Sunday, June 19, 2022

White Knight: The Batman

Zoë Kravitz as Catwoman and Robert Pattinson as Batman in The Batman. (Photo: Jonathan Olley/Warner Bros.)

In his 1957 architectonic study Anatomy of Criticism, structuralist Northrop Frye sketches a taxonomy of literary heroes. Those of the Mythic mode, he argues, are gods: they’re superior in kind to other characters and to their environment. They defy the laws of nature and possess divine gifts. Examples include Zeus, Bacchus, and Shiva. In a tragic narrative, they die. In a comic one, they rejoin the heavenly realm. (The Christian narrative is neither tragic, nor comic, but ironic: Christ is crucified, yet raised to the Father on the third day.)

The heroes of the Romantic mode are superior to others and their environment only by degree. Their actions are marvelous, but they themselves are human beings. In tragedy, their deaths are elegiac and tied to the decay of the created order (think Beowulf). In comedy, they ride off into a pastoral setting (e.g., the cowboy in a Western).

Following this schema, contemporary superheroes dwell in a gray area between the Mythic and Romantic modes. Some, like Superman, are gods – different from us in kind. Others, like the X-Men, are mortals but possess mutations that give them supernatural powers. And still more, like Iron Man, don’t have genetic enhancements so much as advanced technology, making them more Romantic than Mythic.

Frye’s categories come in handy when you analyze cinema’s comic book universe since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002). Last December, sci-fi novelist Ted Chiang gave an interview to Ezra Klein at The New York Times in which he criticizes superheroes as a collection of reactionary elites. Elevated above us, they uphold justice, he admits, but their ethic amounts to a conservative one in which they punish social deviants and buttress the ancien régime:

The most popular superhero stories, they’re always about maintaining the status quo. Superheroes, they supposedly stand for justice. They further the cause of justice. But they always stick to your very limited idea of what constitutes a crime, basically the government idea of what constitutes a crime. Superheroes pretty much never do anything about injustices perpetrated by the state.

No protagonist stands on the receiving end of this charge more than Batman. The critique of Bruce Wayne as a right-wing plutocrat is well established by now, with his alter ego functioning as a fascistic figure and police stooge, obsessed with petty thugs. He sees Gotham as sunk to the criminal underworld, a chaotic society polluted by filth, in need of purification through cleansing violence. Instead of using his inheritance to address the roots of social pathologies, he reclines like a hedge fund hipster at his mansion when not moonlighting as a masked vigilante.

There’s an element of truth to this line of attack. But when we keep in mind Frye’s declensions, it yields a more charitable view. Unlike other superheroes, Batman belongs to the Romantic mode, of a piece with the rest of us. He’s separated only by his access to material resources that allow him to exert greater control over his environment. And more often than not, his creators depict him as a kind of anti-hero, trapped by his privilege and compulsively driven by the trauma of seeing his parents murdered as a boy. In other words, they humanize Wayne. We see him as a wounded warrior and understand his explosive behavior as displaced grief.

Many critics hailed Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy for projecting this more complicated vision of the Wayne world. It certainly wanted to do this. But the Christian Bale saga was undone by Nolan’s inability to co-write, direct, and edit movies with any semblance of coherence. With their punishing soundtrack and preening ambitions, the films drowned in a sea of scrambled narratives, inaudible dialogue, and preposterous social thought experiments. The action sequences were unintelligible to the human eye, the plots a labyrinth to nowhere.

With The Batman, director Matt Reeves succeeds in large part where Nolan failed. Not only does he build Wayne a convincing road to the ironic, socially conscious character that Chiang demands; he also reinvents Batman’s conceptual universe in the process. Reeves announced himself as a major talent with his work on the Planet of the Apes reboot, especially 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. In those films, Andy Serkis plays the simian leader Caesar, and Reeves combines iconic imagery, epic sequences, and writing both mythic and humanist. He uses landscapes to develop characters as classic westerns do, and grounds the narrative in the tender, doomed relationship between Caesar and his human friends.

Reeves brings this same sensibility to the comic-book material. Working with Australian cinematographer Greig Fraser (who also shot last year’s Dune, 2014’s Foxcatcher, and 2016’s Lion), the American Reeves co-wrote the script alongside Peter Craig. The writers transform the billionaire bachelor from the suave, debonair playboy we know into a reclusive loner. They bring a grunge aesthetic to the picture, with Wayne (Robert Pattinson) as a Kurt Cobain figure, his features pallid and his manner bruised. In fact, Reeves cues up Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” as Wayne tools around Gotham on his motorbike after fighting hoodlums on Halloween. With its dragging beat, cryptic lyric, and nihilist mood, the song paints its singer as a social outcast who cohabitates with feral animals under a bridge. Not your typical heroic portrayal. But exactly right for a cave dweller with bats for kin. 

