A Darker Knight

Detective Comics. That’s what the comic book series was called when Batman was introduced in issue 27, way back in May of 1939. While we now think of characters created by the publisher residing under the shortened DC brand, the subject of those early comics were centered around hard-boiled detective stories.

Director Matt Reeves seems to have been inspired by these roots in his Robert Pattinson-led reboot of the caped crusader, The Batman. Steeped in noir and taking its cues from sources like Taxi Driver, Se7en and Zodiac, The Batman truly is a detective story—albeit one with a psychologically bent private investigator dressed in a bat suit. The way that Pattinson delivers voiceovers at the beginning and end of the movie about the desecration of his city wouldn’t seem so odd coming out of Travis Bickle’s mouth. 

As the Batman’s primary nemesis, Paul Dano (terrifying with or without a mask) is an angry incel, abandoned as a child, who blames Bruce Wayne’s father for not following through on his mayoral promise to help the orphans of Gotham City. Of course, candidate Thomas Wayne couldn’t address their needs because he and his wife were murdered in the street. But that’s not what is really bothering the Riddler as it relates to the fallen mayor. In his fragile mind, the greater offense is that the orphan who got all the publicity and sympathy from the city was the “poor little richboy,” Bruce Wayne.

The Riddler doesn’t save his ire just for Bruce though—he’s out to destroy all the corrupt governmental figures of Gotham City with furious anger. The Batman may refer to himself as vengeance, but he’s not the only one with a score to settle.

Of course, Batman’s desire for vengeance is steeped in childhood trauma as well. He’s a character trying to do the impossible—make up for the helplessness he felt witnessing his parents murder. He’s also trying to complete his father’s mission—only his tools are not politics and altruism, they are gadgets, vehicles, technology, and more than anything, seething brutality.

This is one of the things that sets this film’s iteration of the venerable character apart. Even more than Christian Bale’s fierce version or Ben Affleck’s surly, going-to-seed take on Batman (Affleck deserved better films than Zack Snyder is capable of), Pattinson’s Batman dispatches criminals with far less style and panache. His goal is to put those taking advantage of others down fast and hard.

What’s particularly arresting about The Batman is how little interest this Bruce Wayne has in Bruce Wayne. If you’ve ever heard the line that “fame and wealth don’t change who you are, they reveal who you are,” you could say the same about Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne. Except it’s not fame and wealth that illuminate his character, it’s the batsuit.

When Pattinson dons the cowl, cape, and kevlar, he becomes (if not the person he wants to be) the person he needs to be. In fact, when we see Pattinson as Bruce Wayne, we don’t get the playboy millionaire using a vapid facade to hide who he really is. Instead, we see a Bruce Wayne with ill-fitting clothes, a poorly combed coif, and the sort of sunken eyes that typically come with a suggestion of mental illness.

And in the case of Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne, you wouldn’t be wrong on that last point. You can see it best during a funeral sequence where he views a young boy whose father was murdered and he can’t take his eyes off of him. “I was that boy,” his stare seems to say. Hell, he still is that boy.

There’s a sequence early in the film where Alfred (well-played by Andy Serkis), tries to convince Bruce to take a business meeting and Bruce isn’t just disinterested, he’s all but sickened by the thought. I know the batsuit is designed in such a way to make Pattinson look formidable in it (and boy does he ever), but it’s the way he shrinks when he puts on the costume of Bruce Wayne that is most telling. As soon as he lifts the cowl from his head, his eyes outlined with smeared eye black (looking more than a little like a young Robert Smith of The Cure), his gaze takes on a sense of failure. As if he knows what he has done as the Batman can never be enough, but when he becomes Bruce, he is little more than nothing.

Typically, the best Batman films are (at least partially) defined by their villains and supporting characters. Whether it’s Jack Nicholson as an entertainingly cartoonish Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman, Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman in Batman Returns, Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, or Tom Hardy’s Bane in Batman Rises, those characters fill in some of the blankness in and around Batman/Bruce Wayne.

And while I don’t want to take away from Dano’s truly sinister Riddler, Zoe Kravitz’s fresh take on Catwoman, Jeffrey Wright’s pitch-perfect Lieutenant Gordon, or a truly unrecognizable Colin Farrell (channeling Al Capone) in his remarkable performance as the Penguin, this is easily the most Batman Batman movie.

One might ask, is that reason enough to have a tenth telling of this legendary character in just short of 33 years? I suppose that’s a matter of taste to some degree. If you are a person who watched Christopher Nolan’s brilliant trilogy and thought, “that’s pretty great, but I’d like to have a darker Dark Knight,” I suspect you will be fulfilled by Reeves’ rendition.

Reeves embraces the grime of Gotham in a way that makes all previous portrayals of the city look comparatively bucolic. The film’s palette lives in the gray to black, almost as if primary colors had yet to be invented. Michael Giacchino’s score, which features an Ave Maria thread that runs throughout the film, is both operatic , and in moments, most dire, pounding in an almost martial way. I have my doubts as to how listenable the score would be  without the film playing under it (much like Jonny Greenwood’s music for Spencer), but I do know it is a perfect match for the tone and tenor of a film that is unrelentingly grim.

The film’s climax is genuinely stunning. As the Riddler inspires an online group of outcasts to create a mass extinction event, the helplessness of being one man facing down a group of nihilists is palpable as Pattinson’s Batman struggles to prioritize where his skills and abilities will be of greatest use. It truly feels like the end of the world. How can he save the city from what’s coming after the gates of hell have already been opened? And how does he stop these faceless devils that burst through that ghoulish opening?

Of course, the Batman is no longer a little boy, but even so, he’s only marginally more equipped to deal with the chaos at hand. 

And maybe that’s why we need this Batman. Because as we look at the world around us—so full of corrupt leaders, divisive politics, apathy and acrimony among citizens, man-made disasters, terrorism, and war—don’t we all feel that way right now? That all of us are so small that our own efforts don’t amount to anything beyond a slowing of the inevitable; that our rage is nothing more than a howl into the void? Perhaps the answer that Pattinson’s Batman uncovers at the end of the film—that vengeance isn’t enough, that we also need something to believe in—is the answer. In that moment, the Batman decides to become more than a symbol of fear, but also a beacon of hope.

I’m not talking about a soft version of hope either. None of that “thoughts and prayers” shit, but the kind of hope that requires you to move your feet in the face of pain, suffering, and misery. 

As hard as it is to change who we are, to become something more, it can be done. And we don’t need a mask to do it. If we don’t change, the question we might want to ask ourselves is deceptively simple, and depending on your answer, horrifying.

Are we really worth saving?

As The Batman fades to complete black, it provides its own answer to that question:

Yes. Yes, we are.

If only just.

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