Something In The Way
Rebuilding the Night, or, The Batman and Ethos
By now hopefully you've seen The Batman. I've seen it twice now and Matt Reeves' film stands a fantastic movie in its own right, and perhaps the most refreshing superhero movie in some time. Mostly because it actually understands its title character and lets the core elements of Batman shape its tone.
This post will contain spoilers. So this is your final warning.
SPOILERS FOR THE BATMAN
Image courtesy Warner Bros.
First, let's just say the movie is great. It is. The cast is entirely on point, with Robert Pattinson anchoring the movie as a superb Batman. Matt Reeves' atmospheric direction sets the tone fast and Greig Fraser's lush cinematography is unlike any other superhero film we've seen lately. The story is great, Paul Dano's Riddler is terrifying, and the hit-or-miss Michael Giacchino (love his Doctor Strange and Star Trek scores, been let down by his Spider-Man and Star Wars music) delivers perhaps the best Batman theme yet. Okay, I've gushed enough in general, let's talk about why this movie works as a Batman film.
Lately the “superhero genre” gets treated as a clearcut, check-the-boxes genre of movies. But it's more akin to Westerns, where plots, tones, locales and levels of violence and optimism vary depending on what is appropriate to the story. You can't say High Planes Drifter is indistinguishable from Stagecoach and you can't say The Batman is the same as Spider-Man: No Way Home. And thank goodness. The movie avoids any direct adaptation. There are elements of “Zero Year,” “The Long Halloween,” “Earth One” and other stories and adaptations, but no direct translation. The Batsuit isn't direct from the comics, nor is the Riddler's outfit. There are no attempts to recreate iconic shots, as Batman v Superman endlessly did with awkwardness. And yet the filmmakers drew from core elements of the character and 'verse to make something unmistakably Batman.
What surprised me after I saw The Batman the first time was that Reeves and Pattinson took all of the lazy, cliché “smart” takes about Batman and showed why they don't work. The end result is a Batman that feels true to the core of the character.
Matt Reeves has zeroed in on what makes Batman Batman: He's a Goth theater kid who is trying to save lives. Think about it. Batman is a nocturnal detective who relies on dramatic effect for the element of surprise and an edge. He wraps himself in black and broods. Batman is absolutely Goth. Yes, Batman has existed for 80 years, there have been so many different runs, so many different artistic depictions, people like what they like and I am not trying to invalidate anyone's favorite. But think about it, what is the core idea of Batman? He's haunted, trying to save lives, good with kids, and highly theatrical. When you break it down, Batman isn't some smug rich kid or some brutal, crazy buff guy; he's a goth theater kid. The theatricality, the moodiness, the emotional openess to other troubled people. That's Batman. And honestly, that's more interesting than the Zack Snyder/Frank Miller cool rich badass. There is so much more nuance and drama to explore.
Too often there's the joke that Batman is just a rich guy going out to beat up poor people. Listen, this newsletter will never stan for billionaires or defend wealth inequality. But to say that's what Batman does is missing a lot. And still, The Batman focuses on Bruce channeling his rage by going after gangs and robbers, but even then, he is trying to save people, as he does at the train station. He can't go after the big corruption or leaders simply because at first the corruption is hidden and Falcone (John Turturro) is just hidden away himself. If there's one glaring flaw, or offputting element with this depiction of Batman it's his black and white view of crime. The best scene in all of Nolan's Batman films—and those films are fantastic, even Rises you heathens—is early in Batman Begins when Bruce explains how in his travels he had to steal himself to avoid starving, and that showed how crime is not all malicious, how the weak and impoverished are criminalized and preyed upon. It's a tiny, brilliant scene that does so much to humanize Batman. In Reeves' film, Batman is much harsher and absolutist. It's a necessary choice for the otherwise fantastic arc they give him, but considering how much the film gets right about the character, it's disappointing. But by the film's end, Bruce has truly realized how powerful people exploit and prey upon the underprivileged. And Bruce ends the film focused on saving people, not beating people up. There's growth, and a rebuttal to the idea that he is doing this just for his kicks.
