The Batman: V for Vengeance

This review contains spoilers.

The Dark Knight’s first appearance in The Batman is the epic reveal of a predator as he stomps out of the shadows, black on black (or grey on grey). The criminals harassing a subway passenger have been scared of running into him all night. They pay for their transgressions by being bad enough to invoke him, which costs them their teeth, arms, and cranial integrity. No on-screen Batman has ever beaten people as this one does; he pounds and pounds, like a butcher taking out his aggression on flank steak. He beats them hard enough to hurt himself. The Batman persona is not a power fantasy to this Bruce Wayne but a form of self-harm from which this film hopes to redeem him. Yet by doing so with such an attractive impression of the audience's fantasy of Batman's psychosis, The Batman relies on blatant dialogue uttered with the thematic subtlety of a confessional to cover the tracks of this theme. It hopes that awe can substitute for wit. The cover-up is more successful than the crime.

The point-of-view of Greig Fraser’s cinematography is cramped yet invitingly epic. It’s claustrophobic yet comforting compared to the works of Nicholas Winding Refn or the Safdie brothers, whose 2017 film Good Time was many viewers' first taste of Robert Pattinson's tough nuance. A car chase that doesn’t contain a single master shot barrels down a Gotham highway, cars exploding, and Fraser keeps the view narrow, the Penguin (Colin Farrell) viewed from below the driver’s side window on the outside, the Batmobile’s exhaust port streaking the screen against Pattinson’s frame-filling snarl. It’s nearly impossible to comprehend the geography of the chase, like the sinking feeling of non-clarity before you crash your car extended to sequence-length (the entire scene could take place within a rearview mirror). It may not have the epic heft of the flipped truck from The Dark Knight, but this scene continues Batman’s new tradition of Bond-inspired car carnage with its own twist of perspective. It’s the film’s most memorable scene.

Unlike many comic book films, which prioritize momentum over mood, Fraser creates an apocalyptic feeling throughout the film with a palette of embers and ash, as though Gotham is already on fire. Hoy and Nelson’s editing leaves many scenes blatantly long – people seem to walk across rooms in real-time. The tone of the visuals is a clear attempt by Fraser and the capable production designer (James Chinlund), who balances glamorous technology with imposing architecture, to restyle Ridley Scott’s grunge-noir Blade Runner aesthetic for Batman. But the issue with this film as noir is that the film is dirty without being gritty. It's glossed-up, withholding the grain and blood and smoke that would make it come alive, as in the steaming architecture of Blade Runner, or the macabre shot geometry of Se7en, or the somber fatalism of Cure. Warner Bros. forbade The Batman from depicting smoking due to their estimation of the audience's age in this PG-13 film so even a club full of underworld baddies is jarringly clean. Even the Penguin appears without his iconic haze of fake-debutante smoke (it’s like he doesn’t know what to do with his hands without it). Even scenes violent enough to be bloody end up omitting most (or all) blood. The result is a world of stage-beautiful grime, a kind of steamy digital glamor that at times has a powerful look of shiny grunge that shows off a lot of artistry but at others feels ready to become a very epic commercial for men’s cologne.

Closely framed images match the emotional state of this new Bruce Wayne. He’s willfully withdrawn, seriousness as a form of self-loathing, a part that Robert Pattinson attacks with trance-like devotion, convincingly bringing the character's painful seclusion to life. If Batman is a monster of method in this film, Bruce is an emotionally stunted zombie, being so similar to his alter ego yet less comfortable in human clothes. He seems to be chained up in Batman's life (he's the skeleton in his closet) and throughout the film calls into question the sanctity of the rich benefactor hero trope and even his supposedly blameless, iconic father. Yet, the audience cannot view Batman's actions as a cautionary tale any more than they would be fooled by the disguise in real life (no Bruce Wayne has ever been more similar to Batman, down to the skulking stance and forbidding whisper). Even if the film means for the action to be viewed as painful excursions driven by ego, guilt, or “white privilege” (Catwoman’s words), the subversion is shallower than the fan service because those scary-brutal early scenes produce feelings of glee (“this is exactly the Batman I’ve always wanted,” is a common reaction). His beatdowns even come with a musical theme by Michael Giacchino that is brain-tinglingly similar to Darth Vader’s Imperial March, another example of caution in canon translating to pleasure in the theater. Bruce is lonely, brooding, always drenched; it rains as much in Gotham as in New Los Angeles. But the viewer doesn’t feel the sting (even the family revelations are flip-flopped later). Instead, they go home and download the Nirvana songs that stand in for it (“Something in the Way” has been streamed 1200% more frequently since the film’s release, and it's not because it tells a cautionary tale).

