Thursday, March 10, 2022

"THE" Batman was the Appropriate Title

After thirty-three years of wearing these same sneakers (and the accompanying shirt) to Batman movie opening days, they finally did one in live action correctly.  (Nice photobomb, Anabelle.)

No spoilers...until I say there are spoilers later on.

Unlike most of the past films, this nearly three hour Bat-fest was not seen at a midnight preview. I made a member of the audience (who was not part of the half younger than my footwear) laugh when I proclaimed. "At this age, I would have made it to about, 'I am vengeance!' and then 'zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.'"

Anabelle came and my sister met us there with Aurora. Kim thought it was important to see a Batman film with me, "Because you're funny when they do things wrong."

The film was awesome, it really felt like a full arc in the comic books. It was long, but not needlessly long. The length was felt because so much happened, and it took its time where it should. Therefore it didn't drag but filled out the time impressively.  There were multiple moments that felt the same as the end of one comic book issue, where some things tied up, but then there's that last panel twist that makes you want the next issue.  The length also allowed for there to be spaces between the explosions of action for Batman detectiving, conversing with important Bat-allies and walking deliberately and menacingly toward a criminal who's about to tell him everything.

Rather than a usual rant, or even half rant that has accompanied most DC films over the years, this is a list of choices and directions by Matt Reeves and company that made me happy. They highlight where the movie matched the reasons I interminably say variations of, "Good Batman stories are always the best comic book stories."

Mask of the Phantasm is still the best, most comics accurate theatrical Batman film, but the margin it holds that honor by just got a heck of a lot smaller.  

Spoilers on, mostly generic rather than specific, but its best to warn anyway.

Michael Giaccino's score was, like all of his work, outstanding and perfect for the subject matter. Other versions have gone darkly heroic.  Batman's theme in this one, woven throughout the rest of the score in all different ways and variations, was the embodiment of two words:  "Relentless" and "Inevitable."

Gotham is dark and rainy all the time, therefore the movie was dark and rainy all the time. Additionally, Batman works best in the shadows and dark spaces. However, I COULD SEE EVERYTHING!  They let you know it was dark without hiding everyone and everything from view.  When they demonstrated how Batman disappeared into the shadows and was only briefly seen by temporary light (muzzle flashes as a less than hypothetical example here) it was still very obvious what was going on, and the visible parts between the darkness were clear.

Batman's combat style was a mix of his armor absorbing blows that made him look inhuman, more often mixed with him making opponents miss, showing his maneuverability. His beat downs to take out criminals by the group were efficient, direct and terrifying.

However, unlike far too many other versions of the character, not only did Batman not kill anyone, he actively prevented others from killing, and explained why. "It would make us like them." This is not deep philosophical reasoning that holds up under logical analysis. This is the black and white world view of a ten year old who saw his parent's murder.  It is a key definition of the character. Robert Pattinson pulled that off, and all other aspects of a Bruce that's defining himself as the early stage, but still developed, Batman, perfectly.

Granted the beatings he doled out would leave many a thug in the hospital for a long stretch, but that's part of his fear based reputation. I almost felt sorry for anyone (such as the hapless door guarding twins) who had to face him multiple times. 

While the Wayne's death was mentioned (as it should be in nearly every Batman story, since it forms the core of his character) it was not shown, in a flashback or otherwise. Similarly, we were not shown him training, creating his gadgets or building his suit.  It's a live action Batman film that finally acknowledges we all know who he is, and how he came to be.

Bruce does get a character arc in this one, however. Its not learning to be "The Bat," or (thank Finger) learning why killing is bad.  He learns that he needs to be more of a symbol of hope to the non-criminal element. Additionally, he learns that he can't focus only on being Batman. Focusing on who Bruce Wayne is, what his family legacy means and how his fortune could be used to better his city if he paid any attention to it were all key.

There was a good mix of "practical realistic" stuff needed in a film made with real people, and "comic book convention" stuff that is important to who the characters are.  The film showed how he could get around the city and pop up places without being noticed. He traveled on a non descript motorcycle, with a ski mask and hoodie, only using the Bat-Costume when going into action.  However, his near magical ability to vanish mid-conversation was given no explanation.

