I Am Vengeance, Coo Coo Cachoo
The Batman (2022)
Who or what is the BatmanOne of the longest running, consistently in-print superheroes ever (matched only by Superman and Wonder Woman), Batman has been a force in entertainment for nearly as long as there's been an entertainment industry. It only makes sense, then that he is also the most regularly adapted, and consistently successful, superhero to grace the Silver Screen.. More than just "what should he represent", which is a question that the 2022 The Batman tries to tackle (and not always well), what sort of stories does Batman need to have for the audiences. If you look at the history of Batman, from his dark early comics in the 1930s and 1940s, to the campy version of the Adam West era, through the Tim Burton era, to the Christopher Nolan era, it's been pretty clear that Batman has been adapted to suit whatever tastes the audience has.
Watching the 2022 The Batman, though, I wondered just what the studio thought the audience actually wanted from the hero this time. While on the surface the film feels like an evolution of the Christopher Nolan style -- dark, gritty, grounded -- the movie also felt like it was desperately grasping at being something else. A treatise on what it means to be a hero, a dark exploration of family, and tale of pain and love and loss. Some of these things could work in a Batman film, but all of it mashed together, on top of a Se7en-style serial killer story, it all just felt like too much. The film is pulled in multiple directions but the most important thing needed for a superhero movie was absolutely missing here: The Batman simply isn't fun.
That might annoy some fans to say, but here's the rub for me. The Batman is, at it's core, a movie about a dude that dresses up like a bat and fights criminals. While you can extend that character in a lot of directions, even having him track down a serial killer, you can never lose sight of the fact that this is a cape-and-cowls movie. Somewhere, in all of that, someone has to have a bit of fun. A joke should be made, some levity should be added, something should be done to give a little thrill to this thrill ride. If you aren't going to do that, why dress the film up in cape-and-cowl trappings. You can have your dark, gritty, rain-soaked serial killer film if you want. It's called Zodiac and it's brilliant, but that movie is based on real events and wants to document the actual struggles actual people went through.
No one in the real world is dressing as a bat to fight a bomb maker known as "the Riddler", so what is the point of making a dour and dark superhero film about these characters that isn't any fun? Watching this superhero movie I wondered to myself what the point of all of this really was. Yes, superheroes can be used to tell all kinds of stories, but at a certain point you push the characters so far that you lose the strand of what makes them interesting to watch. It's like the line from Jurassic Park: they spent so long thinking about if they could put Batman into a a dour, unfun slog of a serial killer movie they never paused to think if they should.
In The Batman (which, of note, his never is never said in the film, whether with a definite article or not), our hero (played by Robert Pattinson) has been around the city of Gotham for about a year (the film very pointedly sets itself as a "Year 2" tale). In that time his symbol in the sky has come to terrorize the criminals of the underworld, making them run for cover instead whenever the Bat-signal comes on. But that only works for the low-level thugs; someone that doesn't feel that kind of fear, who may even think that they are the mirror image of Batman in some way, would consider the Bat-signal as an invitation. They would want to come to the dance so they could be with Batman, to be a part of his great opera of fear.
Such is the case with a new villain on the scene, the Riddler (eventually revealed to be played by Paul Dano). This mastermind has a plan to torture the elites of Gotham and make them pay for their indifference to the plight of the little guys all around the city. So he starts picking off the higher-ups in Gotham society, setting bombs and other Saw-like traps for them, to punish those that he feels need to be punished. And he views the Batman has a like-minded fellow, someone ready to tear the whole system down in a big and theatrical a fashion as possible. Can the Batman figure out who the Riddler is and stop his opera of destruction before it's all too late?
Credit where it's due, The Batman does build a lot of its story off the continuity of the comics. While it's not a direct adaptation to the stories that came before, much of the history of the characters, the setting, and threads of the story are borrowed from the source material. The idea that Batman creates his own villains is a regular theme in modern Batman tales, and this film uses much of its story threads to setup that idea. Batman is dark and broody and violent so of course some asshole would see that and want to emulate it, becoming a darker flip side to Batman's own ideals.
