A Rambling Non-Review of The Batman

So this is a format that I tried with Dune, but never got around to posting. Basically, I’m going to try and put as many of my random, meandering thoughts down onto digital paper about this movie. Because I think The Batman is an interesting moving picture show. It was actually really quite good in some places, exceptional even. But I’m not quite sure if it comes all the way together into a cohesive whole. It’s like a gorgeously decorated novelty cake that’s basically still batter deep on the inside. But, like I said, it’s at the very least interesting and I want to get some thoughts down while they’re still fresh.

Thought 1: Length, Structure and Storytelling

My biggest criticism of The Batman is that it’s too damn long. Goddammit Matt Reeves, I have things to do with my day, and a 3 hour long movie (3.5 hours with all the trailers these days) is like a hippopotamus in the middle of the road. It’s large, and certainly something to look at but I’m still going to have to take a lot of time navigating around it. Anyway, yeah the movie is just about 3 hours long and to me that’s way too long. What’s more it has some odd pacing problems. I’d almost say it has the National Treasure problem in that characters are constantly presented with clues and puzzles which take just about an entire scene to resolve. There’s constantly something going on in the story. If the main narrative isn’t progressing than one of the two or three subplots is being filled out. Ergo there’s a lot of plot points being set up and a lot of plot points being paid off constantly.

I’ve seen other reviews comparing this to the structure of a streaming TV show, and I totally understand that. Netflix, Hulu and other series have been producing unedited 12 hour long movies as TV shows for years now so it makes sense that some of that influence would start flowing back the other way. But for reasons that will make sense later on in this essay, The Batman’s structure reminded me more of a comic book story arc. See, the meat and potatoes of modern superhero comics these days are serialized story arcs that usually last about 3 to 6 issues. With names like “Batman: Cold Days,” or “X-Men: Frankenstein’s Murder Circus,” (both real storylines) these self-contained stories are often part of a much larger overarching story or examination of the character. And that’s sort of what The Batman felt like to me. Firstly, this isn’t an origin story. The movie assumes that you know who Batman, Catwoman, Commissioner Gordon, and Alfred are. It takes some time to introduce the movie’s main villains but they’re also all Batman mainstays so there’s very little lingering. What’s more, the movie ends (spoiler) with a very big shift in the status quo that leaves the protagonist questioning his mission and resolving to change and a teaser for villains to come in future stories. The Batman still pretty much works as a self-contained story, but it really works if you look at it as issue #5 through #12 of the Matt Reeves run on Batman.

Thought #2: Fan Service and Fandoms

Goddamn, Matt Reeves really likes Batman comics. This is a Batman movie by Batman fans for fans of the caped crusader. There are so many narrative and stylistic choices that only really make sense once you realize that it’s probably a shout out to one of the creator’s top five Batman comics. Why does The Riddler leave notes for Batman in greeting cards? Because it’s a oblique reference to the popular “Batman versus creepy serial killer” comic The Long Halloween. Why is The Riddler targeting the elites of Gotham and working to unveil a family secret of The Wayne Family? Because if you squint at it from a certain angle, that storyline looks a lot like the popular Batman comic Hush from the early 2000s. Heck, the photography recalls Clay Mann’s artwork on Tom King’s recent Batman run, and even features some dialogue beats that could’ve been lifted from that same run. The movie’s actually quite funny in some places and in often quite surprising ways. Whether its a CSI awkwardly scooting around Batman at a crime scene or The Penguin berating Batman and Gordon for not knowing the difference between el and la in Spanish, the movie knows how to cut the tension with a laugh. It’s also worth noting that some of the best reviews I’ve see of this movie haven’t come from film critics, but from comic book creators, writers and artists alike.

