The Batman (2022)
*This review does contain some spoilers*
During a recent family holiday we made our way to the cinemas and caught the most recent Batman film not just once but twice — just because I was convinced that there had to be moments of the dialogue that I’d missed (and we had time to kill) while part of my brain was wandering off in a completely different direction which really turned out to be an excursion in futility. Yes, the question of who the Riddler was addressed although not entirely to my satisfaction because in the end the Riddler was less a human being but an entity and a violent reaction to the underbelly of corruption that was destroying Gotham from the inside. Despite that, his very presence in the narrative throws up relevant moral and ethical questions about means and ends in the elusive search for justice. Riddler positions himself as a vigilante of the same ilk as the Batman because it is his most cherished belief that ultimately they are partners-in-crime by virtue of shared goals. This Riddler sees himself as a crime fighter in that tradition although the vast majority of those who think he’s lost the plot will vehemently beg to differ. Moreover his ubiquity is inexplicable in a way that Batman’s ability to move quickly in and out of situations isn’t. The film doesn’t entirely explain the “super villain” aspects. Here they haven’t been bitten by a radioactive arachnid, fallen into a vat of toxic goo or trained with rigour by a secret organisation or assassins and yet they accomplish a variety of inhuman feats. He doesn’t seem to have worked out much either.
But this post isn’t really about unexplained powers and plot holes in a show about a wealthy vigilante sleuth stalking the city streets dressed like a bat putting the fear of God in his prey. Batman might not be as friendly a neighbourhood fixture as Spidey but he has certainly cemented his spot as a popular culture icon. Detective Bat Noir in all its moody, gloomy, sombre glory is of an honourable tradition among landmark graphic novels. Dark gets darker. Even Michael Giacchino’s Bat dirge soundtrack has resonances of Chopin to set the tone. If all the usual storytelling elements aren’t enough to clarify matters, there’s a voice over to ensure that we “get it”.
The reason why a Batman movie is getting some attention here on a blog that’s usually devoted to ramblings about Asian dramas is how the film reminds this author of The Devil Judge in particular and other South Korean vigilantes that have found our way to our television screens in the last couple of years. Which is ironic considering that The Devil Judge is loosely based on Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. In this film, the moral rot that’s infested the city of Gotham is fundamentally the result of political corruption and it’s a contagion that has powerful ramifications for the people on the street. The opening sequence sees Batman coming to the rescue of a helpless commuter who has fallen prey to a gang of street thugs in a lonely subway platform. When asked “Who are you?” by his cowering prey, the city’s pre-eminent vigilante declares, “I am Vengeance”, evocative of an important Biblical injunction: “‘Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, ‘I will repay’.” Which begs the question as to whether Bats sees himself as occupying the place of the Almighty or feels himself called to be the humble proxy for a higher power that appears indifferent to the injustices that run rife in his hometown.
Playing God is the name of the game here. Unsanctioned crime fighters must surely have the audacity or hubris to see themselves as avenging angels doing God’s work in cleaning up the city streets from miscreants. Or picking off members of the city’s cabal one at a time in a cat and mouse game. There’s a nail-biting moment in the film where the elites of Gotham gather at a cathedral for the late mayor’s memorial service when the Riddler’s latest victim literally crashes through the gates in an attention grabbing entrance. Could this be an act of defiance against both men and God?
The corruption angle here is fairly prosaic and gives off a familiar scent but in all fairness to the show’s own aims, it works as a catalyst for a far more ambitious plot involving a serial killer who leaves clues behind for the bat crusader who is given access to the crime scenes because of his tenuous alliance with Jim Gordon. The city’s preeminent vigilante is not welcomed by the official boys in blue as a whole but few stop to consider why vigilantism has reared its unwelcomed head despite an active police presence all around. Not every member of law enforcement is corrupt (certainly among the rank and file) but there’s something rotten in Gotham and the cops are useless.
Every Batman movie on some level has to at least pay lip service to the duality of the Bruce Wayne-Batman figure. After all, Bruce Wayne isn’t just anybody in the Gotham set. This Bruce Wayne, however, doesn’t even pretend to have a presence in the city’s deteriorating landscape and is far more at home in his batcave playing the reclusive detective. Once a blue moon he emerges from under his rock but always as the enigmatic scion of the Wayne dynasty with no identity of his own. He lives in the shadows and under the shadow of the charismatic Thomas Wayne, a beloved surgeon who once aspired for a seat in the city’s highest political office by putting his money where his mouth was. The son of Thomas Wayne, on the other hand, chooses a different tack. Via the mask he makes his presence felt in the hope of affecting change in a place that his family help built.
For what it attempts to achieve, The Batman 2022 is a well-made film, a tad longish but I don’t really mind because more Batman in a Batman movie is generally an acceptable trade-off. And Batman as detective is a pleasure to watch. Robert Pattinson is a decent Bats and his chemistry with Zoe Kravitz works for me. It’s hard to fault any of the performances and Colin Farrell is unrecognizable as one of the key characters. The Riddler’s trail of clues is one of the highlights although the actual crime plot is pretty much by the numbers. What I think makes this Batman film one of the better ones is the rich symbolism, the metaphors of light versus darkness and the juxtaposition of two vigilante figures who purport to have the same goals but deploy starkly different means as they work behind the scenes. The Riddler seeks validation and admiration which he achieves by dragging Batman by the nose into a narrative that he’s weaving which sees him, Riddler, as the saviour of Gotham. If there’s anyone in this disordered, unjust world who can appreciate his craftsmanship, it has to be Batman. Or so he believes… in earnest.
Like a lot of K drama villains and victims, Riddler is one of the forgotten people in his context. There’s something understandable about his grievance and he is the man on the street who is fed up to the teeth with the status quo and then reinvents himself into a serial killer. Rather than an anomaly he is a product of the world he was raised in. Rather than being a nemesis of Gotham’s organized crime elements, he is their progeny that bites the hand that feeds him.
Hot on the heels of shows like Through the Darkness and Beyond Evil, The Batman can’t make claim to breaking any new ground among police procedurals. It safely traverses familiar places while giving nods to the pre-existing vigilante’s mythos. Nevertheless it is a solid crime show and a valuable entry into the Batman oeuvre.