19 April 2022

First Impressions: THE Batman (But can they be quick please)

Last night I finally saw The Batman (2022). It was okay but maybe pretty good. I usually reserve these first impressions for films I see in theaters, and I am not proud of myself that those are typically just big superhero movies. I'm just feeding the machine, man! Whatever, they're still fun. Same with off brand impressions of movies I watch on HBOMax I guess. Let's get into the definite article Batman! Short this time! I mean, short for me. SPOILERS and Robin!

I thought the first ten minutes was terrible. It was extremely slow to start up and super boring. It did not catch interest at all. What I'd give for a clever bank heist or plan being hijacked. It was just R Patts talking about what all of Batman Begins (2005) did by showing. It was not great.

And to be sure, we'll be comparing a lot of this with previous entries. I hate to do it because I want a film to stand on its own merits, but when a character is in the spotlight to the extent this one is, it just feels inevitable. After the intro it picks up and gets into the characters. I liked the realistic treatment of his rogues' gallery as legit psychopaths and serial killers. The Riddler is terrifying in a good way. There is a line between Jim Carrey and Paul Dano (probably like most things, the Harley Quinn TV show did him best). But Dano is inspired casting, as is most everyone here, even if everyone  is an unusual choice. It almost all pays off. Even John Turturro, who I could only picture standing beneath an enemy robot's scrotum at the Pyramids is menacing as Carmine Falcone.

Gotham is very realized. There are shots that are blatantly Chicago and blatantly NYC, but it feels like it has a rich history, obviously of corruption, and it just exists as this almost parody noir of constant rain, crime, and agony. It's not easy to do, this city and these characters have been done so many times, very tough to find a fresh take, and I think largely they did so.

BUT I really like watching a newer, definitely shittier Batman. There is a lot of redundancy here, especially re: Batman Begins. I  don't know how you avoid that at this point, and it did as good as it's going to get. These movies are in dialogue with each other. Remember when Christian Bale escapes from the police station using a bat attracting gizmo? Pattison escapes by just fighting everyone. The best scene progression early on was him getting into the Iceberg Lounge by just knocking on the door and showing up as Batman. It felt like such an un-Batman thing to do. And the movie agrees! We watch him learn. The second time he arrives, he tricks a guard and slips in, locking the guard out. So totally a Batman move. Like, he's not good at being Batman yet. It reminded me of how Spider-Man: Far From Home (2021)'s ending revealed that all three Tom Holland movies were actually just one big origin story (while skipping the obvious origin that we know). It's all worthwhile - this is the same way, and it's more subtle and clever than a film like this would be twenty years ago. We more see a character origin, starting with someone unfamiliar to us and bringing us to the person we know.

Nolan's  Batman films always seemed to wrestle with justifying every single little thing. I get it, there's no way a man dressing up as a bat and fighting crime would ever make sense. In 2005 it was gratifying. In 2022 people just roll with it. This is by far a more grounded film (if that was even possible), with the exception that we are expected to just accept that Bruce Wayne is definitely a dude who dresses as a bat and beats up criminals. There's no deep reason or origin for this, and for the record, that's a good thing. The world seems to accept him, too. He just kind of hangs out with the cops and in clubs and stuff.

The soundtrack / score set the mood well. There's that one song from the trailers, it shows up a few times and captures the mood terrifically. It is also a dreary, terrible, rain drenched film, but it actually has a more colorful palette than a Zach Snyder movie. The score does sound like the Imperial March, but I give it a pass.

So, rough stuff - and right off the bat, jeez that length. It's sort of justified, but damn if a lot of the story threads aren't wrapped up at the 2 hr 6 minute mark (I checked) and it finds its way to give us another 41 minutes (then 9 of credits. I also checked.) of really wrapping up a single story thread, but not really any character development. That's maybe a stretch, it seems to take until the end for Batman to realize that he needs to be a symbol of hope in addition to vengeance, but there isn't an excuse of "every moment was needed!" in this one. And I do like films where the world is sincerely wrecked at the end without a solution. Again, Begins did this when Batman straight up did not save the Narrows and they presumably ripped each other apart with fear gas. But it just sort of ended. There's a nihilism there that I don't necessarily enjoy but I accept.

