THE BATMAN. A Missed Opportunity?
The naive Batman with Adam West is now hard to perceive as anything other than a slapstick cartoon. Tim Burton’s Gothic Batmans are comic book tales dressed in costumes, stories of loneliness, grief, and despair. The campy Batman Forever and its infamous sequel seem to be slowly regaining favor. They prove that the Dark Knight does enjoy colors, and the city can be an amusement park rather than a breeding ground for addicts and suicides. Christopher Nolan’s “realistic” approach in the trilogy was a fresh start for the genre. It offered an ethically ambiguous view of the era of terror (when one becomes the oppressor and when the victim), reflecting societal fears and prevailing anxieties. In Zack Snyder’s films (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Zack Snyder’s Justice League), visual excess and the monumentality of images elevated superheroes to a fantastic, mythological order. Gods not of this world. Let’s not forget Todd Phillips’ gutter Joker, who (quite skillfully, but yes, on his knees before Martin Scorsese) brought Gotham City into slightly different cinematic realms.
It’s not about assessing quality, aesthetic preferences, or narrative simplicity or complexity. Each rendition can easily be labeled with a specific tag and a distinctive stylistic convention. However, popular culture does not tolerate a void. Batman is back once again. Not for the first time, not for the last. What kind of Gotham City and what kind of Caped Crusader does Matt Reeves bring us this time?
Batman (Robert Pattinson) has been active for only two years. His most significant achievements so far include causing chaos in the city, beating up a few petty criminals, and undoubtedly gaining popularity in the criminal underworld. In the prologue, Bruce explains in a deep, low voice in voiceover: “They say I hide in the darkness. That’s not true. I am the darkness.” It’s a bit lyrical and a bit pompous, but it’s certainly overly literal. Unfortunately, the first few minutes of Batman are symptomatic of the entire film. Matt Reeves provides ample time and space to express every thought, lay everything out in detail, discuss it a hundred times over, and repeat it. This applies to both conveying emotions and the not-so-clear handling of the main crime plot.
The plot begins when the Riddler (Paul Dano) appears in the city, a criminal from an entirely different league than Batman’s previous adversaries. The Riddler doesn’t beat around the bush and starts his murder spree with the city’s mayor. Each victim is accompanied by a puzzle and a letter addressed to Batman. The Riddler’s crusade has its motto, of course: “End the lies. It’s time to prove how corrupt and rotten Gotham City is, from ordinary cops to the highest city officials. It’s a somewhat derivative but valid motivation. Fine, so after the mayor, there will be more captives, more torture. The Riddler’s presence will become increasingly evident, but the film itself then seems to stall narratively. We get too few puzzle pieces to solve the mystery, and the repeated, similarly staged murder and torture sequences lose their impact. Shock the first time, shrug the fourth.
Unfortunately, Batman suffers from its own stillness. This is due to a slightly different vision of the Dark Knight, emphasizing his detective skills, the ability to analyze clues and leads. Matt Reeves too often simply places his characters in dimly lit rooms. They examine walls, floor marks, look at photos, and shine flashlights in corners. Initially, this is indeed a new proposal, but with repeated occurrences, it becomes monotonous. Batman is a rather heavy film, painstaking, requiring a lot of time to gain the right pace, and, perhaps most importantly, a clear direction. Many parts of the plot seem to rely on successive side quests rather than building a cohesive narrative.
Gotham City is constantly drenched in rain, a urban behemoth covered in clouds that don’t allow a single ray of sunlight to penetrate, perpetually shrouded in darkness. Piles of garbage on the sidewalks, chaotic apartments, stretching from the front door to the sink. And a serial killer playing cat and mouse with the detectives. It’s tempting to exclaim with enthusiasm that this is Batman in the world of Se7en, but such comparisons seem more valid in terms of aesthetics and location design. The murders don’t tidy up the narrative structure as in David Fincher’s crime thriller. Matt Reeves uses them for something else and takes them to a different place. If Batman is a thriller, it happens incidentally.
Batman is primarily about a tour of Gotham City, guided by an all-knowing narrator. From the cave and Bruce’s mansion to the ruined subway stations, dark alleys, and corners, Carmine Falcone’s club (John Turturro), the police precinct, or Arkham Asylum. I won’t deny Batman a few spectacularly directed and arranged sequences (a montage and cinematography showcase during the chase with the Penguin, a spectacularly composed final confrontation with Riddler’s army). Audiovisually, it’s undoubtedly top-notch. From the neo-noir lighting style to the detailed interior design, every seam of authentically looking costumes, every car horn from the depths of the street, to every strand of hair. Everything is tip-top.
However, it’s not enough every time. For three hours, Matt Reeves sets up pieces on the chessboard, takes us to the most important locations, and prepares the characters for the upcoming sequel a few years down the line. There’s not enough concrete intrigue here, and there’s too much expansive local vision. Nevertheless, every fan of high-budget superhero fare should find something in Batman for themselves.”