Film Review: “The Batman” — The Caped Crusader Battles Fascism
By Michael Marano
Matt Reeves’s The Batman features villains who lose their shit when faced with an African American politician whose campaign slogan is centered on “Change.”
Since Batman Begins, the climax of which had the head of a shadowy international organization hidden in the mountains of Central Asia trying to overthrow established social order by driving a multi-passenger transportation device into a skyscraper in the heart of major American city, movies about the Caped Crusader have centered on terrorism. Christopher Nolan’s triad of Ra’s al Ghul, the Joker, and Bane paved the way for Reeves’s Riddler, whose brand of terror is defined not by 9/11, but by January 6. Which maps nicely onto the psychology of The Batman’s takes on Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle (Catwoman). Terrorism has set the tone for their lives. They are very much millennial characters, people who bear traumas inflicted by 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq when they were kids. (In this updated origin iteration, Bruce’s parents are gunned down in November of 2001, the rubble of Ground Zero aflame.) Bruce and Selina harness this pain to become masked vigilantes … just in time to face QAnon dipshits and “incels” trying to reverse the results of an election against a Katrina-like backdrop.
I just wish The Batman had been a better movie.
By no means is The Batman a bad movie. I’ll probably see it a few more times, make no mistake. But it’s a hugely ambitious movie and it often falls short of these lofty ambitions. When The Batman succeeds, the results are mesmerizing. There’s a mind-blowing car chase. A nasty, French Connection-like grime you can taste. A subplot involving Gotham’s Mafia is, in a good way, right out of a Mario Puzo novel.
But much of The Batman just does not hold together. The plot is a decoupage. It knits together classic Batman comic book stories like the Long Halloween, Haunted Knight, and Dark Victory trilogy with Hush, Batman: Year One, No Man’s Land, and Batman: Ego. On top of that, The Batman tries to incorporate David Fincher’s Se7en and Zodiac; ’70s paranoia thrillers like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor; SAW, Silence of the Lambs, and even 1984. It’s not that all those elements collapse under their own weight. It’s that all those elements are too disparate to give The Batman the weight it needs.
It’s also unforgivable that there are two pivotal moments when two very smart people do incredibly stupid things just to move the plot forward. And, while The Batman goes to great lengths to play up Batman’s detective skills and for the most part does that very well, the unfolding of the mystery relies on more than one instance of “the found diary” trick, when the hero detective finds a handy record of crucial information left by other characters, rather than deducing that information.
These shortcomings are thrown into much starker relief by the almost unbearable glory of what The Batman gets right.
The performances are uniformly impressive. Robert Pattinson nails it, having previously played a shitty version of Bruce Wayne in Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis (much in the way Christian Bale had in American Psycho). The potential rottenness of Bruce Wayne is central to the character arc of The Batman; Wayne’s rich White Boy privilege is addressed directly, as is his weaponization of it. In the first part of the film Batman is a borderline fascist, spouting warmed-over Darkweb Troll Nietzscheanisms like “Fear is a tool!” and “I am the Shadows!” and “I am Vengeance!” His movement away from that, as he faces real Darkweb Troll fascists, is deftly handled and above all else, credible.
Yes, Catwoman is by definition a kinetic character, pulling off cool gymnastics while kicking bad guy asses. But Zoë Kravitz is best when she keeps her Selina Kyle still, doing more with her gaze and the set of her teeth than she does planting her boot into her opponents’ teeth. If you look up “weltschmerz” in the dictionary, Jeffrey Wright’s picture is there, and only Wright could play the Jim Gordon The Batman needs, so visibly sick of Gotham and its immoral sewage that getting help from a guy who dresses like a bat seems pretty sensible. Colin Farrell is having the time of his life, nearly unrecognizable under pounds of makeup as the Penguin, and his joy at being such a scuzzwad is deliciously infectious (as was his joy playing terrifying vampire Jerry Danridge in the remake of Fright Night). John Turturro plays mob boss Carmine Falcone with a restraint that is admirably creepy. And Paul Dano is pathetic as the Riddler — face mushy as oatmeal, his astigmatic eyes glinting like Templeton the Rat’s, which is exactly what you need from a guy who wields resentment and grievance as a cudgel.
Pattinson’s take on Batman and his turning from “Vengeance” and fascism (while using wealth, privilege, and vigilantism to do it) is a much-needed rebuke to the neo-fascists who’ve appropriate Batman and comic book iconography. Consider: Paul Miller, the now-incarcerated Far-Right activist who dressed up as the Joker and the Riddler for his live streams; the White Supremacists in Minneapolis who appropriated Bane’s line “The Fire Rises” as they drove with brandished weapons to a BLM protest, and the knuckle-walking January 6 “patriots” who, as they tried to foment a literal Civil War, stole the logo from Captain America: Civil War to put on their sweatshirts. The Batman owns these problematic takes on comic book culture, and counters them.
The catch, of course, is that the idiots the movie denounces will probably not get it, and will internalize all the wrong messages as they appropriate it. The rest of us can enjoy a pretty good superhero movie, despite its occasional dead spots and stumbles.
(PSA: Yes, this three-hour comic book movie has a “tag” at the very end of the credits, but it’s nothing earthshaking. The credits are long enough that you can probably go pee and duck back to your seat in time for it.)
For more than 30 years, novelist Michael Marano (www.michaelmarano.com) has been covering film for the nationally syndicated Public Radio Satellite System program Movie Magazine International, which airs in 111 markets in the US and Canada. He has provided film reviews and pop culture commentary for a variety of national publications, and Tweets at @MikeMarano