And that dreariness. I don't think there's a single wisecrack or bit of lightheartedness here. I get that that's a Marvel thing that gets a lot of backlash for some reason, but also, movies are allowed to breathe and have jokes. I feel as if after the Nolan movies we're scared to let Batman be funny, but at least 50% of his lifetime canon appearances are insane and campy and awesome.

I knew I was getting old when at one point I leaned over to my wife and said, "Say what you want about Batman & Robin (1997) but at least I could take our kids to that!" I just kept thinking about some poor dad on his afternoon with the kids and not really paying attention to what Batman has become in the past twenty years. That is the budding cranky dad in me so feel free to ignore that gripe.

We don't get a clear shot of Pattinson's face without make-up or a mask until 56 minutes in. I checked. I kind of liked that, this really is a movie about Batman and he is almost always in costume. To his credit, he does an insane amount of acting with just his eyes and face and he is a better Batman than George Clooney. But it does feel weird. I dig Pattinson as a dude who made Twilight money and now doesn't give less of a flip about anything and he's the right guy for this role.

Colin Farrell's Penguin is insane, I really couldn't see him at all in there. Not only the face make-up but the voice. The role is showy and he's interesting, but it's probably not really the stuff of Academy Awards, but shit if this doesn't win best make-up. It's insane. Zoey Kravitz is fine as Catwoman - I don't think Anne Hathaway gets enough credit for what she did in that role. We always go back to Pfeiffer, Newmar, Kitt, and Berry. This movie does not do well at all with the Bechdel test, by the way. I think Catwoman does talk to her Russian movie briefly about a not-man but it's not much. And she's bi, right?

Jeffrey Wright might be having a bit of a renaissance. This, What If..., and The French Dispatch (2021) all showcase flawless and drastically different performances. We always knew he was good, but I don't think we realized he was THIS good.

Thematically it seems like this is trying not to be a Chris Nolan "private authority is good" fest (and I sort of argue that by the end of The Dark Knight Rises [2012] that's not the case, but it's still awkwardly, "demagogues prey on your liberal sensibilities and cops need to restore order." It's not great), although that's all surface level. Batman works with the police unlike any other film, but he's clearly just a private citizen who's just able to do whatever he wants only because this random police lieutenant trusts him. There's a lot about systematic corruption and how we can't trust anyone, but also that there are good people working to change things.

Perhaps what I liked the most is how The Riddler and The Batman had the same exact motivation, and upbringing. Well, one was an orphan in a billionaire's tower, the other was in a hellish asylum. But they want the same things. The Riddler just lacks a moral compass and is willing to go far farther in literally cleansing the city. There might have been a sly environmental dig there, too. But this the kind of stuff I wish Morbius (2022) would learn - hero and villain can be similar, but the stories work so much better when they are just a few shades off ideologically and push their powers against each other creatively.

And yeah, the Riddler's powers are his ability to make riddles. That's still badass in this film, which FINALLY treats Batman like the World's Greatest Detective he is. Other films would do that, but it mostly involved Bruce putting evidence in the Batputer and it spitting out the answer. The Dark Knight (2008) did that a lot. Batman messes up a lot in this movie, and it's cool to see him actually work out a case. Him and Jim Gordon are like buddy cops at one point. It's pretty fun. But this elevates the Riddler pretty high, he's always been a notable rogue, but not at Joker or Bane level. This shows what he can do and what a true menace he can be, leading to city-wide destruction.

So I ended up enjoying this a lot, it is definitely not without its flaws, namely the length and grimness, but it's a well made movie for sure. Two bat wings up.

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