A Fincheresque Hellscape
As tempting as it may be to try and review this as a standalone piece of work, it has proven to be near impossible to discuss The Batman without comparing it to that of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Much of this has a great deal to do with the influence Nolan’s trilogy has had on the franchise as a whole. The interpretation of the caped crusader depicted between 2005 and 2012 set the benchmark for the sorts of things you can do within the world of Gotham. Any attempt at recreating Bruce Wayne’s universe since the culturally perceived “definitive” version came into being was always going to warrant a comparison of sorts. How can any of us watch Reeve’s take without comparing it to the version that rewrote the rulebook? Try as we might, the truth is, we can’t.
Aesthetically, a version of Nolan’s Gotham bleeds from the world Reeves presents us with here, particularly that of the metropolis as presented to us in Batman Begins (2005). The grubby, cluttered, malnourished Manhattan lookalike we saw 17-years prior is revived from the dead. Unlike Zack Snyer’s prior attempts, Reeves doesn’t seem to be about aggressively rebuilding this franchise’s world from the ground up. The reset button may have been hit, yet the general architecture of Begins remains somewhat intact. Reeves appears quite content with acknowledging and applying various visual aesthetics from Nolan’s universe. Had Nolan’s subsequent The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Rises (2012) not followed on from Batman Begins, you could go so far as to pretend this film functioned as a long awaited follow on; albeit with a recast Wayne. At least this is certainly the case from a visual standpoint. The moment we begin to examine the text on a deeper level, comparisons between Nolan and Reeve’s worlds quickly begin to unravel.
In terms of genre, narrative execution and pacing, this film is an entirely different beast from that which came before. Though we can credit Nolan for adding an aura of intelligence to the franchise, his films were still, by and large, big spectacle blockbusters built around extravagant set pieces. Batman Begins may have been an exercise in origin construction and character assessment, but that didn’t prevent it from bringing out the fire works when required. This was especially the case for its sequels, which continued to dial up the stakes until we had the apocalyptic insanity caused by Bane and his goons back in 2012. The Batman (2022) on the other hand, largely rejects the Hollywood’s usual standards. Even when we do get tentpole action sequences, Reeves’ decision to shroud much of them in tight angled, claustrophobic closeups makes for a feature that feels remarkably small scale and intimate. For a film that cost $200 million, it’s quite astonishing just how low key this movie chooses to go.
Whereas most films within the superhero genre have often preferred to go down the road of heroes punching villains and villains bombing buildings, The Batman opts to focus its attention on delivering what feels more like a political and psychological thriller. David Fincher’s Se7en (1995) and Zodiac (2007) are the first two features that spring to mind when watching this. A slow, subtle, mood-driven and intense piece of work containing an intelligent-yet-grotesque serial killer taunting the protagonist throughout. Batman is a detective navigating his way through a hellish landscape, finding himself squared up against an antagonist that will force him to confront his own legacy and place within a world lacking morals. We’re not in the usual fantasy realm in which god-like protagonists kick the stuffing out of their adversaries. This universe feels more vulnerable, more confusing, and more dangerous than the sorts of places offered to us in its Marvel counterparts. Reeve’s Gotham is an unappealing nightmare; one that will haunt you for days after you’ve exited the cinema.
Much like Fincher’s body of work, The Batman is all about setting the scene. Perhaps that’s why Reeves has opted to model his Gotham after one audiences already recognise. He’s giving us a familiar world, only for him to then take us a little deeper into that landscape. As we venture through the guts of Falcone’s criminal underworld, deep into the bowels of the mob’s nightclubs within nightclubs, we are introduced to the icky innards of a space we thought we understood from previous adaptations. Sin and corruption run deep within the bones the city is built upon. No one is safe from the tangled web of crime asphyxiating this poisoned megalopolis. Even the Wayne legacy isn’t capable of escaping it. If you thought you knew how unethical and twisted Gotham could be, wait till you get a load of this.
A lot of this is intended to set the stage and depict a world brimming with characters and backstory. Gotham functions more like a backdrop here. It’s a living, breathing character. One with its own past and space within the Batman franchise. Every shot is full of life and history. Even the shelves of Edward Nashton’s (The Riddler’s) apartment depict a world’s worth of literature dedicated to the backstory of this universe. There’s a depth and authenticity to these places that reaches far beyond the confines of its hefty 176-minute runtime. Considering we’re getting a couple more movies set in this universe, not to mention some spin-off material over on HBO Max, I guess it’s safe to say the film is doing a spot of preparation for upcoming features.
Though hints of Nolan’s take of Gotham linger upon The Batman’s veneer, look a little deeper, and a much different creature lurks behind its decorative qualities. This isn’t a sizzling firework display, but a deep furnace growling from amidst the darkness. Each scene moves carefully, plotting and painting a grim hellscape populated by insane monsters and soulless fools. Though gunfights and punch-ups are indeed present, don’t expect them to serve as the primary attraction. Much like Michael Giacchino’s score, expect a brooding journey that progressively fashions itself into a terror-stricken monument as the runtime progresses.
