The Batman Review : Gothamfellas

As a crime drama, it’s battastic – quite possibly The Batman movie you’ve been waiting for.

Warner Bros

Watched a great documentary on Brian De Palma, the iconic and acclaimed writer and filmmaker, best known for his work in the suspense, crime and psychological thriller genre. In it, De Palma explained why he quickly abandoned the Hollywood studio blockbuster after directing “Mission : Impossible” (1996) and Nicolas Cage number “Snake Eyes” (1998). In short, De Palma quickly realized he wasn’t hired to make a film in his style and tone – like “Blow Out” or “Dressed to Kill”, he had to adhere to a list of studio-forwarded bullet points, resulting in a film that would appeal to the masses. As such, he felt there was more opportunity to make his kind of films, those with solid, real-world stories, and not simply wall-to-wall action sequences, in the independent film world.

De Palma is talking about a transitional time in his career that occurred in the mid to late 90s.  Then, Hollywood was making pricey, effects-driven blockbusters, like they still do, but only difference was they weren’t willing to take the kind of risks they do today.

Thanks to the success of studio tent poles like the radically gritty Batman picture “The Dark Knight” (2008), the studio system started to hire the best working filmmakers around (everyone but Martin Scorsese) to tell stories they wanted to tell- but set in a pre-existing universe from a book, comic or video game.

And though the odd filmmaker will still poo-poo todays blockbusters – particularly comic book films – with some of the globe’s toughest critics and academy members even coming around in recent years, impressed with many that have come through, it’s clear there’s not only an appetite for a studio blockbuster that’s as much substance as it is style but everyone now wants in on one.

“The Batman” is the latest goes-against-the-grain superhero blockbuster that’s less about special effects and more about script.  It also resembles a Batman picture and more resembles, well, something De Palma might’ve wanted to make in the late ‘70s.

Penned by Peter Craig and Matt Reeves, that script is essentially a grimy, gangster-filled crime drama colliding with a sulky, noir-lit psychological thriller — and caught up in the middle of the compelling, real-world yard is a guy that just happens to share the same name as a popular DC comics character, The Batman.

Matt Reeves (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, “Cloverfield”) paints the usually colourful Gotham City from Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s comics with heavy strokes of wet and miserable here, with it’s iconic characters more flawed, scarred and relatable. Just as he did with his recent “Planet of the Apes” revival and its two sequels, the filmmaker takes a well-worn film comic and film series and gives it a welcome real-world overlay.

Sound familiar?

Yup, Christopher Nolan gave Bats the same type of treatment about fifteen years ago with his “Batman Begins” (2005).

If the Brit hadn’t have given the source material the grimy thriller makeover earlier in his film, the look and feel of Reeves’ movie might have more impact and play more shockingly radical.  We’ve seen a flawed, screwed-up Batman, we’ve seen the rotten underbelly of Gotham, and we’ve met those iconic villains played more grey than pure black-and-white.

Still,  Reeves does seem to inch a little closer to the darkness than Nolan did — so dark, one might forget they’re not watching ‘The Crow’.

Set in a seemingly-always raining, mostly-dark metropolis that’s gone completely to shit, thanks to the corruption and crime plaguing the joint, “The Batman” fixes on a young hopeful who has the potential to possibly change things in town – if only he can stop being so self-serving.

Billionaire Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) has been getting about in the cowl as Batman, beating up as many criminals as possible (introducing himself only as ‘Vengeance’ to his opponent), for over a year. During that time, he’s joined forces with resident do-gooder Commissioner Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright). Their latest come-together is the result of a series of murders–  puzzling ones attributed to the reclusive, masked fiend named The Riddler (Paul Dano).

Helping crack some of The Riddler’s puzzles – something he insists the authorities, and Batman, do if they want to find out the who’s and why’s behind his motivation – alongside Batman and Gordon is mysterious underground club employee and feline lover Selina (Zoe Kravitz) – or, as she’s affectionately known in the comics, Catwoman.

While much of the film is spent with the Caped Crusader trying to solve puzzles, his depressed, forlorn alter-ego loner slowly learns a thing or two about his own history, questioning whether he doesn’t deserve the miserable life he’s ended up in.

Others factoring into the plot include Bruce’s trusty, long-suffering aide Alfred Pennyworth (Andy Serkis), portly, seemingly dimmish gangster Oswald “Oz” Cobblepot /The Penguin (Colin Farrell), and Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), a crime lord with ties to Wayne’s parents, Thomas and Martha Wayne.