Robert Pattinson as Bruce Wayne in The Batman.

The story finds young Bruce two years into his career as the Caped Crusader, and he narrates his nocturnal surveillance of the city with an existentialism that evokes Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver (1976). When mayor Don Mitchell, Jr. (Rupert Penry-Jones) is murdered in his own home, Police Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) brings Batman to the crime scene, to the displeasure of the other cops. They discover Mitchell’s head wrapped in duct tape and a riddle left behind. Batman solves it, but after the commissioner (Alex Ferns) winds up dead, too, he and Gordon careen down an elaborate trail of clues to find the serial killer. The road takes them into the heart of Gotham’s criminal syndicate, led by the kingpin Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) and his underling, Oz (Colin Farrell, beneath layers of prostheses), also known as Penguin. 

As he decodes the clues that the killer called the Riddler leaves in his bloody wake, Batman discovers that the DA (Peter Sarsgaard), the cops, and other public officials not only consort at Falcone’s nightclub but are on the gangster’s payroll. Along the way, he encounters the Catwoman: Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), a waitress at the club whose roommate, Annika (Hana Hrzic), was ominously disappeared by Falcone, Selina believes. To his surprise, he finds Selina engaged in the very vigilantism he practices.

The plot is dense and detailed, culled from film noir and police procedurals. Reeves builds a real world for his characters, something Nolan (after his first movie) gave up on. Gotham stands forth as at once familiar and alien. The director emphasizes the sleuth side of Batman, with the visual palette (deep blacks, torrid reds, orange sunrises) and gritty images building on the look of classic Warner Brothers pictures. Reeves excels at visual composition, using a chiaroscuro style in the interior scenes and placing his actors in the frame with an arresting eye. The images serve the dialogue and underscore dramatic points he conveys meaning by what he shows as much as by what is said. The film opens with the killer spying on Mitchell through his window via a scope, a reference to Hitchcock’s voyeur motif. The murderer is also derived from the real-life Zodiac Killer, with ciphers and symbols decorating the crime scenes. When Batman finally unmasks the man, he looks akin to Jeffery Dahmer.

The lost child constitutes the film’s chief thematic motif. Wayne carries a chip on his shoulder from the deaths of his parents, and he sympathizes with similar sufferers. Selina, too, carries a tragic parental past, making her a kindred spirit with Batman. When Wayne, in costume, visits the Mitchell crime scene, he spots the mayor’s young son in a parlor and lingers on the child’s face. Later, at the funeral, he saves the boy from a runaway car sent in by the Riddler. The killer is also motivated by his neglected state: he lived in an orphanage financed by the Waynes’ Renewal Initiative, but saw it shuttered after Thomas’s death when city officials raided its coffers for themselves. Embittered, he seeks revenge on the establishment for kicking him and other kids to the drug-infested streets.

The theme of abandonment ties these personal stories to the political one. Riddler’s brief is that Gotham’s corrupt order has forsaken its charges, like a bad parent. He sees Batman as an avenging angel who, like him, wants to drain the swamp. In this respect, the movie channels the anti-elite mood of contemporary American politics. But he misreads the man. Bruce Wayne for all his heavy-handed enforcement—desires to fix the system, not destroy it. The Riddler, on the other hand, adopts the anarchic tactics of armed militias, inspiring copycats who will finish the work he started. It’s the difference between right-wing libertarianism and liberal reformism. Batman believes in good government the Riddler in no government.

As a piece of direction and editing, the film is an accomplished feat. Reeves deploys dozens of inventive shots, the frames flashing before you in a curated, dynamic display. He achieves several cinematic coups, like a car chase in which the Batmobile explodes through a fireball as Wayne hunts down Oz. The blood drains from the villain’s pot-marked face as he glimpses the wheeled missile through his mirror. A money shot follows as Batman stalks up to Oz’s desiccated wreck, the image of the Dark Knight inverted, a geyser of flame illuminating his form as rain slashes down. Likewise, when Batman skydives off a high-rise to elude the police, Reeves captures his flight in a series of Gatling-gun shots from multiple angles, including some from first-person point of view. At the same time, he keeps his hero human: Wayne botches the landing, crashing hard and staggering to his feet with moans. The movie marries these sequences with a titanic score from Michael Giacchino, which builds the dramatic tension with just two chords that crescendo to the breaking point.

