24 Lies a Second: Sympathy for Mister Vengeance

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Sympathy for Mister Vengeance

It sometimes feels like people have been talking about 'the return of cinema' virtually since the moment that cinema sort-of went away, nearly two years ago. One film after another has been touted as the harbinger for the return of business as usual at the box office – first Tenet, then Black Widow (along with a few others at the start of last summer), James Bond, and finally the most recent Spider-Man. You would have thought the massive take of No Way Home would have put an end to this kind of chatter, but no: apparently the fact Covid restrictions were still in place when it came out means that $1.6 billion-and-counting somehow doesn't qualify as 'business as usual' – and so the baton has been passed on again, this time to Matt Reeves' The Batman. (We have discussed in the past the rather cute phenomenon where the addition of a definite article apparently elevates a film about someone dressing up as a bat to punch crooks to the status of Serious Drama With Gravitas.)

You know me, I'm never ever cynical, but someone who was might offer the thought that most of the people declaring The Batman to be the First True Post-Pandemic Hit are those with a vested interest in seeing it be a hit of any kind. Certainly this is a big, expensive, rather unwieldy movie, which I'm slightly surprised to see getting a release this early in the year – presumably Warners are wary about putting it up against the Dr Strange sequel, which is likely to dominate the early-summer landscape, although this would be a surprising sign of a lack of confidence given it is, after all, a Batman film.

But, you might ask, what's another Batman film in a release schedule which already includes outings for Morbius the Living Vampire, Dr Strange, the Flash, Thor, Aquaman, Black Adam and many more? A reasonable question, and a Batman film is, self-evidently, a superhero movie on some level. But I'd argue there's also a sense in which Batman transcends the superhero genre. People have been making films about Batman for longer than any other costumed hero; the 1989 Tim Burton film practically invented the modern superhero movie template.

When you add in the various TV series and spin-off movies – and DC and Warners' willingness to exploit this particular property with absurd thoroughness has deservedly been the subject of satire, even in their own projects – you reach a situation which is almost unique. Your average person in the street with minimal knowledge of the lore of even one of the big-name Marvel characters will still likely know the name of Batman's butler, be able to identify many of his regular opponents, and not need to have things like the Batmobile and the Batcave explained to them. In short, Batman and his world have acquired an almost folkloric status as something complete and resonant in and of themselves; they have become archetypal, something which even extends to comparatively minor characters like the crime boss Falcone (played by Tom Wilkinson in Christopher Nolan's first Batman movie and John Turturro in the new one).

The great advantage this gives to film-makers is that they have a lot more creative latitude to work with – they don't have to bother introducing all these characters every time, and because there have been so many different iterations already, they don't have to worry about creating some kind of mythical 'definitive' version of the comics character. The Batman mythos is uniquely open to being adapted to suit the creative vision of anyone working within it.

So what is Matt Reeves' take on the material? He establishes quite quickly that Batman has only been doing his thing for a couple of years, as you'd expect given the casting of the youthful-looking Robert Pattinson in the role. (Given he routinely goes around introducing himself by growling 'I am vengeance', it's not surprising several characters start calling him Mr Vengeance instead of Batman.) There's a nice sequence demonstrating that Batman really is intent on a reign of terror against Gotham City's criminal element, then we're off into the plot proper: in the middle of an election campaign, Gotham's mayor is gruesomely murdered by someone who enjoys leaving fiendishly tricky puzzles at the crime scene; Batman and his ally Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) follow the trail, but find themselves uncovering a conspiracy hinting at festering corruption at the heart of the city's establishment. But what does the killer really want – and what's a good name for a villain obsessed with riddles, anyway…?

Reeves' version of Gotham City inclines a bit more towards Nolan's than Burton's; it's certainly light years away from anything in the Joel Schumacher films. The vibe is very much one of Watchmen meeting Seven – the main point of distinction, really, between this and the Nolan trilogy is the pervasive sense of stygian gloom and incipient horror that's constantly in the air.

This is certainly the bleakest and most nihilistic movie ever to engage in high-profile cross-promotion with a Japanese subcompact crossover SUV and a brand of cream-filled sandwich cookie (you can imagine Matt Reeves groaning and sinking his face into his hands when he heard about this). In many ways the film takes rather an easy and obvious option in this department, presenting Gotham (and by extension the world) as a relentlessly horrible, nightmarish place, where society is riddled with corruption from top to bottom, and Batman himself is engaged on a futile (and perhaps counterproductive) crusade driven more by an urge to violence than any higher motive. There is occasionally the odd grace note of hope, of course.

To work in this kind of setting, the Batman characters are all dialled down to their most naturalistic settings, in the process losing most of the gaudy whimsicality which is surely what made them so memorable – a fat-suited Colin Farrell is unrecognisable as the Penguin, which has a certain symmetry to it as this version of the character is virtually unrecognisable as the top-hatted and umbrella-wielding villain most people will be familiar with. Something similar goes on with Zoe Kravitz's love-interest burglar, who is a Woman With Cats, but not permitted to be anything more outlandish. Paul Dano is effective enough as the Riddler, but also essentially unrecognisable – he's a combination of splenetic InCel and online conspiracy-monger.

Despite all this, the film often bears a surprising resemblance to previous Batman movies – if we're serious about our thesis that Batman films are their own separate subgenre, then these moments of repetition would be the conventions of the form. The suggestion that Batman has more in common with the villain than he would perhaps be comfortable with gets articulated again, although quite subtly for most of the movie; more prosaically, the unveiling of the new Batmobile is held back until the second act, acting as the prelude to a big action sequence. In the end Gotham City itself – or at least a big chunk of it – faces an existential threat.

It's a polished, well-mounted and effective movie, that tells a complex tale well, with some strong performances – but I can't help feeling that the very archetypal quality that enables it to function also keeps it from really being distinctive. The Nolan movies worked so well in part because they were so startlingly different from what had come before them – this film feels more like Batman-as-usual, albeit done to a high standard, and with lashings of extra gloom and oppressiveness. (Michael Giacchino's score is effective, but his Batman theme is about one modulation away from turning into Darth Vader's, which I'm sure wasn't the intention.)

Nevertheless, this is towards the top of the pile of recent DC Comics movies – which means that, the modern world being as it is, two sequels and various TV spin-offs are already in the works. Clearly Warner Brothers are convinced that you can never have too much Batman. I'm not so sure – but a visit to Gotham City now and then has its own special pleasures, many of which The Batman movie successfully provides.

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