The script tries to give the film the gravity of an epic procedural, but the dialogue more often uses literal thematic text to drive a story in desperate need of human reactions, which results in many conversations having the subtlety of a hammer banging out a dent. Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz) describes their dynamic by saying, “Maybe we're not so different after all," a line so overused even parodies of it are overused; she calls him "Mr. Vengeance" without hearing him say it first (it's a cultural trope). Whether literalizing the Bat/Cat relationship, truncating Alfred's (Andy Serkis) screentime with sitcom proclamations ("You're not my father"), reducing Jeffrey Wright's Gordon to a well-cast but powerless bystander, or giving Batman high-minded motivational posters as inner monologues ("Vengeance won't change the past"), the story loses its impression of human grit through this inorganic dialogue, which like Batman seems to turn its whole body to see oncoming problems because of a lack of movement in its neck. Despite an admirably grounded tone and a cast of stars pulling their weight around every alleyway, almost everyone feels underused (that’s what HBO Max shows are for).

The Batman tries to counterbalance these dramatic intentions with a thriller mystery concerning the Riddler, here translated into a Zodiac killer fanboy on a mission of holy vengeance to rid Gotham City of political corruption. Drawing from his Eli character from There Will Be Blood, Paul Dano puts the holy fear of a silly god into the screen when he records executions for his social media followers, beneath a costume made from makeshift leather scraps taped down around his glasses (he looks like a cross between Zodiac and Woody Allen’s robot disguise from Sleeper). The performance of the character is a Dano specialty – the rage of the forgotten little guy, driven to false superiority. He has a genuine, manic-horrific presence on-screen, yet the puzzles he invents are better suited to deflecting analysis than holding up under it. This puts the plot and the thematic intent in constant conflict – the more its logic of cause and effect is examined with the seriousness it demands, the less casual its flaws seem.

The script uses an ingenious pattern of recognition to convince the audience to accept the riddles at their word and bow at the film's intellect before leaving – when confronted with a riddle, lowly cops scratch their heads, Gordon says “Jesus” and “holy shit” in reverence of the Riddler’s intellect, and then Batman solves the puzzles nonchalantly. This clever geometry of reactions is a great smokescreen for the script to get in, steal the audience’s awe, and escape undetected. But on closer inspection, the mysteries are not ingenious or even strictly necessary for the story. One “riddle,” which involves finding a victim’s finger in their car by solving a visual puzzle that leads Batman to check their car, denies the characters the rational ability to check the car first. That would spoil the mechanical pleasure of appearances of Batman “solving” it, yet the Riddler also cannot move the plot to the next victim until Batman checks the car and moves it for him (had he refused to do so, the film might have ended right there). This is how The Batman ends up in a place where it must resist logical contingencies yet pass off the appearance of considering them. Pacing controls its actions far more than logic.