First things first. How is Pattinson, our new Batman? He’s very good, he’ll surprise many but there is a slight problem with our Batman that doesn’t help with the Eric Draven comparisons. Because he acts and behaves the same at home and away, there isn’t really any distinction between the Batman and Bruce Wayne characters here. Considering Batman has been in action for two years at this point, you’d think Wayne would’ve realised that he needs some separation between his personas – it’s a wonder he’s gotten away with the secret identity for so long! – if he doesn’t want to have his identity revealed. Further, when Wayne puts on that mask he needs to become something more than a mere man – we need to see and feel that change.

As Batman though? Pattinson is great. Reportedly casting him off his superb  performance in the independent drama “Good Time” (2017), Reeves knew what he was doing by casting  the 35-year-old Brit Ben Affleck’s successor.  He wanted someone that looked like he’d been through the ringer – not necessarily physically, but emotionally; you can see the strain life has taken on Wayne’s face whenever the cowl is off.

Writers Reeves and Craig needed to do a bit more with the Wayne character though – it feels a little underwritten and indistinguishable. In fact, most of the film’s very minor faults lie directly with what’s otherwise an excellent screenplay – like the lack of chemistry this Batman and Catwoman have on screen (considering how much heat Michael Keaton and Michelle Pfeiffer produced when they played those characters in 1992’s “Batman Returns”, that’s a bummer. Would’ve been nice to feel that connection more),  The Riddler coming off as merely a combo of Heath Ledger’s Joker and the villainous ‘Jigsaw’ from the “Saw” films, and a third act that seems more in line with an “Iron Man” or “Captain America” movie than a more grounded piece like “The Batman”.

While that third act is satisfying and the stunt choreography is superb, it just isn’t as well executed or thoughtful as the film’s first two acts – largely because it diverts from the main character’s existential crisis for something more popcorn-movie friendly.

As I said though, small beefs for what’s otherwise a very well-penned libretto.

What really works about this film though is the intricate plot and world that it’s set in. Reeves goes for broke here, showing Gotham as the dreary, cesspool of scum that it is. This is a showery, soiled municipal that not only scarcely sees a splash of sunshine – most of the film is also either set at night or at sunrise or sunset – but most of the public seem to be crooks. And those that aren’t a crook, have either dabbled in crime or considered crossing that line.  Even our Batman has shades of grey..

Bruce Wayne and trusty aider Gordon would seem to be the last two honest men in the city. And as the film inches towards its conclusion, they’ll learn they’re both needed now more than ever if Gotham ever has a chance.

The mysteries at the center of the film aren’t just well/written they’re smartly written,  with crimes and puzzles crafted both smartly and compelling. At times, you’ll forget you’re not watching David Fincher’s “Se7en” or “Zodiac”.

Also well written, but equally well performed, are the new interpretations of The Penguin (marvelously played by a scene-stealing, unrecognizable Colin Farrell), Commissioner Jim Gordon (the always solid, welcomingly stern Wright), and Carmine Falcone (a likeable but briskly oily Turturro), who really help drive the film.

Coupled with Pattinson’s commendable take on Batman – he even had the voice down Pat! – these are some of the best played takes on some of the comic book universe’s most iconic characters we’ve seen.

And let’s not discount the fact that this is the first time we’ve ever really seen Batman be the detective he’s renowned in the comics for. Here he’s saving actual crimes, using his wits, and his putting the pieces together with a giant unseen magnifying glass.

…That’s the coolest and most unique element of the whole film!

Oh, and also pleasing? The music. You’ll hear it from the moment the film begins too, Michael Giacchino ‘s powerful score for the film.  This isn’t a riff on any score previously produced for a Batman movie, nor is it like anything you’ve heard in another superhero flick, it’s something original and unique.  Really sets the tone for what’s ahead – a dark, complex and compelling serial-killer style flick (see David Fincher note above!) that just happens to have ‘the world’s greatest detective’ on the case.

In a nutshell : Matt Reeves’ “The Batman” isn’t “The Dark knight”, and it’s approach to the materials don’t play as fresh or as impactful as Nolan’s did, with some elements feeling a little recycled, but as a crime drama, it’s battastic – quite possibly The Batman movie you’ve been waiting for.

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