’s rage via fisticuffs better than any previous actor did.
But what gives the movie its zing isn’t the bone-crunching punches and explosions but the intellectual cat and mouse between The Batman and the Riddler. The Riddler is as much a mystery as The Batman, and even more so in the beginning because the audience doesn’t know the “why” of the Riddler’s actions.
Unlike Keaton and Bale’s character, who represented the flip side of the Joker — their Batman’s goal was establishing order through anger versus the Joker’s goal of mindless chaos — Pattinson isn’t the Riddler’s opposite number. The two have a bizarre kinship. They don’t represent the flip sides of a coin but the same side of it.
The movie has its weaknesses. It is too long, clocking in at three hours. And The Batman, while still more supernatural than previous versions, appears a bit too much in public with the police than is necessary. A fundamental weakness of The Batman disguise in the comics was that Wayne and The Batman have the same identifiable jawline, and the cops, particularly Gordon, only have to focus on this facial characteristic to out Wayne.
Reeves and Pattinson have finally nailed what makes The Batman so special besides his psychotic rage. They have taken a character you know everything about (his motivations, his true identity, even his headquarters) and made him not less mysterious, but more so, even sinister.
As such, “The Batman” is one step away from being a horror movie. One wishes the film-makers had not released the movie under a PG-13 rating but an R. You sense that what was on the cutting room floor emphasized a character who had more in common with Dracula than with Adam West.