How Batman was viewed by individuals was another shining example of why these creators "got it."  Both as Bruce and Batman, he immediately bonded with a young boy who's father was murdered. In fact there was a fantastic "Bat-priority" moment when the Caped Crusader lost a perfect chance to capture a villain in deciding to save the boy's life. By the end of the film, having Batman bear a torch (well...a flare, close enough) to lead people out of darkness and danger is exactly the "smack over the head symbolism" comics use. Importantly, his character arc didn't come from his learning to connect with and inspire the child. He did that automatically … 'cause he's Batman. The arc came from learning how important that connection and inspiration was.

As for how he's viewed by the criminal element; the opening scene handled it magnificently. First of all, it introduced the idea of Bruce's daily journal, which provided the excuse for his internal narration: a HUGE part of the character's personality in the comics. Second, it demonstrated the Bat-Signal is there because he can't be everywhere, but he could be anywhere. The scene showed several "superstitious and cowardly lot" reactions to the combination of the signal and nearby shadows, with Batman himself only appearing in one of the scenes.

That signal came from James Gordon. Jeffrey Wright's character is not commissioner yet at this phase of the story, but he was perfectly executed as the only one Batman can trust on the force, the only one who fully trusts Batman, and Batman's only real friend.  In rare moments where this young Dark Knight starts to lose it a bit, it is Jim and Jim alone that has the ability and permission to snap him out of it.

Bruce's other confidant is, of course, Alfred. Andy Serkis joins a long line of awesome Alfreds. That's one thing no version of this story has done wrong. Young Bruce played the "You're not my father," card very early. (As Anabelle said, "You're going THERE already?!?!) By later in the film it was exceptionally clear that Bruce acknowledged Alfred has - and continued to - fill exactly that role, helping Bruce with both intellectual and emotional hurdles.

Zoe Kravits returns as Catwoman after playing her in what Anabelle considers the greatest Batman film- Lego Batman.  She pointed to the number of parallels between that movie and this one as evidence of The Batman's greatness. Selina was presented as highly physically skilled and intelligent. She's definitely on the wrong side of the law, yet a good person. Even the best versions of the character have found it hard to balance these, either reducing the fact that she is good hearted,(Julie Newmar's hilarious, constant suggestions of offing Robin) or making her criminal activities completely justified and / or minimal. (Adrianne Barbeau's environmentally themed bent)

Anabelle and Aurora had a deep discussion about every moment between Bruce and Selina being "extra steamy." Anabelle pointed out that when he's Batman, he automatically is using a "bedroom voice" which helped. Mostly though, its just because they're the Bat and the Cat. At the end, of course, they go in opposite directions, with Batman literally watching her through a rear view mirror. (Oh, the symbolism!) This is because Bruce always loves very passionately, very deeply...
and very badly.  

Many comic book film franchises have messed up by trying to shoehorn a boatload of bad guys into a later film. The Batman piled them on in film one, and did it excellently.  Spider-Man: No Way Home pulled it off by using villains introduced and fully fleshed out in other franchises.  This film did it in part the same way it handled Batman's origin...remembering that we already know who these villains are, then building on their unique versions.

The other way was to tie all the featured criminals into the normal adversaries of early years Batman, the organized crime and corruption of Gotham. I'm used to John Tuturro's goofier roles in the Transformers franchise, but he delivered a powerful and frightening portrayal to the head of the Falcone crime family.  (Anabelle and Aurora noticed that him revealing exposition sounded a lot like members of our family telling stories over Thanksgiving dinner.  It's a big Italian family...whatcha gonna do?)

The Penguin was a lower level member of the gang, but still had a lot of clout, and was the face of the Iceberg Lounge as a legitimate business.  I wasn't a fan of Gotham but the series did do some interesting stuff with Penguin, that carried over into this version.  Colin Farrell was almost unrecognizable, though fantastic. He brought the character to life in a way that was full of ego and menace, but also highly entertaining and fun to watch.  He demonstrated some areas where he had more knowledge than Batman, adding to his reputation as a worthy opponent. Given the changes in Gotham by the end of this story, I could easily see him adapting more of the character's classic idiosyncrasies. (Anabelle insists he desperately needs a purple top hat. She also wished she wore hers to the theater in support. That's my girl!)

