I saw Matt Reeves’ take on “The Batman” last weekend and have been stewing on a number of thoughts about the movie I’ve decided to put here.
It’s not a sports movie, per say, but there are some interesting components to the Batman character and Robert Pattinson’s portrayal which make him “athlete adjacent” if nothing else. So I’m justifying it’s placement here.
The nature of the character, particularly since Frank Miller’s 1980s books “the Dark Knight Returns” and “Batman: Year One,” has been to embrace a gritty realism. He’s not a superhero, he’s a force of will guiding a man to perform insane feats of bravery, strength, and toughness.
This new take, “The Batman,” goes harder in this direction than any previous Batman movie. It’s much more of a noir detective story and characters like the Penguin, the Riddler, and cat woman are pretty far removed from campy comic book takes. In fact, there are moments in this movie where the main obstacle keeping the film from feeling like a typical “detective tries to unwrap a corrupt justice system tied to underground crime” is the fact the main character spends much of the movie dressed like a bat.
It’s an impressive movie with a lot of new stylistic flourishes and additions to the Batman universe and a clear attempt to make a version of the character for the 2020s. I’m going to spoil the movie while discussing those elements so if you’re looking to avoid spoilers before you see it, don’t read this.
An emo Clint Eastwood
That’s how I’d describe the Pattinson Batman. This movie has some major Western genre components to it, obscured by the Nirvana soundtrack (more on that later), noir/urban setting, and Pattinson’s black eye makeup and long hair.
Despite the long hair and emo look he has, when he’s the Batman his 6-foot-1, 165 pound frame is tall, brooding, and routinely takes slow, confident walks in boots while approaching his quaking victims. It’s like watching Clint take his time while approaching his quarry in a spaghetti western or Dirty Harry movie.
The eye makeup is actually a major piece to the film. When he’s Bruce Wayne he looks like the quintessential millennial Batman, with a gothic look and a brooding yet vulnerable persona.
But then when he’s in the Batman suit, the makeup no longer looks like despairing kid crying out to the world for help with girl troubles but instead give his eyes an undead look.
He goes from haunted to haunting. Like Eastwood or your typical Western anti-hero, he’s very laconic and quietly confident as Batman. As Bruce, he’s questioning and uncertain, trying to wrap his head around everything he’s doing. As Batman, he’s cold fury, it definitely works.
The only trick of it, which doesn’t hurt the movie, is the part where he’s trying to dominate criminals with this lanky frame. Pattinson is lean in this movie, muscular but not thick like Ben Afleck or Christian Bale, and when the armor is off and he’s drawing on his floor shirtless trying to solve the Riddler’s clues he looks vulnerable, bruised, and not particularly intimidating. He looks more likely to pull out a Les Paul or sit at a piano bench than to hit a speed bag or curl heavy free weights.
I think that’s part of the character, in the same way his eyes go back and forth from haunted and insecure to haunting and cold. My only criticism here is that a 165 pound dude isn’t going to be overwhelmingly fast and powerful while trying to fight criminals with his bare hands in a suit that offers the level of protection this suit is shown to offer him against bullets and foes. You’d want more of a linebacker/defensive end/tight end sort of frame to have the power, speed, and resilience Batman needs.
Think in terms of MMA. A UFC lightweight champion is probably about where you’d want to be in order to go out every night and physically dominate criminals while weighed down with armor. Lightweights have to weigh in at 205, obviously they can cut weight to get there.
Current champion Glover Teixeira walks around at 6-foot-2, 230 or so. A heavyweight would struggle to have the stamina Batman regularly shows while a lighter fighter would invariably struggle getting hit with crowbars and punches from street toughs.
Affleck was something like 6-foot-2, 225 pounds for his Batman, which was much closer to what you’d expect. It was obviously super important he be imposing since he needed to fight Superman while wearing a metal suit. Christian Bale was something like 6-foot-0, 190 pounds which was believable enough (he looked lighter in later movies) especially standing next to other actors.