Robert Pattinson (centre) and Jeffrey Wright in The Batman.

At three hours, the film has epic ambitions. You find yourself riveted by the Riddler’s game of cat and mouse, and Reeves’s visual poetry always captivates the eye. Still, the pace tries your patience; you wish Reeves had compressed the internal speed of the scenes. And it must be said that, for a movie this long, it’s curiously underwritten. Many of the supporting characters aren’t rounded. This holds for Gordon and, especially, Bella Reál (Jayme Lawson), a progressive official running for mayor. For the political aspect of the thriller to work, Reeves and Craig need to flesh out her backstory and give her more encounters with Wayne. As it is, when she becomes the victim of the Riddler’s most diabolical plot, you don’t have the required emotional investment.

On that score, the film doesn’t give you as much of Wayne’s anti-social lifestyle as you want. Serkis takes on the role of Alfred, Wayne’s faithful batman, his gnarly face somehow right for the aesthetic. He warns Bruce that his double life will drive him to collapse and there’s a heartfelt exchange between the two of them when Alfred’s life, too, is threatened. But, again, their relationship isn’t filled to the needed degree. With his cool, reptilian exterior, Turturro frightens you as Falcone he adds an element of menace out of the most gripping gangster films. Kravitz has impossible cheek bones and makes for a deft, punk Catwoman; she and Pattinson exude sexual tension, their fight numbers laced with kinky overtones. In one scene, she wears a pair of amplified contact lenses to Falcone’s club that relay the visuals back to Wayne a bit of Bond thrown in that you want more of. Farrell, as Oz, is hardly recognizable under the makeup he looks and sounds like Joe Pesci, a feat of ventriloquism. And Sarsgaard is appropriately spineless as DA Colson.

As the headliner, Pattinson brings a vulnerability and brooding intensity to Batman we’ve not seen before. Michael Keaton’s charismatic turn in the original pictures matched Tim Burton’s Gothic inventiveness. But none of the other takes from Val Kilmer’s to George Clooney’s to Ben Affleck’s made a positive impression. Pattinson channels the American tradition of sensitive pugilists like Joe Bonaparte in Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy (1937) and Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront (1954). He also exudes an introverted masculinity akin to Montgomery Clift. I’d not paid him much notice since his breakout role in the Twilight saga, but here he commands attention.

With his Goth makeup, he carries a hint of the vampiric from the Twilight part, and his coiled rage attracts and repels at the same time. His screen combat is both beautiful—every strike is precisely choreographed and brutal. You feel the body blows, see his scars, wince at the punishment he meets out. Even the people he rescues look aghast at his wrath. During the Halloween scene at the film’s outset, he whips a pack of assailants so savagely (“I’m vengeance,” he bellows, when they ask his name) that their would-be victim begs him for mercy. 

In this way, the movie introduces the kind of self-critique that Batman’s dissenters might appreciate. As Wayne moves through the world of Gotham from its operatic cathedrals to its pulsating nightclubs he learns that his brand of retributive justice has limits. His anger, however righteous, undermines other virtues. He realizes that the city wants a leader, not just an avenger a leader in solidarity with them. In one mesmeric image, he emerges from floodwaters with a red flare and leads the city’s stricken masses to safety.

Bruce’s humility builds as he comes to learn that he’s part of the very fallen system he battles against. His epiphany that Gotham’s corrupt state stems, in part, from the parents he idolized awakens him from his crude moral vision: the line between good and evil goes through his own heart. City Hall, with its mobbed-up pols, is the real den of iniquity. The freaks he hunts are merely court jesters who reveal uncomfortable truths. His task: clean up the machine, don’t rage against it.

At the end, Catwoman invites him to skip town and bust up some Yuppies with her (a line that’s a little on the nose). She makes for an alluring sidekick, and part of you roots for him to take the offer. But he demurs, motoring like a wraith past a graveyard in the mist. He permits himself a ruminative glance back, then sallies forth. This is the champion for democracy that Chiang desires. Whether, in Reeves’s promised sequels, he leads the revolution remains to be seen.

– Nick Coccoma is a writer and culture critic. His newsletter, The Similitude, is available on Substack and you can follow him on Twitter @NickCoccoma. His essays on movies, religion, and politics have been featured in Full-Stop Magazine, New Politicsand The Washington Examiner. A native of Cooperstown, NY, he studied theatre, philosophy, and theology at the College of the Holy Cross and Boston College. He lives in Boston, where he's worked as a teacher, hatter, and chaplain.

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