Riddler always poses a problem. Its kind of a ridiculous gimmick to begin with, seeming to encourage his own capture. Plus, usually there are only two choices.  A) Use a pale copy of Frank Gorshin, or B) Be completely different than Frank Gorshin and risk making the character he defined unrecognizable.  Paul Dano went with a completely different look and attitude than Gorshin, but there were important core similarities to the Riddler we know.  He swapped back and forth between darkly menacing speech, and unhinged, scary yet funny ranting and giggling. (Kim wondered if he took voice lessons from Christian Bale for the dark parts However, they were more breathy...and also more understandable.) He used complex death traps, not quite as goofy as the TV show, but still in an over the top way. His Riddles seemed basic and silly at first, but had multiple levels, meanings and puzzles buried within them. There was no big complicated back story here either. He was brilliantly intelligent, yet completely insane. He saw the corruption of the giant Wayne philanthropic legacy and acted using both his brilliance and insanity.

In Part, this story only works as an early Batman story.  Batman is mostly reactive as he figures out the Riddler's plans, not working multiple steps ahead of him. The fact that the Riddler claimed to be "inspired" by Batman and thought they were working together formed park of Bruce's journey to work beyond using only fear.  Combined with the presence of other villains established before Batman's crusade, it dispels the myth that Batman creates his foes and without him, they wouldn't exist. Rather, it shows that Batman attracts those types of foes to Gotham. It is a subtle but key difference. 

Speaking of fear. While Bruce motorcycles around incognito most of the film, when he needed to terrify those he pursued, out came the latest Batmobile. (Also added to my collection, thanx Honey!- Update and she found the impossible to find one in the right scale. Amazing!)

From the ads, it looked like the Neil Adams stripped down muscle car version from the Seventies comics written by Denny O'Neil. Those also brought us the Wayne Tower headquarters idea used in this film. (Adams Batmobile: second from left, bottom row.) However, there was a lot more to this vehicle. It had the fully bullet and fire proof body seen in fancier versions.  It also had a huge rocket in back and flame ports on the hood to strike vehicular terror into those cowardly and superstitious criminals.

I had no ranting, no complaining, no yelling at the screen. I'm sure I was much less entertaining than usual, but was far more entertained.  I did generate a good laugh when the first Riddle was solved and I punched my hand stating, "Gosh, yes Batman!"  I also got one for, "Hot take, Bruce Wayne is the Riddler too this time."

There was one point where it looked like someone had a major out of character moment of not paying attention to multiple things they clearly should be, and then dying. The film was impressive enough up to that point that I refrained from yelling at the screen until there was confirmation. However, at the same time Kim and I AND Anabelle and Aurora were telling each other variations of, "This was excellent so far, but I'm leaving."  As it turned out, there was only a serious injury, and the "out of character moments" weren't what truly happened. It was clever non linear storytelling instead, leading to a huge emotional pay off.

With the Nolan round of Batman movies, I always felt they were better constructed films than whatever Marvel offering came out around the same time, but I wanted to watch the Marvel ones more often, and could easily go back to the theater right after those movies ended. Those Batman films, I'd need time away from.

Considering it was nearly three hours long, I could have easily re-entered the theater that night and watched this one again. Batman is dark, brooding and filled with tragedy, but for the first time in a long while, a live action film remembered there's an element of fun with him and his rogues gallery. I mean... it's fun in a dark, tragic and noir setting, because it's Batman, but we still had some good laughs. Much of the laughter was due to those around the Dark Knight, and his completely deadpan acknowledging of the ridiculous world he occupies. This meant Batman was correctly used as one of the holy trinity of fictional straight men, along with Bert and Spock.

Speaking of that rogues gallery HUGE SPOILER COMING:

The cameo of Riddler's cell next door neighbor in Arkham, played with maniacal cackling glee by Barry Keoghan, looks to be another in a long line of excellent Jokers. His addition meant this was the first live action appearance of all four members of the "United Underworld" in one film since 1966.  

Gotta love that.

The ending could let the franchise go in many ways.
Maybe the cell neighbors have a falling out leading to a war of Jokes and Riddles.
With the state of Gotham, a "No Man's Land" could be declared.
Was that adrenaline Bruce injected...or was it Venom?  Can Bane be far behind?
Will Penguin bring in other more powerful and costumed villains to help him consolidate power?
Will Bruce becoming a symbol of hope to the non-criminals inspire many to join his Bat-family, or will the events of this story lead to other heroes checking on him?

Bring on the sequels...MANY OF THEM!


longbow said...

(studio executives sit down)

Batman... but it's also The Crow and Seven

Jeff McGinley said...

I've seen a lot of comparisons to The Crow. I think it's more they both drew from the same Noir sources. There aren't really any parallels.

Thanx for joining in!