Format: Blu-ray from DeKalb Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.
In 1989, my girlfriend and I went to see Batman on opening night. Sixteen years later, I saw Batman Begins. Now, another 17 years later, I am watching yet another iteration of the Caped Crusader, The Batman. Leaving out the animated versions of the character, in the course of my lifetime, the character of Bruce Wayne/Batman has been played by Adam West, Michael Keaton (my favorite Bruce Wayne), Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Ben Affleck, and now Robert Pattinson, and this is only the guys who have played the role in movies. This movie is also close to three hours long, and I really had to consider whether or not I wanted to subject myself this once again. How many times do I need to see this origin story? How many times do I need to watch Thomas and Martha Wayne get shot?
The other thing is that this is yet again a “dark and gritty” reboot of the franchise. Tim Burton did that originally, and while Keaton’s Batman had a touch of camp, it was a darker, more Gothic world that eventually reverted to camp thanks to Joel Schumacher. Nolan gave us a new, revamped dark and gritty Dark Knight series. And once again, we’re going dark and gritty with this one. But with all of this, there’s a great deal here to recommend this latest incarnation.
Because here’s the thing--Spider-Man hit the big screen in 2002, the Andrew Garfield vesion showed up a mere 10 years later in 2012, and then again just five years later. While that is equally ridiculous, and I’m almost as tired of seeing Uncle Ben get capped as I am Thomas and Martha Wayne, why am I less angry about three Spider-Man franchises than a third Batman franchise? The main reason is that the Spider-Man films feel like they tell different stories, at least in part. With Batman, you know we’re going to get a Joker story soon enough.
So, I was prepared to be underwhelmed by this, and I was pleasantly surprised to find this a lot better than expected. A great deal of that is because this genuinely is a very different Batman story, and a very different take on the character. Our Bruce Wayne isn’t the flashy playboy, but a recluse who shies away from the spotlight. He’s not concerned with the family business, and it’s implied by his butler Alfred (Andy Serkis) that the company is not doing well. We also very much get the sense that this time, Batman is the real person and Bruce Wayne is the mask.
There’s a lot of plot here but I’m not going to go through it in more than a cursory way. We’re going to start this movie with Batman already established as a known quantity. This means we’re not going to have to go through the courtship dance between Batman and Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) and we don’t have to relive the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne for the fiftieth time. The Batman is dealing with increase in crime and drug use, but things are about to take a serious turn. During a contentious mayoral race, the current mayor is brutally murdered, and at the crime scene, we get a personalized note to Batman containing a cipher and a riddle.
One of the standard tropes about Gotham is that it’s filled with corruption. That’s exactly what this story is going to be about. The Riddler (Paul Dano) is attempting to clean up the city in a much more violent and direct way—by targeting people in positions of power who are corrupt—taking bribes, participating in drug shipping and dealing, avoiding prosecution of specific crimes and targets, having mob ties, and more. Suspicions is certainly raised regarding Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) as well as his lieutenant Oswald Cobblepot (Colin Farrell in about 20 pounds of prosthetics), also known as the Penguin. Tossed into the mix is Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz), who is looking for her own brand of justice and is sort of an unofficial Catwoman. She has the slinky cat suit and a lot of stray cats, but she’s no so much a cat burglar as she is her own version of a vigilante. Much of the film is going to be not just about tracking down the Riddler, but also dealing with the mass corruption on a grand scale in the city.
I genuinely appreciate a lot of what The Batman does. This is not a gadget-filled film, but one that is very pared down in that respect. This Batman seems much more real-world in a lot of respects. There are no high-tech toys aside from some surveillance devices. The Batmobile is essentially just a muscle car, and while there are grappling hooks and the like, there’s not a batarang to be found.
It's also not pulling punches with its criminals. Where old versions of the Riddler were green-suited goofballs, this one is hyperviolent. His murders are brutal and nasty and without pity, and casting moon-faced Paul Dano in this role as a simple person pushed to an extreme is top-tier casting.
But the real test of a Batman movie is Batman himself. Pattinson acquits himself of the role surprisingly well. Actually, I’m not terribly surprised. He’s been digging himself out from under the weight of the Twilight franchise for years and has been doing really good work, and this was a challenging role. He does it well by making the role his own—this is not the empty-headed dilletante of Michael Keaton nor the jet-setting Christian Bale playboy. This is a Bruce Wayne who genuinely doesn’t care about anything outside of being Batman and who can’t be bothered with even the most basic social niceties.
It's also worth noting that there are some real ties to more disturbing films like Se7en. Both Bruce Wayne and the Riddler keep extensive hand-written journals, and the Riddler’s especially look a great deal like John Doe’s.
But it can’t all be perfect, right? As the film winds to a close, we’ve got a teaser for who might be the next villain in the sequel (and yes, there will be a sequel). And, of course, it’s the Joker. Imagine having Batman’s entire rogue’s gallery to play with and once again going for the Joker as the bad guy. I suppose we’ll find out soon enough.
Why to watch The Batman: It doesn’t assume that the audience is filled with idiots.
Why not to watch: Can we please move on to a new superhero?