In short, at the risk of repeating myself, this is a Batman movie for Batman fans. And I’m very worried about that notion. See, for the last 25+ years, superheroes have been way more popular in films, TV shows and cartoons than they have been in comics. Part of that is because those mediums force the creators to be simple and straightforward in their delivery. Meanwhile, ever since comics moved from the magazine rack to the comic shop, they’ve become more and more insular as time goes on. As a result, practically nobody reads superhero comics anymore and the books have basically turned into a testing ground for ideas that will eventually be adapted into a big movie or TV show. Now, The Batman is in an interesting place because its subject matter is one of the most popular characters in modern pop mythology. There have been no less than five actors to play the character in my lifetime. His primary villain got a spinoff movie that was nominated for Oscars a couple years back. He’s been the subject of multiple era defining animated series. Batman is the rare character to have transcended comic books. So, The Batman is still casting a pretty wide net. But I don’t like what it represents as a potential future for comic book movies. For Pete’s sake, we’ve already got a multiverse going on in the MCU and I don’t like the look that DC is giving to the very same concept. I don’t want more complex meta-storytelling in superhero movies. I don’t want to have to explain the concept of Earth-2 or Hyper Time to my parents and/or significant other when we go see the next Justice League movie. I’m a fan of these things, but I want to see the best versions of these things. That is, I want them streamlined and unburdened by the bloat that haunts their comic book counterparts.

All that being said, this movie certainly has….thoughts about the type of people who actually would be fans of masked vigilantes if they really existed. I don’t want to spoil the specific plot details, but this movie came up with an….interesting answer as to where someone like The Riddler might find henchmen. It’s the payoff to a thematic arc in the movie that I sort of wish was explored more fully. It’s also the most recent in a long line of ideas that I think fail in the context of a mass market superhero movie. The problem though is expanding on these themes might lead to suggesting that maybe a man dressing up as a bat to fight crime and ease his emotional scars could be a bad thing. See that’s the problem with trying to write a more “gritty” superhero adaptation. Superheroes are inherently fantastical. Bringing them down to our level with grim and gritty storytelling is all fine and good, but you have to be clear eyed and realistic about these things. That’s often why these sort of realistic deconstructions are self-contained and have a conclusive ending. But The Batman wants to be a franchise so Robert Pattinson can’t realize the error of his ways and put away the mantle of Batman. Instead, he’ll just go about it in a slightly less vengeful and terrifying way, I guess.

Thought #3: I’m tired of the grit.

It’s worth noting that this is the first Batman movie I’ve seen in theaters where Bruce Wayne is younger than I am. Part of that is because the creators made a conscious effort to make him a younger man, in his mid-to late twenties. Another factor is that I am a human creature and cannot stop the march of time. I’ve seen at least five live action Batman movies in theaters and each one has started with the same goal: make it darker and make it more grim. A lot of this ethos has to do with the still lingering fallout of Joel Schumaker’s films, namely Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. Those movies were loud, bold, brash and above all campy. They also weren’t particularly good, being far too reliant of stunt casting and outlandish acting over basic plot structure. Unfortunately, the lesson that fans and creators alike seemed to take away from this wasn’t “avoid gimmicky celebrity casting and focus on the fundamentals of storytelling,” but instead “colors, camp and fun are bad in Batman movies.” As such, those films left such a crater in the zeitgeist of Batman fans that it feels like we’ve spent the last 25 years running from 1997’s Batman and Robin. And I gotta say my legs are sore from all that running.

The Batman is bascially the best possible swing that I can imagine someone taking at the idea of a grimy and gritty Batman movie. It’s a movie with Batman in it, but its also a neonoir thriller that was clearly influenced by films like Seven, Zodiac, The Departed, and the rest. Almost the entire movie is shot in black, sepia, and red to the point that the blue-hot engine of the Batmobile actually stood out as a surprise. This isn’t a film where The Penguin is a beak-nosed, bird-obsessed gangster with an array of gadget-based umbrellas. No, he’s just an overweight gangster with a limp who runs a club that happens to share a name with his hideout in the comics. To illustrate my point, I’d like to draw your attention to this page from the short story “When is a Door,” by no less than Neil Gaiman:

I love this page so much. Not just because I’m a sucker for a good 9-Panel Layout, but because its so rare that you see a comic that mourns the passage of the medium’s more wacky and goofy elements, especially from this era. But the sentiment of this page feels deeply ironic now, in hindsight. Because now even the Riddler is a Zodiac-inspired weirdo who’s murdering his way through Gotham’s elite. Paul Dano’s take on The Riddler was easily my least favorite thing about the movie. Not only does Dano himself play the character with an intensity that feels somewhere between self-parody and insulting to people with actual mental disorders, but the character feels so…played out. He’s the Riddler, but he’s dressed up as the Zodiac Killer, and he’s putting his victims in elaborate death traps like the Jigsaw Killer from the Saw movies and out of his costume he’s basically just playing Kevin Spacey’s serial killer from Seven. This is The Riddler! He should be robbing banks and leaving cryptic clues because of his gigantic ego. In Batman: The Animated Series the character was a slighted video game developer who felt he hadn’t been given enough credit (or proceeds) from his creations. He got his start as a villain by trapping his former business partner in a labyrinth based on the video game he created. That idea on its own has so much more life and vigor in it than Batman taking on yet another madman with a secret master plan. Even if it originally aired in 1992 (holy spit, it’s that old?!)

Like I said, Matt Reeves’ The Batman is basically the best possible version of this exact movie. Short of going into a full blown R-Rated movie (and for the love of God, don’t do that DC, please I beg of you, this is a children’s comic book character), I cannot see how you make a darker, grittier Batman movie. So maybe its time we start looking in another direction? And let me close out this essay with an appeal.

Thought #4: The Case for Robin

Robin the Boy Wonder is the secret X-Factor that has kept Batman exciting and relevant all these years. Batman needs a sidekick. Robin is the Watson to his Holmes, and the buddy to his cop movie. Batman needs a sounding board, and while this movie features Jeffrey Wright as the best Jim Gordon, and Andy Serkis as….an Alfred, there’s no replacing the kid in bright red and yellow tights. Robin is also an interesting character in his own right, or rather in their own rights because there’ve been multiple characters to take on the mantle. Look, DC let me put it to you like this. Did you see what Marvel did with Tom Holland and Spider-Man? How they basically made him Robert Downey Jr.’s sidekick for two and a half movies and everyone loved him? You could be doing that! Except better because Robin is already Batman’s sidekick!

You can literally pick any one of the five Robins and you’ve got a hit on your hands. You’ve got Dick Greyson for the classic, Burt Ward flavor of partner. Do you want Batman and Robin to have a slightly more antagonistic relationship? That’d be Jason Todd for you. Do you want a Robin who is as smart as Batman and actually seeks him out and asks for the role? Tim Drake is your man. Do you want Batman to have a son who is a ninja assassin by the age of 9? That’d be Damian Wayne. Do you want a girl to play Robin? Stephanie Brown is waiting in the wings. Heck if you want to switch things up, there’s always Duke Thomas, aka The Signal, a brilliant young teenager that Batman took in a few years ago and who is pointedly not a Robin (though not for lack of trying) but a cool character in his own right. Apparently DC is already making a Batgirl movie, so you clearly realize that Batman has a supporting cast. I’m just saying, I’m tired of grim and gritty and the best way to alleviate that is to give Batman a much needed source of levity in the form of a teenage sidekick.

Conclusion

I think on balance I liked The Batman. If that’s not clear from this essay then I should reiterate that I thought it was good movie. I’m glad I spent money to go see it. The problem is that I’m not sure the things I disliked are what you would call “flaws” in the conventional sense. It’s more like this movie made a host of creative choices very early on in production that I don’t agree with. I like The Batman, but I don’t like the direction DC is taking this franchise in. There’s so much more you could be doing with this character. So much more rich history and mythology you could draw on. Why not a Batman heist movie? Bring in Etrigan the Demon for some magical shenanigans. We’ve established that Zoe Kravitz and Robert Pattinson have romantic chemistry so lets try a full-blown superhero romance. Batman courtroom drama? I’d watch it at least once. Batman versus the mastermind psychopath is done, it’s in the books. We can move on. I liked it. Now I’d like to see us go somewhere more interesting. He’s a rich kid with daddy issues who alleviates that pain by dressing up as a bat. I think we can have some fun with it.

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