You’ll notice in “Civil War” that Steve Rogers passes through the museum devoted to Captain America and they list him as being 6-foot-2, 240 pounds on a banner, like a linebacker. You readily believe that Chris Evans might be in that vicinity because of the way he looks next to other actors, but he was actually closer to 6-foot-0, 185.
So like a cornerback.
If you’ve ever stood next to football players you can see how this plays out. I remember on the University of Texas campus being shocked not only by the size of the linemen when I’d see them walking to class (you could tell) but also by seeing “smaller” players like Brandon Foster (a 5-foot-8, 185 pound cornerback) and how they looked like superheroes next to average students (such as myself at 5-foot-8, 155 pounds).
So you don’t need Batman to actually be 6-foot-2, 230 pounds to believe him, but while Pattinson has the right height he is a bit small. “Emo Clint Eastwood” really works for the style of the movie and for the juxtaposition of Wayne vs the dark knight, but this guy’s wrists are too skinny and his frame too slight to be fully convincing as a guy who can own the streets. Just saying.
It’s better than Michael Keaton, at least, who was both small (roughly my size) and wearing a thick rubber suit which made him completely immobile.
You could also argue it makes it all a little more mystical. The monster inside of Batman is living inside this undead, vampiric-looking young man and willing his lanky frame to don the costume and go beat up bad guys. Like Michael Myers or something.
The Batman in year 2022
There are a few interesting things about the soundtrack and score of this movie. There’s a really effective early scene in which he’s been examining the crime scene where the Riddler’s first victim has been found. Batman notices a small, bloody footprint (he has some great, Sherlock type observation skills) and his eyes trace them to a small boy being comforted by cops who is revealed to have been the one who found the body of the victim (his dad).
Batman never says anything, just stares with those haunting/haunted eyes with obvious understanding before moving on, meanwhile GenX director fires up “Something in the way” by Nirvana with it’s gently prodding two-chord acoustic guitar melody and drop C tuning.
I noticed that the theme of this Batman movie is like a slowed down “imperial march” from “The Empire Strikes Back.” It’s essentially the same, but it’s origin is clearly the two-chord melody of “something in the way” in a different key. It’s simple, brooding, menacing, and the repeatable nature of it was conducive to adding swells and bells around it to create a big theme.
So you have GenX management of this project guiding some of the artistic direction and thinking and then millennial acting to bring us a Batman for the 2020s. Makes sense. As a prism into our immediate future world of GenX management and Millennial execution, it’s pretty fascinating.
This leads us to the big thing about this movie, the political-social commentary.
When I learned they were making and releasing this movie my big question was, “how are they going to make a story about a billionaire white dude who wears a mask at night and beats up violent criminals in the midst of the current ‘woke’ sentiment and attitude toward violence from law enforcement?”
Well it’s obvious this is a question Matt Reeves and the Batman creative team was thinking through as well and their answers were pretty interesting.
The Batman is an inherently right-wing character. Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” is often regarded as a “fascist” book because his Batman utters (or thinks) lines like,
“You’ve got rights. Lots of rights. Sometimes I count them just to make myself feel crazy.”-The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller
The genesis of the dark Batman persona of the 80s which has defined subsequent Batman works was a decaying New York City overcome with violent crime and Miller’s prescription of people willing to bring a harder, more violent edge to bringing order to the chaos than the NYPD was bringing at that time.
Of course in the wake of 80s crime and pop culture products like Batman or “Escape from New York” came Rudy Giuliani, the 90s crime bill, broken windows policing, stop and frisk, etc. Crime was reduced in a fashion that makes it easy for millennials like myself to read the opening script of “Escape from New York” and laugh at the notion of Manhattan as collapsing into a state where it becomes a de-facto lawless prison.
But now, the 90s crime-stopping initiatives are largely seen as having been an imprecise oversteer which lead to mass incarceration and downstream effects which were very negative. Particularly for the black community who’s already had to shoulder far more than their share of difficulties for our young nation. In an America where one of the central stories of 2020 (when the movie was being made) was the murder of George Floyd by a police officer, how could a story about a violent, rich, white vigilante land?