Privilege and Power
Much like a lot of superhero folk lore, The Batman’s source material carries something of a problematic legacy when we consider its political undertones. Comedian Reginald D Hunter perhaps put it best, when back in 2008, during an appearing on the BBC political gameshow, Have I Got News for You (1990-present), he referred to Batman as a “conservative’s wet dream”. His reasoning for reaching this conclusion is that Batman choses to use his vast wealth and resources not to go after the Trumps or Murdocks of this world, but to beat up the guys on the street who have little control over the many crime syndicates dominating Gotham’s corrupt infrastructure.
Though played for laughs, Hunter’s point strikes at the crux of the problem when it comes to Batman as a whole. At its core, it’s a story about a highly resourceful and fortunate human who often finds himself fighting the disposed, mentally unstable members of society who’ve been groomed by murderous crime lords, some of whom work within the very authorities designed to protect the city. Other problems include framing various villains as anarchists (the Joker) and anti-capitalists (Bane in Rises), hinting at a wider subtextual rejection of left wing politics. While I’m not going to try and defend the actions of killers like the Joker or Bane, there is an underlying privilege to this superhero that does occasionally bubble to the surface when adapting these stories for the big screen.
The Batman choses to address the underlying privilege at the heart of its source material, going so far as to even hint at a corrupt and less-than-perfect image to assigned to that of the Wayne legacy. Though made ambiguous through an assortment of differing viewpoints, Reeves alludes to a version of the Wayne’s family history that suggests a rotting core populated with cover ups and corruption festering deep within the trunk of this particular family tree. The Riddler even goes so far as to target Bruce Wayne during his killing spree, resentful and sickened that such a character is pitied when similar tragedies are left unreported when they belong to less financially well-off families.
The film does not frame Nashton in a sympathetic or likeable manner at any stage, and for good reason. He’s depicted as your standard incel loser, the sorts we get in the real world who try to frame themselves as victims despite the atrocities they commit. Had Reeve’s decided to bring out the violins for this particular type of antagonist, it would have generated a whole heap of issues that would have made this movie problematic in an entirely different kind of way. Framing a character like Nastons’s Riddler as an enemy of the rich and powerful could been seen as the franchise painting yet another anarchist figure as an evil monster. Yet, as is often the case with many good political thrillers and detective novels, Edward Nashton creates something a little different. He’s a pathetic, violent monster who deserves zero sympathy, yet one that plants an uncomfortable question in our minds that we can’t quite unroot.
Themes of privilege and power stem right across the spectrum of antagonists and protagonists driving The Batman’s narrative forward. Perhaps the most interesting is the character perched at the moral centre of the good/bad spectrum. Much like Wayne and Nashton, Selina Kyle (aka Cat Woman) is another orphan whose fate was largely sealed by the circumstances she was born into. Though her father was outlandishly rich, she was raised in a poverty-stricken environment. She was forced to raise herself in tragic circumstances, not having access to the same power, resources and influence Wayne had at his side. Though she has not become the self-entitled monster Nashton moulded himself into, she expresses a moral empathy toward his motives. She too sees Nashton’s enemies – including the Wayne family – as tentacles belonging to the hydra of corruption perched at the heart of Gotham.
Selina Kyle, in many ways, becomes the moral centre of The Batman in a way that the likes of Bruce Wayne or Edward Nashton could ever be. She isn’t the product of a lucrative empire, nor is she protected by the fortunes of her parents. At the same time, her misfortune hasn’t caused her to become the sort of anti-socialist figureheads a lot of these film’s villains often become. Her distance from Wayne’s privilege, not to mention her detachment from the good/evil paradigm that motivates heroes and villains to clash allows her to critique from the sidelines. Her detachment from both the interests of Bruce Wayne and Edward Nashton put her in the interesting position of becoming the film’s voice. She is essentially Matt Reeves’ answer to giving Edward Nashton’s viewpoint some weight without having to resolt to siding with him at any point in the narrative. In many ways, she crystallises the film’s central themes regarding power, corruption, privilege and the relationship between each of these three characteristics.
Whereas The Batman doesn’t quite give us a revolutionary reworking of Bruce Wayne’s privileged position, it is capable of bringing the problems embedded within its source material to the forefront. A lot of what we see here has been touched upon before, perhaps most notably during 2019’s Joker, which presented Thomas Wayne as an unpleasant, Trump-like billionaire whose values fizzle away whenever the cameras stop rolling. After many years of framing Bruce’s family as tragic beats to aid sympathy for its hero, a subtle shift is starting to take place. In 2022, when the real world has been bombed, butchered and burned by billionaires too selfish to do the right thing, it makes sense to transition the wealthy white men from philanthropic saviours into something with a more sinister edge.
None of this is going to radicalise how we see and understand Batman as a concept, although it might get us thinking more about whether or not Wayne’s fortunes and the past they play in funding a city built upon an infrastructure of corruption and exploitation.