The plot propels itself through devices ranging from forgivably convenient to downright blatant. At one point, Catwoman randomly produces a phone call recording of a death scene that contains the bad guys painstakingly admitting the circumstances of their guilt in complete sentences, right into the mic (she hadn't checked her messages until then). Another scene, involving Spanish pronouns and the acronym “URL,” which Pattinson labors over in steady revelation (“U … R … L”), has the exact impression of logic of the Adam West show (“It happened at sea. Sea? 'C' for 'Catwoman!'"). But when West's Batman solved the Riddler’s conniving contraptions, the audience was meant to laugh. The mayor said, “Of course,” without a hint of irony because it was ironic; that Riddler became a critique of how all comic book material is written. In The Batman, Gordon (though Wright plays him with gruff nobility) says it without realizing what anyone would find funny. This screenplay being so close to camp is not as big an issue as the feeling that these scenes demand to be taken as seriously as sin, as original as a revelation. Despite the posture of a groundbreaking take on the mythos, this Riddler is a recycled impression of Heath Ledger's Joker, down to his terrorist minions, pseudo-political phone call executions of public officials against a thematic slogan scrawled in red (it doubles as the film's tagline), as well as his willful capture, interrogation scene, and final plan. He's not the genre gamechanger that his posture implies.

Without defining the Batman’s actions as clear plot motivators against a villain who like all hastily recycled thriller baddies is omniscient only when needed, the final act fizzles in proportion to its conceit. With the interrogation room scene, the script had the perfect chance to concoct a riddle that Batman could not solve because of a personal flaw, clarifying his emotional arc in the process. Instead, his failure is not pertinent, hinging Gotham's entire fate on whether he can recognize a carpet maintenance tool. Yet, the scene acts as though Batman's failure was spiritually significant ("Oh, you're really not as smart as I thought you were"). Dano's boyish fury provides the audience with the intended emotional response even though the device falls completely flat (even the "intending to get caught" trope borrowed from Se7en and The Dark Knight is not relevant beyond setting up this scene). It’s not intelligence that’s being tested so much as recognition – it’s not chess, it’s The Price is Right.

Rather than focusing on Riddler's miscalculation of Batman's heart, which is the most relevant beat in this confrontation, the screenplay by Reeves and Peter Craig (his Hunger Games scripts had a similar problem) smears the revelation over a manipulatively long action finale, like the “What’s in the box?" scene turned into a 40-minute set-piece. It seems to hope that meta-narration and somber visuals that recall real-world terrorism can replace the impression of a rushed thriller conclusion, which despite high-minded talk hinges on nothing more complicated than a car-bombing. The question of whether Batman recognized the carpet tool, thus saving the city from the Riddler's plot (which now includes drowning the people he spent the whole film informing), is a hasty replacement for more emotional truths, which are trapped in rushed scenes of forced insight that even at their most tender have the tempo of an interrogation.

When Alan Moore began writing V for Vendetta, Batman had not yet become his modern incarnation, created by the manic political power fantasy of The Dark Knight Returns and the cautionary tale of The Killing Joke (also Moore). Moore avoids watching comic book films, including those based on his own work, as though both his violent caricatures of goodness and chillingly sympathetic villains have become equally unironic (and just as easily redeemed). "Comics," he clarified in a later interview, "are stuck, it seems, in this kind of depressive ghetto of grimness and psychosis. I’m not too proud of being the author of that regrettable trend." V for Vendetta created a superhero as a poet-rebel against government control, whose vengeance was condonable in the face of even more violent corruption. By contrast, The Batman attempts to redeem its brutal ideals with a revelation of support for modern institutions (the attack on Gotham City Hall even takes place on November 5th, completing the allusion). Yet on second viewing, the violent scenes would reproduce the same visceral applause-worthy pleasure they delivered the first time; they would not become tragic in retrospect. That grounded, hyper-violent first act asserts a strong cast and a glamorous visual style with audience-pleasing confidence, becoming both the best argument for the film's design-driven brutality and the worst argument for the theme. For all its pedantry, The Batman is ultimately another example of letting rushed devices and dead-end dialogue absolve both the labor of inadequate writers and the conscience of an audience who likes this character best when he's at his worst. The general consensus is that this proves Reeves’ point about him. But it’s better proof of Moore’s.

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Warner Bros.

Cast & Crew


Leave a Reply