Christopher Nolan’s Batman had to deal with organized crime but it ended up being more of a story about foreign terrorism. The league of shadows, the joker, and the occupy-ish Bane-lead league of shadows were all essentially proxies for foreign terrorists and one of Batman’s struggles was how to do surveillance, overcome laws that protect criminals (personally extraditing a man from Hong Kong), and promoting a lie which enabled Patriot Act-type legislation to empower the police to do his job for him. It was all very 2000s.
Reeves’ Batman has two big foes. The first one is the obvious, ever-present danger of institutional corruption and organized crime. The second problem is the reaction from the aggrieved people who were victimized and are now becoming domestic terrorists. People like himself.
The climax of this movie features the Batman confronting the Riddler in Arkham, expecting the villain to reveal he knows the truth about his identity as Bruce Wayne. Instead, the Riddler reveals an identity Batman didn’t realize he possessed. An identity as a focus of hatred as a child of privilege but, even more, his identity as an inspiration and accomplice to domestic terrorists intent on exposing the corruption of Gotham and punishing the city with wanton violence.
You get a second dose of it when Batman loses his mind trying to protect Catwoman, and ultimately protecting himself from enduring another personal loss, and hears his beaten down foe identify himself with “I am vengeance” which was how he introduced himself earlier in the film. In that moment the truth is inescapable. He has inspired and been a party to a violent, imprecise, populist/domestic terrorism response to the problem of institutional corruption.
It’s a clever take, but this has always been a part of the Batman mythos.
In Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns,” Batman pummels the leader of a band of street thugs called “the mutants.” Some of them then call themselves “the sons of Batman” and continue to perpetrate chaotic street violence but against those they see as evil and corrupt. Finally Batman takes charge of them and trains them to try and maintain order with some degree of restraint.
It’s always the balancing act. The current structure is failing and people won’t go far enough until they do and then they go too far. Institutional corruption and a disregard for the concerns of everyday people eventually leads everyday people to try and revolt out of pure fury and then the consequences are catastrophic.
So in this case, the Batman finds himself racing from Arkham to stop a bunch of dudes inspired by the Riddler’s online presence from using their AR-15s to shoot up Gotham’s new mayor and hundreds of its citizens. The people of Gotham are fleeing a flood unleashed by the Riddler who, acting out of a god-complex (cue Ave Maria), has blown up the breakwaters around the city. Batman realizes he has to balance his vengeful administrations of violent justice with actions which reveal him as a symbol for restrained, heroic response. He’s both vigilante and institutionalist, paradoxical in the same way he’s haunted/haunting, vulnerable/confident.
It’s a lot, but then you get three hours of it and it seems to be resonating. I definitely felt it worked and it’s ultimately very true to the character and his struggles. Batman has always been managing this balance by helping Jim Gordon get promoted one minute and knocking a cop out who got in his way the next.
Because they’ve cast a black woman (Zoe Kravitz) as cat woman (consistent with Miller’s “year one” portrayal though), Jim Gordon is played by a black man (Jeffrey Wright), the bad guys are incel/4chan types, and Bruce is confronted by his own privilege and family role in the corruption of Gotham…it seems like a progressive take on the conservative batman figure.
Yet it’s still an inherently conservative movie and take. Batman acknowledges the brokenness of the world and the impossible balance of protecting institutions and preventing chaos while also helping to reform those institutions. The focus on realism and order are classical conservative themes. He’s still pummeling criminals with his fists, he’s still going beyond the law to enforce order, he’s still a billionaire white dude (although his estate seems to be under some strain in this telling).
The Batman is responsive to liberal critiques while still maintaining the same principles of order. I guess Ben Shapiro didn’t like it but he seems to have developed an obsessive habit for criticizing Hollywood products. This movie doesn’t have radical politics, it’s accessible for anyone who feels the tension of wanting to maintain an orderly society without turning a back on its less privileged members, which is the real “silent majority.”
Altogether this was a very dark, complex, thoughtful, and artistic movie for ultimately being about a comic book superhero who dressed like a bat to fight crime. I look forward to Martin Scorsese’s take.