With yet another action-packed trailer for The Batman popping up today, I wanted to respond to its whole campaign with both my anticipation and misgivings. Matt Reeves’ initial statement of purpose in writing and directing the film as a “Hitchcockian noir” remains its most promising element (as well as its most questionable). While most comic book films dread the curse of “too many villains,” The Batman flaunts its large cast as a selling point, the fulcrum of a big old-fashioned whodunnit blended with modern post-Nolan grimacing. Trailers have now shown The Riddler (Paul Dano), The Penguin (Colin Farrell), and Catwoman (Zoe Kravitz) in their full glory. This movie does not flee from Batman & Robin’s self-impressed clutter: it embraces it, hopefully, to justify it.
The trailers also show a good amount of the film’s visuals, which display Greig Fraser's skill in using blocking and focus to create mood (after Dune, he's on track to become a household name with Deakins). Despite the film's craft, however, I have misgivings about the filmmaking technology on display in The Batman. Its mission is so spiritually connected to hard-lined shadows and directional light sources that I would think an older approach, even 35mm, would be ideal. In modern films like The Old Man & the Gun and Phantom Thread, resurrecting the old medium with the help of new technology has been as heartwarming as it is aesthetically intense. In Nightcrawler, digital ARRI ALEXA camerawork combined with some 35mm techniques for a great hybrid vision – a living LA, caked in grime and lamplight. The screen was on fire with Gyllenhaal’s eyes; his cheekbones cut the night. The trailer footage for The Batman displays a possible contradiction in comparison: an intention to be gritty that uses freshly-pressed, color-corrected digital visuals with all the wrinkles ironed out. It’s grit, glammed up. There's no way to know how well that will work until the film is out.
The look of the characters will likely spark debate. Taking a well-known villain like the Riddler and making him unrecognizable is a risk (if the same character was called “Scarecrow,” no one would question it – he looks more like a cameo of the Miner from My Bloody Valentine than any version of his namesake). However, what works in print cannot be expected to always work the same way on screen. Rather than be condemned by the criteria of “accuracy,” this version hopes to be new. The inevitable debates about appearances would do well to realize that characters with a new look, tailored to this film, have a better chance of being interesting, even if they share an old name.
The other point of contention will be Robert Pattinson’s casting (it wouldn’t be a new Batman film without pre-judging the principal actor). Pattinson has proven himself in recent films like The Lighthouse, Good Time, and Cosmopolis to be up to the challenge of playing the fatalistic protagonist in a self-harm fable, which this Bruce Wayne seems to be trapped in (the first trailer slow-danced to a Nirvana song). He has mangled eyes and wears his suit like a shadow – he’s a well-fed skeleton, an interesting, even haunting vision. Bruce is the less well-represented half of this hero’s dual personality and the one I believe has more dramatic potential. For that reason, I hope Pattinson spends more screentime as Bruce in Reeves' film. In several shots already released, he seems more imposing in that suit than the Bat-branded one, in which his prominent forehead and beady eyes look a bit odd, like a kid in a homemade costume a size too large for him (maybe that was on purpose). His beginnings as an actor in teen romances combined with this look is as good as a prophecy for the months (and months) ahead, when people will argue about the appearance of the characters with ten times the severity that they debate the consistency of the script.
Thankfully, point-of-view, not just visually but narratively, is Reeves’ strongest suit. The progression of his Planet of the Apes films was a progression of perspective – the story became increasingly less about the world and more about the world through Caesar’s eyes. Reeves looked for individual empathy in a blockbuster concept. That is what gives me the most confidence in The Batman, which I believe more than any previous film incarnation will be a personal story driven by a single character’s feelings.
The smallest possible scale – the unique feelings of this one character – should be the brand’s biggest advantage. Yet, no Batman film has attempted to focus on them. Even Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, which matched its high-tech intentions with visuals that were more grounded than those on display so far in Reeves’ film, resisted devoting resources to Bruce Wayne's emotional drama. It’s a shame that we’ve gone this long without a real acid-tongued, take-no-prisoners Batman noir film with the drama and sexuality in center-stage. I’m ready for one.
I’m cautiously hopeful for the intimate approach that Reeves has suggested with the footage released so far for The Batman. But Joker (2019) also had a vision of low-tech filmmaking, accidentally glossed up by digital cameras and by over-referring to its inspirations. It had an old style thwarted by a modern texture, an intention to focus on a classic character narrative strangled by modern genre conventions. Memories of its shortcomings are causing me caution with this new film. But I'm still delighted to see Warner Bros. giving smaller visions a chance at life, where this inconsistency could be viewed as the price of individuality. With the exceptions of Justice League (2017) and Wonder Woman 1984, Warner Bros. has not wasted its fandom’s graces trying to aesthetically align their cinematic universe with Marvel's, which at this point has the tone of a bunch of kids playing with their dads’ guns. With The Batman, I hope for a standalone, serious film above all else. I want a powerful gut-punch of an ending, a real ending to one film (remember those?). Regardless of the fans on Twitter already ranking Pattinson’s incarnation on their lists of the best Batman performances, I’m excited to wait and see it first.
But if a post-credits sequence starts revving up to tease the Joker in the next film, I’m walking out early.
Image is a screenshot from the trailer: ©Warner Bros. Pictures/DC Films