Earlier this past week, I watched THE BATMAN, released a few months ago, for free at home. This was a pleasant surprise. HBO Max made it available this way for a brief promotional period, or so it seemed. Now, the movie appears to be permanently available to stream for free. I don’t know what factors into certain blockbusters becoming free to view far sooner than others. I thought I’d be having to wait for a good while longer before maybe paying $5.99 to view this impressive, engrossing production, a price I would have gladly paid.
I did not at all care for Ben Affleck’s anemic, tired-looking corporate executive portrayal of Batman/Bruce Wayne in a recent handful of DC Films, so the more elegant and mysterious Pattinson stepping into this superhero role was welcomed by me. THE BATMAN takes place relatively early in the Caped-crusader’s masked vigilante career. Pattinson plays dark and brooding extremely well, so he is excellent as the title character, a billionaire traumatized as a child from losing his parents during a violent robbery. I appreciated how this seminal event is not shown in flashback on screen, but simply referenced in dialogue and print. Batman’s origin story has already been well covered in earlier movies.
Zoe Kravitz plays Selina Kyle, who does not yet go by Catwoman in this screenplay. She is effectively written as sympathetic yet morally vague/gray, which I found believable. And she is svelte and beautiful. However, Kravitz is no match to Pattinson’s gritty gravitas, coming across as rather girlish in tone of voice and lacking in rough depth next to him. Perhaps that is intended. I grew up with watching the witty and mature-sounding Julie Newmar portraying Catwoman for two seasons of the 1960s campy show BATMAN, followed then by Eartha Kitt in that iconic role for the show’s third and final season. And while I think Julie Newmar reigns as the best on-screen portrayal of Catwoman ever, Eartha Kitt comes in as a close second, with her own unique feline moves and sultry woman’s voice. Alas, dear Ms. Kravitz had big shoes to fill, at least for myself and probably many other viewers who are, say, at least over forty. And while, perhaps, Kravitz plays a younger, less seasoned/roughed up by life Catwoman (to be) than her lovely predecessors, I have a hard time imagining Kravitz evolving to someone with a deeper, more nuanced voice, even more slinky and seductive moves, and a jaded yet humorous perspective on life. It is hard to believe that Kravitz and Newmar were pretty close in age while portraying Catwoman in their respective eras. Kravitz comes across as, well, an annoyed adolescent rather than smoldering, dangerous, and seductive like Catwoman should naturally be and Newmar and Kitt conveyed so well. But, enough with these comparisons. I’ll wait and see if Kravitz can bring more edgy maturity to the archetypal part, even though she likely will still not quite measure up to Newmar or Kitt.
Paul Dano plays the Riddler, a long-time arch villain of Batman’s. He is completely unlike Jim Carrey’s sexy and hilariously campy portrayal of this previously seen character in 1995’s very fun BATMAN FOREVER. In THE BATMAN, Dano and screenwriters Matt Reeves and Peter Craig make Riddler a comparatively more realistic obsessed and hyper sociopath. He posts on the Internet, garnering a devoted following, as he kills off Gotham City’s corrupt government leaders. Dano brings much thought and passion into the role. He effectively matches Pattinson’s quiet, often seething intensity.
The rest of the cast is generally stellar, with the exception of Andy Serkis as Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s devoted butler and assistant. He is solidly competent in the role but lacking a seasoned British elegance that others, namely Alan Napier, Michael Gough, and Jeremy Irons all brought to the part in previous incarnations. I think the creators were going for a younger Michael Caine kind of portrayal, with Caine and Serkis having a more working class English accent and style, which is fine, of course, but not the Alfred I grew up watching. To me, Alfred’s calm, measured, dignified demeanor adds a beautiful juxtaposition and complementarity to Batman’s more physical, hard-edged presence. This dynamic is lost between Serkis’ more earthy version of Alfred and Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne. Ah, well, ’tis a relatively minor area of lack in an otherwise solidly good work of cinema.
Batman is in ruthless, tough detective mode against a backdrop of a dark and dreary, crime-ridden metropolis, very much clearly inspired by 1930s through 1950s film noir genre productions. The sets, often enhanced by LED backgrounds, are largely made up of impressively high, foreboding buildings from a bygone era, influenced by the Art Deco style, still in fashion when the BATMAN comic debuted in 1939. Like Batman and Selina Kyle themselves, many of the sets are darkly beautiful, intermittently placed against expansive skylines, high rooflines, and claustrophobic interiors and exteriors (such as an outdoor train station). Much of the movie takes place at night, though daytime scenes are dimly lit or filtered. One cannot help but to feel a mix of overwhelm, constraint, and isolation that the characters experience in this grim world of THE BATMAN. Rain is initially used to set up the movie’s dreary mood while Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne/Batman dourly narrates an introduction. Kurt Cobain’s haunting recording of “Something in the Way” is effectively used twice in the movie, which boasts an incredible original musical score that I can only describe as powerfully suspenseful and beautifully intense.
The story of long-time political corruption and massive citizen neglect, which the Riddler destructively works at uncovering in Gotham and Batman comes to discover there, fits America’s and much of the world’s current political situation. Things are falling apart and new vision and leadership are desperately needed. As depressed as Pattison’s Batman/Bruce Wayne is, he holds onto hope and steadily begins to heal from his past, a human work in progress like, hopefully, we all should strive to be.