By extension of The Batman’s somewhat more critical take on the protagonist’s bloodline, we get a version of Bruce Wayne that’s a little less polished than previous cinematic iterations. The Wayne of Reeve’s universe isn’t donning the same charming-yet-lazy playboy from Nolan’s line of Dark Knight work. The interpretation delivered by Robert Paterson is a detached, awkward, scared and somewhat peculiar shell of a man. Watching Bruce interacting with the world without his notorious suit paints the picture of a man who’s been detached from society for quite a long time. A lost soul, consumed by an obsession and traumatised by his past.
Nolan’s Batman Begins went out of its way to flesh out Bruce Wayne’s motives and pain by whisking his audience back into the past. This time, we don’t quite get the same visual presentation into the character’s earlier years. The most notable reason for this is that we don’t need it. Much like Marvel Studio’s take of Peter Parker in Spider-Man: Homecoming, common knowledge dictates the audience consuming this text is already well versed in the origins. Seeing as Batman Begins presented one of the most comprehensive origins for Wayne, retreading even a fraction of that story would be considered wasted energy.
This leaves ample room for Reeve’s and Patterson to try out something a little different. If the question of how Bruce Wayne becomes Batman has already been answered, why not ask what becoming Batman may do to Bruce Wayne. This is essentially the angle we get in The Batman; a story in which its main protagonist is an alien barely clinging to the society he was raised in. The hellish Metropolis he calls home has taken so much from him, resulting in him retreating to his cave where he’s fashioned a crime-fighting alter ego with a fondness of dressing up as a bat.
During an interview Patterson gave to The Guardian back in January of this year, the actor explained that his approach to playing this character was to see him as a man with a yearning to murder. “There is this rule with Batman: he must not kill” Patterson mused. “It can be interpreted in two ways. Either he only wants to inflict the appropriate punishment, or he wants to kill and his self-control prevents him from doing so.” Bruce Wayne, in Patterson’s opinion, was a man who had to impose a no-kill rule on himself, because if he didn’t, he may give into an urge bubbling beneath the surface of his skin. After all, most of us manage to go through life without having to write the words “don’t murder” on our noticeboards. The fact Wayne has to impose sanctions on his own actions suggests a monster lurks somewhere behind those eyes.
A less glamorous and emotionally warm interaction of Wayne gives us a man at war with himself. Whenever we see him out of his suit in The Batman, he doesn’t appear noble or in control, he looks like a man who has just been kicked out of a nightclub at 6am. He stumbles and falls about the place, his hair tangled and intruding in his line of sight.
Admittedly, the film doesn’t give us a huge helping of a non-suited Wayne, choosing to utilise most of his three-hour screen time to show off his swanky new batsuit. The glimpses that we do get of Bruce Wayne as a person, however, depict a disturbed and fascinating man. I hope that as Reeves continues to flesh this world out in future instalments, he takes the ideas he’s laid out here into interesting territory. Who is this Bruce Wayne, does his sliding sanity run the risk of him turning into something more sinister, and is he too far gone to be pulled back from the abyss?
The Batman is quite a surreal piece of work when you remind yourself that it’s a $200 million blockbuster. After years of packaging mainstream entertainment as big, noisy, colourful firework displays, to be delivered an expensive looking retelling of a David Fincher thriller is almost impossible to believe. For all the spectacle and kinetic madness populating most mainstream features, here we get a film that realise almost entirely on mood, character, musings on the relationship power has with corruption, and mystery to drive it’s narrative forward.
This is an almost flawless example of what total creative control within a large scale production looks like. It’s not trying to tick boxes or please the masses. Its primary focus is to establish a tone and tell a story. It’s a remarkably odd work of fiction, one that would not exist has Logan (2017) and Joker not gone on to be the success stories that they ended up becoming. This isn’t merely a random gamble, it’s the product of slightly smaller, albeit considerably audacious, gambles that worked in the years leading up to its production.
This is not going to be a film that is for everybody. I’m not suggesting the lack of action and adventure is going to turn off the masses. My reasoning for this claim is because it’s a film that often stops to muse over its own existence. It’s taking previously established versions of this character and world as a means of pondering it’s own inner workings. This is just as much a critical examination on the world of Gotham as it is a story set within it. This, topped off with the gargantuan runtime, might put some off.
If, on the other hand, you happen to be like myself and adore brooding self-studies that muse over question of privilege inherent within source materials dominating western pop-culture, you’re probably going to love this. If, also like me, you are a fan of fiction that likes to meander through the own corridors of its existence, then you’ll almost certainly find The Batman to be an irresistible piece of work.
I absolutely adore this film. A strange, engrossing, and occasionally uncomfortable tour ride into one of the most enthralling fictional landscapes dominating contemporary culture. Matt Reeves might not have reinvented the wheel, but he’s sure as heck done a good job in sprucing it up for today’s world. Alongside Batman Begins, this is perhaps my favourite addition to the franchise. Once again, Warner Bros has proven it can do superhero movies just as well, if not more so, than their competition over at Disney. Matt Reeves proves to be a other successful hire, and I can barely wait to see what avenues this director choses to take the franchise down in future instalments.