Then there's the argument of “why doesn't Bruce Wayne just give all his money away instead of dressing up like a bat?” Beyond the comics already showing him doing massive philanthropy alongside his Batman activities, this film has the late Thomas Wayne attempt that just before his death, a direct endowment fund meant to help the city. A truly clever plot point is that the red tape-free endowment got hijacked for corruption and bribes. Turns out oversight kind of is important. The film ends with Bruce clearly ready to do more in all capacities for the city, but it's going to take more than what Thomas Wayne did.
And as for the “cool” “correct” view that Batman is the true face and Bruce Wayne is the mask that everyone latches onto, the film shows why that is a mistake. The Riddler himself is so blinded by that assumption he can never figure out Bruce is Batman, despite having all of the clues, and Bruce himself is horrified at the assumption. One of the film's best moments is Bruce's bedside reunion with an injured Alfred where he realizes and embraces his own humanity and fears opening up his feelings to the one person he can be honest with. To call Batman the “true” persona is like claiming the goofy bumbling Clark Kent of the Daily Planet is the real Superman, not the one his parents and Lois see in private.
Beyond taking those lazy assumptions and twisting them into a strong narrative of growth, Reeves and co double down on a Gothic atmosphere. This isn't superspy militartistic brute Batman, but a creature of the night. It's rich and lush and although the film mostly avoids jump scares, it adds dread and terror to the movie. The constant rain also helps sell the vibe. The creature of the night aspect is something that largely was absent from Nolan's approach (and nonexistent in Snyder's). Batman cultivates the idea that he lurks in the shadows—every shadow—across Gotham. Criminals never know when or where he might emerge. When he does though, it's not with the ninja sneak attacks of Begins, but with a direct, brutal approach. Criminals dread encountering him; when they do he makes himself very real. This Batman broods in the shadows and has to work for his victories. After some films of him relying on high-tech gear and seemingly having every tool at his disposal, having a Byronic, working Batman is nice. Plus, the film doesn't shy away from Bruce's compassion, particularly to scared kids. Darwyn Cooke, who masterfully retold the launch of DC Comics' Silver Age in The New Frontier, had Batman say it best: “I set out to scare criminals, not children.” This film gets that.
It's been a rough go for the DC Comics films. Aquaman was a fantastic, adventurous, bold film that tried something new, but the rest of the Zack Snyder-related movies have been uneven (Shazam, Wonder Woman), or unengaging attempts at making its heroes infallible gods (Man of Steel, Zack Snyder's Justice League, basically any Snyder film). Hopefully after nearly a decade of misfires (save Aquaman which, again, ruled) we can see the rest of the DC heroes be lucky enough to receive the treatment Reeves gave The Batman.
Today's Panic Links
Continuing the topic of movies, you probably know I'm a big fan of David Robert Mitchell's Los Angeles neo-noir Under the Silver Lake. It's ambitious, incredibly thought out, has a killer soundtrack and is tapped into something in our times. I was on the Oddsplice podcast this week to talk about it. Check it out! It's an hour of Josh and I sounding slightly nuts as we accurately describe the film.
Also, I haven't mentioned it yet, but I co-host a podcast/YouTube series on James Bond and spy fiction with my good friend Adam Rosko. We've got a dozen episodes up so far, check out Other Fellas 007.
This past week was the 10-year anniversary of John Carter of Mars, a film I loved. For the 10th anniversary, director Andrew Stanton revealed in detail his plans for the unmade sequel John Carter and the Gods of Mars. It sounds fantastic. Is it Dune or Blade Runner 2049 or Wings of Desire? No. But it is a very well made adventure film. Shame we didn't get the sequels.
And on the subject of The Batman and Greig Fraser's fantastic visuals, here's a good video essay on how they made the film look so good.
Today's Panic Music
It has to be Nirvana's “Something In the Way.” It's been stuck in my head ever since I saw the movie. The song is hypnotic.