The Batman (2022) has received something of a mixed reception from critics and film fans, but I’d like to go on record to say it deserves at least Se7en out of zen. It’s reminiscent of the look and feel and general modus operandi of David Fincher’s 1995 serial killer opus – if not quite Zodiac (2007) – and “zen” as in perhaps we should all reach out for a bit of enlightenment in a time of dark, dark darkness.
Movies are movies, aren’t they? If they aren’t movies, then what are they? No, that’s not a riddle. What gets wetter the more it dries? Gollum … Gollum … “Bar towel!” (John Wayne in The Quiet Man, 1952).
With The Batman, Matt Reeves – Cloverfield (2008), Apes (2014-17) – delivers a raw and regal, vertiginously virtuoso display of technical excellence. For those who dis these comic book pictures, let’s at least admit they can look and sound fantastic, even when the look is consistently a sombre, emo study in black (“Etude In Black” is the title of one of my favourite Columbo episodes, relevant only because The Batman, Reeves’ film, emphasises the titular crimefighter’s “Detective” roots, perhaps to the detriment of the plotting, which involves much exposition and the too-slow revelation of layers of conspiracy which are fairly obvious from the start. Just one more thing – it’s a delight watching old pals Peter Falk and John Cassavetes sparring in that particular Columbo).
Like I said, movies are movies, and watching The Batman reminded me of … coach Tony D’Amato’s (Al Pacino) locker room speech in Oliver Stone’s American football drama Any Given Sunday (1999). (I might have almost lost you there, but stay with it – there is a route out of the dark, back into the light). Bear with me as I patch together highlights from that D’Amato speech (by Stone and John Logan, maybe with bits of Marty Schottenheimer?) and lines from The Batman.
Did The Riddler’s (grammatically incorrect Spanish?!) clue about a rat with wings, “El Rata Alada”, remind me of D’Amato, whose surname ironically leads us to “beloved”? Or was it more than an echo, more than a simple rhyme or resonance, more of a cinematic rhythm of sound and words and images? Of real emotions, even? Listen to it now, catch on to the rhythm, and you tell me.
TONY D’AMATO: I don’t know what to say really. Three minutes to the biggest battle of our professional lives, all comes down to today. Either we heal as a team, or we are going to crumble. Inch by inch, play by play, until we’re finished. UNSEEN ARKHAM PRISONER: What is it they say? One day you’re on top, the next you’re a clown …
TONY: We are in Hell right now, gentlemen … RIDDLER: I’ll see you in Hell … TONY: believe me, and we can stay here and get the shit kicked out of us, or we can fight our way back into the light. We can climb out of Hell. One inch, at a time.
TONY: Now, I can’t do it for you. I’m too old. ALFRED: You needed a father. All you had was me. TONY: I look around and I see these young faces and I think, I mean, I made every wrong choice a middle-aged man could make. I uh … I pissed away all my money, believe it or not. ALFRED: If this continues, it won’t be long before you’ve nothing left. TONY: I chased off anyone who has ever loved me. BRUCE WAYNE: I never thought I’d feel fear like that again. I thought I’d mastered all that … TONY: And lately, I can’t even stand the face I see in the mirror. (ME: So, wear a mask?).
TONY: (You find out that life is just a game of inches. So is football … ) On this team, we tear ourselves and everyone around us to pieces for that inch. We claw, with our fingernails (ME: Like Zoe Kravitz as Catwoman, gouging into flesh) for that inch. ’Cause we know, when we add up all those inches, that’s gonna make the fuckin difference between winning and losing … between living and dying. THE BATMAN: Our scars can destroy us, even after the physical wounds have healed. But if we survive them, they can transform us. They can give us the power to endure, and the strength to fight.
TONY: You gotta look at the guy next to you. Look into his eyes. Now, I think you are going to see a guy who will go that inch with you. You are going to see a guy who will sacrifice himself for this team because he knows when it comes down to it, you are gonna do the same thing for him. BRUCE WAYNE/THE BATMAN: People need hope.
THE BATMAN: Look after yourself …
Look after yourself … it’s a strange world out there, after all.
Is The Batman a great movie? No, but a very good one. Is Any Given Sunday a great movie? No, but it’s more than gridiron gabbling. The sheer primal enjoyment of losing it at the movies can be about incidental pleasures, the small details – looks and gestures affording the audience a bit of intelligence from The Batman’s Jeffrey Wright, Colin Farrell, John Turturro, Paul Dano. Con O’Neill! And Andy Serkis, Alfred’s accent coming from somewhere via Ian Dury. Bits and pieces that add up, play by play, inch by inch (“on this team, we fight for that …”).
From the very get-go, the online geeks said Robert Pattinson would be so wrong as Bruce Wayne/The Batman. Others (yes, Martin Scorsese among them) said there have been way too many comic book films, and somehow they are not even proper films, anyway (not “cinema” but “theme parks”, where there’s “nothing at risk”). But movies are movies, aren’t they? The incidental pleasures, technical excellence, production design, supporting performances, the music of Michael Giacchino … it’s a team effort, the kind of a thing an audience can get behind, like a crowd at the football game – when the last second ticks off the clock, who knows what will happen?
And maybe there’s more to it than that, and there is real risk. Maybe Reeves’ The Batman tackles race issues and white privilege. Maybe it asks if widescale corruption is an unavoidable and oppressive part of life. Maybe it gets to the heart of a city brought to its knees before it can rise again, after the deluge, after the conflagration, following a solitary red flare to safety. Or maybe it makes us feel what it might be like to be balanced precariously on the edge of war. Maybe Reeves out-Nolans The Dark Knight (2008), and goes down even deeper, darker. Maybe the score by Giacchino surpasses the Zimmer, man. Maybe Pattinson puts it all out there, for all to sneer at, to deride and declaim, but maybe he just about makes it work … and then some?
The Batman has had its critics (darn those geeks!). I just read a review that picked up on the narration, as if it were a sure sign of storytelling failure, and post-production tinkering. Scriptwriting gurus always tell us to avoid narration, it never ever works. Show don’t tell! But then there’s Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). Sunset Boulevard (1950). A Clockwork Orange (1971). Barry Lyndon (1975). Apocalypse Now (1979). Raising Arizona (1987). Goodfellas (1990). Fight Club (1999). Narration! Don’t even mention Bladerunner (1982). And don’t mention The Batman – unless you know what you want to say when people tell you it’s “just another comic book movie”.