By David Free
Robert Patterson’s Batman is morally exhausted and spiritually drained.
The advance word about Matt Reeves’ The Batman suggested the world was in for a pretty odd reboot. The film’s running time would be three hours. The hero would be played by the lugubrious Englishman Robert Pattinson who revealed, in an interview, that The Batman was “a sad movie”, and that his character was “kind of a weirdo”, whom the writers had partly modelled on Kurt Cobain.
As it turns out, Reeves’ movie is indeed odd. But it’s odd in an unsettling and haunting way. If American democracy continues its slide into decadence, future historians may well point to this film as a kind of watershed or omen: an ailing bat in the coal mine. After four years of Trump and two of COVID-19, even Batman seems ready to throw in the sponge. Surely, a culture must be in terminal strife when even its fictional superheroes can barely see the point of going on.
Does that sound like a lot of baggage for a superhero movie to carry? Possibly. But comic-book films have reached an interesting stage of development. Yes, Hollywood is so obsessed with making them that it has almost forgotten how to make small movies about real people. But in compensation, the best superhero films these days are deeply resonant. They’re big, sweeping parables that catch the spirit of their age far more vividly than any small movie can.
Because he’s the most human of superheroes, Batman has always been the most capable of moving with the times. He began life in DC Comics in 1939. He was conceived as a kind of rejoinder to Superman, who’d come on the scene a year earlier. The man of steel had superhuman powers; Batman didn’t. He was just a human vigilante who donned bat clothes to blend in with the night.
The original Batman was a loner. His wholesome sidekick, Robin the Boy Wonder, didn’t enter the picture until 1940 after wowsers started complaining that comics were corrupting America’s youth. In 1970, the authors of the Batman comic sent Robin off to college: the first of many attempts to jettison the Boy Wonder and restore Batman to his solo roots.
It was also the first of many attempts to expunge the cheesy aftertaste of the Batman TV show, which ran from 1966 to 1968. Starring Adam West as a hopelessly square Batman, and Burt Ward as a wide-eyed Robin, the show was a gleeful piss-take on the whole capes-and-tights genre.
For hard-core fans, the show was a travesty, a betrayal of Batman’s noirish origins. When Warner Brothers started making big-screen Batmen in the late 1980s, the director Tim Burton did his best to exorcise the spirit of the show. Burton’s moody pair of Batman films starred Michael Keaton as the low-talking hero and nobody as Robin.
Robert Pattinson’s Batman has shades of Kurt Cobain (right), and Nirvana’s Something in the Way plays twice in the movie.Credit:Getty Images
But in the mid-90s, the studio decided to take Batman in a more family-friendly direction. Burton was relieved of his directorial duties, and replaced by the slick Joel Schumacher. “They’re called comic books, not tragic books,” Schumacher declared.
Schumacher’s Batman, successively played by Val Kilmer and George Clooney, looked like a leading man again. Robin was back, played by Chris O’Donnell. As the Riddler, Jim Carrey pranced around in a green bodysuit, just as Frank Gorshin had on TV. “It’s time for Batman to enjoy being Batman,” Clooney said.
There was no room for such frivolity when Christopher Nolan embarked on his down-and-dirty Batman trilogy in 2005. After 9/11, it was time for Batman to start hating life again, and for Robin to return to the dustbin of cultural history. Christian Bale’s Batman was a husky brooder, and Nolan’s bad guys were very bad indeed. They were walking nightmares, domestic terrorists with overtones of ISIS. Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for his eerie Joker in The Dark Knight (2008), confirming beyond doubt that superhero films had arrived as an art form.
After Nolan’s movies, Batman had two ways to go: back towards the light, or deeper into the dark. Reeves has gone darker. The Batman – the first instalment of a projected trilogy – is a strikingly realistic film, which plays down the comic-book stuff to an unprecedented degree. Although set in fictional Gotham City, it’s unmistakably about the world we currently live in.
When the action starts, Pattinson’s Batman has been fighting crime in Gotham for two years. And he doesn’t seem to be making a difference. The city’s a sinkhole of vice. Political corruption is endemic. Batman’s starting to wonder why he bothers.
Worse, he seems to be on the same side as the Riddler – played with slow-burning creepiness by Paul Dano. Like Batman, the Riddler bills himself as a corruption-fighting vigilante. For a while at least, there seems to be little moral difference between the film’s chief villain and its nominal hero.
