The latest adaptation of “Batman,” D.C. Comics’ legendary series centered around wealthy anti-hero Bruce Wayne and the gritty Gotham City he calls home, comes to American audiences at a time of heightened awareness of the violence and chaos plaguing our major cities. So, throughout the nearly three-hour film, the visceral scenes of street violence and the depicted climate of fear will hit home for many movie-goers.
In its opening scenes, a gang of young teenagers on the subway, faces painted like Heath Ledger’s 2008 Joker, pass around a recording of them knocking out an innocent subway-goer before cornering another helpless commuter. This may come as too familiar for many viewers, who have undoubtedly seen footage of similar attacks in cities like Philadelphia or New York.
“Batman,” a franchise known for its gritty realism — in contrast with the more high-flying, fantastical Marvel films of the past decade — sinks even further into dark reality under Matt Reeves’ (“Cloverfield,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”) first turn as director. Reeves’ titular character, played by an icy Robert Pattinson (“Twilight,” “The Lighthouse”), still scales the peaks of Gotham’s skyscrapers, but he takes no pleasure in flying through the air at 200 miles per hour on the way down. Pattinson grimaces, rather than grins, when the bad guys land shots on him. His batmobile isn’t the space-age invention of Christian Bale’s Dark Knight, but rather a souped up version of a racecar that might hurtle around you on a dark highway.
Even The Penguin, played by an unrecognizable Colin Farrell, departs from the fantastical origins of Danny DeVito’s 1992 character in “Batman Returns,” rising through the ranks of Gotham’s organized crime rings rather than up from its sewer system. Farrell’s version of the mob boss sports a scarred, beaky face that could realistically earn him the moniker. A movie villain, but one that rings true to life.
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The realism of “The Batman” also comes into play during instances of violence on screen: a woman being strangled over the phone; a number of murder devices that would be more comfortable in the “Saw” series than most superhero movies.
The film’s political discourse, never far away given Gotham’s corrupted leadership class, leans into the eternal questions of power and human nature that have distinguished the series from its less sophisticated peers since Christopher Nolan took a turn as Batman director, with Bale as the Bat. What sacrifices can be justified to achieve a better society? Can the lonely, sinful and cynical still do good — and does it even matter in the end?
In Gotham, the mobsters and the elected officials are often indistinguishable. More cops are dirty than clean. And the system creaks onward through the generations, enriching the haves and oppressing the have-nots.
Still, the thrills are fun, the acting is strong, and Paul Dano (“Little Miss Sunshine,” “There Will Be Blood”) makes a gratifyingly insane supervillain as The Riddler.
“The Batman” doesn’t tread too much into today’s politics, and that’s a good thing. The streetscape and characters retain a gritty, 70s New York City feel, though references to social media, video calling and “white privilege” do nod to the present. Some conservative viewers may groan at this latter instance, but Matt Reeves has largely pulled his punches with regards to our present woke fascinations.
In fact, the series’ politics is decidedly twentieth-century, one of class-based resentments and political bosses. The Riddler grew up destitute, and envies Bruce Wayne’s material wealth; Zoe Kravitz’ (“Big Little Lies,” “Divergent”) Catwoman is a product of Gotham’s hard-edged working class, engineering her way out by robbing the wealthy and corrupt. The concerns of “The Batman’s” characters, anarchists and mobsters alike, are material, not intersectional.
This all feels like a relief, and guarantees the Reeves film does not become another preachy “virtue bomb.” Audiences go to the movies to be moved and captivated — not lectured to.
The series’ politics is decidedly twentieth-century, one of classed-based resentments and political bosses… The concerns of ‘The Batman’s’ characters, anarchists and mobsters alike, are material, not intersectional.
Yes, we seem to be living through continued echoes of the 60s and 70s, as Ross Douthat argues in The Decadent Society. No, we probably didn’t need another Batman remake to add to the revolving tide of franchises that never seem to start or cease, but rather reissue themselves to the public in some slightly tweaked iteration every few years. But if we are going to be so deluged, the timeless anti-hero that Batman presents is at least a relevant tale grounded in the reality of human nature, and Pattinson is worthy of the role. “The Batman” is as relevant and reflective of our own lives as ever, and perhaps even more so as urban crime and depravity threatens to pull our cities back into the past.
“The Batman” ends with a discussion of the politics of “renewal” and a call to “rebuild Gotham’s institutions” after collapse and calamity. This marks a slight departure, and even an optimistic one, from the “this city needs a villain” Dark Knight of Nolan and Bale, when Batman sacrifices himself and his legacy to an irredeemable and weak Gotham populace. Yes, political cover-ups and personal scandals have laid bare our heroes and degraded that in which we used to believe, sullying our institutions with the sins of those who created and control them.
But, as we are reminded, “revenge isn’t enough,” and Gotham must rebuild, and move forward, in the face of scandal, anarchy and terror. If this is not exactly a revolutionary thought, it is a realistic one, and it’s not unhopeful either.
Rebuilding trust in our institutions? A Batman remake that is good, but not perfect; that entertains its audiences, but does not preach to them; and that allows us to escape into the series while nodding to the present sounds like as good a start as any.
Albert Eisenberg is a millennial political consultant based in Philadelphia and is a founder of the nonprofit media outlet Broad + Liberty. He has been featured on Fox News, RealClearPolitics, the Philadelphia Inquirer and elsewhere. He is a Young Voices commentator and a MaverickPAC Future 40 awardee. @Albydelphia.