Of course, when you think of a villain that is the perfect opposite of Batman, that exists on the same coin like two sides of the same idea, Riddler isn't the first character that springs to mind (we're talking about JokerOne of Batman's first villains, and certainly his more famous (and most popular), the Joker is the mirror of the Bat, all the insanity and darkness unleashed that the hero keeps bottled up and controlled., of course). You use Riddler when you want Batman to show off his "world's greatest detective" bona fides, as Riddler is the intelligent villain, the one layout out a grand scheme but with clues for the Batman to decipher. He's not so much a flip-side to the Batman as a taunting adversary, one that works Batman's mind more than his muscles. I think in conflating Riddler to the same level as Joker, though, the film loses what makes Riddler interesting, while not really adding much to the Batman side.
Part of the issue is that the film never really lets Batman be a good detective. He's always following the clues of the Riddler in this movie but he never actually gets ahead of the villain. He's less "world's greatest detective" than "world's okayest Sudoku player" considering the kinds of puzzles Riddler sets out in this movie. The movie wants us to think Batman is brilliant but it never actually lets our hero use his brain to get a leg up on the Riddler. There's no battle of wits here because one of the two players is playing the wrong game altogether.
Making matters worse is that the Riddler isn't really a villain designed for grand dark schemes of chaos and destruction. The dark symphony of destruction here really feels like something the Joker would cause, not the Riddler. Nothing about this adventure shows off Riddler's intelligence, which is supposed to be this villain's greatest strength. He has the puzzles but not the brains behind them. The whole reason he's able to stay ahead of Batman is because Batman here is dumb and spends a lot of time getting distracted by parts of the story that don't really matter. Looking at everything the Riddler presents, you have to think that if Bats would have just spent a couple of hours in his cave he'd have worked it all out. Hell, he does that near the end of the movie, finally, and he absolutely does finally put the pieces together... right when it's all too late. Ugh.
Meanwhile, there's whole other chunks of the film that feel oh so superfluous. Riddler is upset because there was an "improvement fund" for the city that Thomas and Martha Wayne setup back in the day, but one they died that fund was pilfered by corrupt cops and the gangsters of the city. Somehow that comes back to Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), who is also the father of Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz) for... reasons. Selina wants revenge on her dad, so she works at his club, which is run by the Penguin (a completely unidentifiable Colin Farrell). This is all a pretty solid exploration of the criminal underworld, but it all amounts to a big red herring in the end because punishing the law and the criminals wasn't really Riddler's plan. He wanted to punish the whole city and blow it all up which... all of this convoluted storytelling wasn't needed for that.
The Batman is a film that really wants to be big and smart and bold, that wants you to think it has a deep intelligence to it. In the end, though, it's just a linear story of greed and corruption with a serial killer going around dropping dumb puzzles that seems smart but really aren't. Another villain, one with more theatricality and a sense of fun might have picked up this mess some. Ditching a lot of the superfluous characters and focusing the story more would have also done wonders. But most of all, this film needed to inject some fun. It's too dour, too dark, too sad. Batman doesn't have to be bright and perky like SupermanThe first big superhero from DC Comics, Superman has survived any number of pretenders to the throne, besting not only other comic titans but even Wolrd War II to remain one of only three comics to continue publishing since the 1940s. but it would be nice if some moments of levity could be added, some bits of thrills that could raise this up out of it's own damp gutter.
The end of the film makes it out that Batman can be some great figure of hope, that he can lead Gotham out of its darkest hour and into the light. Hate to tell you, guys, but the preceding three hours made a case for anything but. You want a hero that can act as a beacon of hope, maybe go look over in Metropolis. The guy you have, sitting in his dark cave, listening to the most depressing version of Nirvana possible, he's not your guy. I'm not sure he ever could be, not without a massive rewrite of this whole reboot.