Eschewing the traditional green tights, Dano’s Riddler wears a roomy black get-up that’s a palpable homage to the disguise worn by the Zodiac, the real-life serial killer who terrorised San Francisco in the late 1960s.
Before long, it dawns on you that Dano’s costume is a red herring. Under the Zodiac hood, he has deeper affinities with a more recent American rogue. Dano’s Riddler is a kind of politician, a demagogue who begins by promising to drain the swamp, and ends up building a dangerous personality cult. While Batman mopes around in his mansion, the Riddler blasts out communiques on social media, capturing the public imagination in a way Batman can’t. “No shame, no limits,” he brags.
There’s something very Donald Trumpian in Paul Dano’s Riddler.Credit:AP/Getty
Sound like anyone we know? Maybe it takes a comic-book movie to make you appreciate just how thoroughly American reality, during the Trump era, took on the texture of a cartoon. Basically, Trump was a Batman villain. He was the Fibber, millionaire maestro of malevolence. The man actually quoted a Batman baddie in his inaugural address. Freaking out many a Batman fan, Trump either deliberately or unconsciously repeated a line that the sociopathic Bane had uttered in The Dark Knight Rises, just before blowing the gates off a maximum-security prison and flooding Gotham’s streets with felons.
Like all the great Batman villains, Trump scoffed at civilised norms, and pursued chaos as an end in itself. And liberal America never quite figured out what to do about him. Did you chase down and debunk every last one of his porkies, or was that somehow missing the point? Did you dumb down and tribalise your politics to counteract his, or did that just deepen the social mayhem he craved? In the end, and not easily, the clown prince of politics was removed from the White House. But four years of his antics left America badly worn down.
This is how Batman feels in this film. He’s morally exhausted. He’s spiritually drained. Hence the overtones of Kurt Cobain. Nirvana’s gloomy Something in the Way plays twice on the movie’s soundtrack, and its bleak melody insinuates its way into the orchestral score.
Clearly we live in weird times, when a song like Something in the Way feels like a good theme tune for a hundred million dollar action movie. This is a song Cobain wrote about the time he lived under a bridge in Seattle – a song whose key line is “the tarp has sprung a leak.” This is a song so drenched in lassitude that Cobain didn’t bother to write a second verse. He just sang the first verse twice.
Cobain’s jaded voice permeates The Batman, seeming to undercut or even mock some of Reeves’s other choices. By his own admission, Reeves wanted his film to echo the complex political thrillers of the 1970s – pictures like Chinatown and All the President’s Men. Indeed, two of the movie’s minor crooks, Colson and Mitchell, are named after real-life players in the Watergate affair – maybe because Reeves felt it was too soon to call them Cohen and Manafort.
But there’s a major difference between The Batman and All the President’s Men. Portraying the real-life superheroes Woodward and Bernstein, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman didn’t lack self-belief. They hadn’t lost faith in the American idea. They jogged eagerly from office to office, snatching up phones, brandishing their notebooks like weapons. Yes, an American president had gone rogue. But American institutions could be relied on to correct the aberration.
After Trump and COVID-19, one detects no such spring in the step of Pattinson’s Batman. The main spark of crime-fighting mojo is provided by Catwoman, played by Zoe Kravitz. But her brio is no match for the film’s fundamental pessimism.
Zoe Kravtiz as Catwoman is a ray of hope compared to Robert Patterson’s pessimistic Batman. Credit:Getty Images
Made during the pandemic’s darkest days, The Batman was vexed by repeated production shutdowns, one of which lasted six months. By the time shooting wrapped, Trump was out of office, and the Capitol had been stormed. Reeves seems to have tweaked The Batman’s ending to reflect that shameful event. There are scenes in the final reel that convey a potent sense of democracy imploding.
If you wanted a tagline for The Batman’s poster, you could do worse than quote that great hype man W. B. Yeats. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity,” Yeats wrote in 1919, after Europe had been battered by a four-year world war and a catastrophic flu epidemic.
That’s roughly how things feel in 2022, in creepily familiar Gotham City. And let’s not forget the prophecy made by Yeats’s poem: “Surely the Second Coming is at hand.”
Is it? You never know, as long as characters like Trump and the Riddler are waiting in the wings, convinced their work isn’t done. “Gotham loves a comeback story,” one of the bad guys ominously observes as The Batman ends. Will the best have the energy and self-respect to keep the ratbags at bay? I guess we’d better stay tuned for the sequel. Same bat time, same bat channel.
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