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The Batman: Matt Reeves made a terrific Dark Knight movie, but we can’t ignore its third act problems

Post Credits Scene: Matt Reeves' The Batman is a brilliant Dark Knight story, but it does Bruce Wayne dirty.

Robert Pattinson and Zoe Kravitz in a still from Matt Reeves' The Batman.

In his single-minded quest to make a movie that honours Batman’s noir-heavy origins, director Matt Reeves forgot that he needs to be equally respectful of the Caped Crusader’s alter-ego, Bruce Wayne. The Batman, the filmmaker’s relentlessly grim three-hour epic, juggles subplots involving corruption, scandal, and serial murders—for some time, I was even convinced that it is the first superhero movie to actively address the #MeToo movement—but for some reason, it never unmasks the true motivations of the Dark Knight.

As expected of a director of Reeves’ calibre, The Batman is an exceptionally well-made film on a technical level—for around two hours, it’s actually quite great—but in its critical final act, it loses sight of its procedural tone and instead gets distracted by the seemingly studio-mandated requirement to check numerous other boxes. By loosening its grip on the audience (and the narrative), The Batman tragically allows our minds to wander.

At the end of my screening, which began with a video of Robert Pattinson and other cast members congratulating us on being among the first people in the world to watch the movie, the packed house, which had cheered loudly when the blood-red opening title was splattered onto the IMAX screen, and was even more excited when Batman made his first appearance, could only muster a half-hearted smattering of applause. It sounded more obligatory than enthusiastic—as if this was something that they had decided to do even before they’d seen a single frame of the film.

The air had palpably left the theatre, which was surprising, because just around an hour previously, everyone had groaned when PVR randomly decided to pause the movie for an interval—which is still something that only happens in India. The atmosphere was electric at the half-way mark—for many of us, I’d imagine, it was the first sold-out screening we’d attended since the pandemic began. And Reeves’ refreshing new take on the character was admittedly engrossing—deliberately paced, sinister in tone, and curiously lean on action.

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In a happy coincidence, the ‘interval’ came only a little while after a truly spectacular car chase involving the Batman and the Penguin, played by an unhinged Colin Farrell. Even though the scene is shot with a lack of coverage that is unusual for a studio picture of this size—it unfolds almost entirely in close-ups, of the cars and the characters—experiencing your seats rattle in response to the Batmobile’s guttural roar is more than enough to make up for the price of your inflated IMAX ticket. We were all so enthralled by the film’s dense plot that we weren’t even missing the action. And so, when it came, it felt breathtaking.

But then, how did it all go wrong? Why couldn’t Reeves—the man behind the lean found-footage thriller Cloverfield and the almost Biblically epic Planet of the Apes sequels—maintain the forward momentum that is necessary to a murder mystery? As it turns out, he was undone by a trifecta of problems that had been quietly snowballing into a larger mess in the background. Not to completely absolve him of all responsibility, but I’m convinced that each of these issues arose because of studio notes, which is ironic, because Reeves was allowed to make a David Fincher-style serial killer movie with a Godfather-length run time.

The exact moment in which the film derails is the much-anticipated face-off between Pattinson’ Batman and Paul Dano’s Riddler that it was so giddily building towards. Clearly modelled on not just the real-life serial killer whose murderous spree was dramatised by Fincher in his 2007 film Zodiac, but also the fictional John Doe from the filmmaker’s 1995 classic Se7en, the Riddler makes for an enigmatic villain. After having toyed with him for the entire movie, he summons the Batman to Arkham Asylum, and in a tense confrontation, reveals the true motivations behind his masterplan to cleanse Gotham City of corruption. He is, in a way, an incel psychopath who shares traits with Joaquin Phoenix’s mass shooter-inspired Joker, even though he probably thinks of himself as a social justice warrior.

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Over the course of the film, we watch him kill powerful Gotham City figures and leave behind a trail of clues addressed directly to the Batman, who finds himself in a bit of a humourless buddy cop situation with James Gordon, played by Jeffrey Wright, who is, without exaggeration, the parallel lead of this movie. “What is this?” Farrell’s Penguin asks them in one scene, “Good cop, batsh*t cop?”

You’d imagine that because of their connected pasts—it is revealed that the Riddler is also an orphan like Bruce Wayne, and that he felt betrayed when Bruce’s father, Thomas Wayne, couldn’t deliver on his promise of rehabilitating his orphanage—they would face off at the end. But Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig sideline the Riddler and his mind games—and, in effect, the movie’s dramatic tone—in favour of a by-the-numbers action-driven finale.

It is during this final set-piece that Zoe Kravitz’s Selina Kyle essentially commits sexual assault when she kisses a semi-unconscious Batman on the lips, dragging along of the most unromantic and unnecessarily shoehorned-in love stories in any superhero film, ever. Selina, in The Batman, is clearly inspired by another Fincher creation—the vengeful and deeply moralistic Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. There’s an attempt to recreate that film’s tragic conclusion here—the one in which Lisbeth Salander learns a harsh lesson about allowing herself to fall in love—but the Bat and the Cat relationship in The Batman would’ve been so much more effective had Reeves resisted the impulse to contrive a romantic angle. Is the separation of true friends really seen as inferior to the separation of lovers?

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Forget the fact that she barely knew him–they met probably four times, tops–Selina didn’t even have a clue about the Batman’s real identity. In other words, what Reeves shows us is a love story between Catwoman and the Batman, and not one between Selina Kyle and Bruce Wayne. You understand the difference? No amount of musical heavy lifting by Michael Giacchino’s terrific score is going to change that.

Which brings me to my final point: While The Batman is a solid Dark Knight story, exactly as advertised; as a Bruce Wayne character study, it’s lacking. I know that Reeves deliberately avoided retreading Bruce’s origin story, but there are too many narrative gaps here, not to mention the utter lack of character development thanks to the procedural nature of the plot.

This isn’t to say that watching Bruce’s parents being gunned down in an alleyway would have solved this problem—while the movie doesn’t show this scene again, it has Alfred perform a little verbal recap for our convenience—but as it stands, it’s not immediately clear why Bruce decided to fight crime in the first place.

Are we meant to simply imprint whatever information we’ve collected over the years about Bruce Wayne onto this movie? Or are we supposed to wait for Reeves to announce what sets Batman film apart from the rest. Sure, Batman represents ‘vengeance’ and all–God knows they repeat it often enough here–but that has always been a bit of an excuse, don’t you think? Who is he, really? Has he become addicted to punishment, like Michael Keaton’s Batman? Does he crave it? Or is he fuelled by anger, like Ben Affleck’s Dark Knight? Or is he simply living a monk-like existence, like Christian Bale’s version of the character?

It’s never really clear, because the movie would rather devote pointless screen time to setting up future films—yes, that was the Joker—than include moments that could help us understand the psychology of the characters in this one. Like a frustrating riddle that refuses to relent even after three hours, the only option you’re left with is to give up trying.

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Post Credits Scene is a column in which we dissect new releases every week, with particular focus on context, craft, and characters. Because there’s always something to fixate about once the dust has settled.

First published on: 05-03-2022 at 08:06 IST
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