Wednesday, 20 April 2022

The Batman

For a character that has been booted and rebooted to the point where any sense of permanence or progression has been subordinated to an endlessly regurgitating state of origin, Matt Reeves and Robert Pattinson's take on the caped crusader manages to eke out a place of its own in this ever-expanding pantheon by making him deliberately inexpert. This desire to play the masked vigilante as disconnected and insufferably weird is just enough to numb the nagging feeling that, perhaps, the Dark Knight might be better served by a period of hibernation. Although the overarching story is completely dissimilar, this The Batman is grounded in themes and ideas that didn't quite make it to the screen when Frank Miller and Darren Aronofsky were circling Warner Bros' prize property in the early 2000s - a Bruce Wayne estranged from the gaudier aspects of his wealth and a Batcave that, rather than occupy a cavernous space beneath a mansion, is actually a cordoned off stretch of abandoned subway. 

Like Miller and Aronofsky's recalibration, this Bruce Wayne isn't portrayed as worldly either. There's zero sense of the globetrotting pilgrimage that underpinned Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale's shinobi cinema take. Reeves' Batman has put down roots then rotted, a phantom committed to drifting along the streets that claimed his parents. Pattinson offers up gauntness, a malnourished cigarette stink that is reflected back to him by a Gotham filled with blaring video screens and neo-Grecian majesty; a city resplendent with ill-gotten gains and drowning in a constant downpour. Suited up, Pattinson's Batman isn't played as intimidating either. The street-level cops he interacts with are not awed by his supernatural presence, they treat him as a nuisance - an unwanted physical affectation that, for some reason, is allowed to pollute their evidence gathering procedures. 

Pattinson has a theatrical, carnival, quality to his looming. The horned cowl he wears more evocative of a Victorian depiction of The Devil than the usual animisitic totem. Batman as a dressed-up, Spring-Heeled Jack style, eccentric rather than the world-shaker who counts Superman amongst his friends. This Batman then has been plucked out of folklore and deposited into a particularly dour police procedural. This clash plays beautifully, at least at first, largely thanks to Pattinson's decision to not adapt in the slightest to the superhero production line. Rather than a gleaming Adonis, this masked vigilante is sinewy and violently unhinged; his venom maintained by poisonous-looking chemicals that can be injected into his body when he finds himself in dire need. Firmly located within sodden squalor, Reeves and Cinematographer Greig Fraser's film very obviously strives to evoke David Fincher and Darius Khondji's despondent work on Seven but the invocation frequently plumbs deeper influential depths. 

A constant technological prickle recalls the uneasy symbiosis of analogue and biomechanical machinery tidied into every frame by Ridley Scott and Jordan Cronenweth on Blade Runner. In the early goings, eyes gather and compute long strings of visual information, spitting out leads for this button-pushing meddler. It's a shame that the demands of Bruce Wayne's case have him leave this visually unusual feedback loop; damning his interactions to yawning exposition dumps and criminals casually surmising their murderous intents. Although the aesthetic is often sublime, the actual structural mechanics underlining this beauty frequently work directly against the spell. As well as an elasticated relationship to bodily harm that (bizarrely) aligns him with his Warner stablemate Daffy Duck, Pattinson's Batman isn't just dim, he's blank. An empty vessel just waiting to be filled up. 

Mouth-foaming data is batted aside, more than once, when Bruce Wayne finds his way to another, contradictory, perspective. There are sequences in the film where Batman dutifully trots from meeting to meeting, instantly rearranging his entire outlook based on nothing more than the last thing that was said to him. The character's strongest convictions are the revulsion he feels regarding firearms, an abstinence he lords over those who plainly weren't rich enough to keep a butler on staff to teach them the ins and outs of Spanish martial arts. In a film where, comfortably, hundreds of innocent civilians are swept away by polluted filth, why shouldn't Zoë Kravitz's Selina Kyle shoot a man involved in the brutal murder of her lover? Similarly, Batman's yelping admonishment of the supervillains he faces comes off as rote and sanctimonious in a film where the Bruce's public-facing persona is a barely maintained shadow. Scenes designed to draw clear lines under the idea that Batman and his foes are reflections of each other repeatedly fail to land because of the voyeuristic strangeness constantly being generated by Pattinson. If anything, Wayne Jnr's unholy quest to pummel turnstile hoppers makes considerably less sense than a violent uprising determined to rid a terminally compromised city of its parasitic ruling class.  

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