Critic After Dark

A SCENE from the film The Batman — WARNER BROS. PICTURES

DEAR diary,

6:10 P.M.

Fear is a tool. When light hits the screen it’s not just the movie’s start, it’s a warning. Only who’s being warned — the bad guys on the big screen or us sitting here? Maybe you, reading this? Confused now.

Sat down to watch Matt Reeves’ The Batman. A hundred and seventy-six minutes to go.


Moving on.

6:20 P.M.

Thieves break windows, vandals spraypaint, band of whitefaced thugs menace hapless Asian. All pause to gaze up at bat signal, peer nervously into city’s darker corners. “They think I’m hiding in the shadows,” Batman (Robert Pattinson) intones. “But I am the shadows.” He steps out as if from behind curtains; thug demands: “who the hell are you supposed to be?” Bat beats down thug, replies: “I’m vengeance.”

Huh? Not what we’re expecting. Sounds pretentious, even possibly outside thug’s vocabulary (“Ven huh?”). Worse, doesn’t have the matter-of-fact cadence of Michael Keaton’s “I’m Batman.” Sequence lands with a thud.

I get it — two years in and young man still feeling his way through his crimefighting career, though for the record, in Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One (which this movie borrows from), he pulled it together in the eponymous time span.

Also: street violence on the rise; Asians being targeted; paramilitary group employing terror tactics. Playing with recent headlines — got it, not very clever ’bout it.

Around 7:00 p.m. or so

So far: The Riddler (Paul Dano) doing a Se7en serial killer gig. Not a big fan of the Fincher movie, but I remember the best parts being the imaginatively staged and shot tableau of corpses posed as one of Seven Deadly Sins (this movie manages, at most, a single severed thumb — mustn’t lose that all-important PG-13 rating). Video messages diminish killer’s mystique unlike in Fincher’s movie, where the police walk through the crime scene as if through an art installation, trying to suss out the meaning. Riddler’s howls more goofy than menacing.

Also, drug-dealing subplot alludes to a number of films: biggest drug bust in history (The French Connection); secret meetings and corruption in high places (All The President’s Men); circles within circles within circles, evil upper class, creepy father-daughter relationship (Chinatown). I’m always of the opinion that if you’re calling back to great classic films you better introduce a fresh detail or memorable twist to justify your theft, otherwise the audience is left remembering how much better the classic was; adding a mask and cape is not the answer.

This Batman boasts of the Caped Crusader doing actual detective work. Well — more surveillance and the occasional sweating of suspects than actual detecting. Doesn’t try for Steve Moffat-style on-the-spot crime scene reading a la Sherlock Holmes (my personal vote for Greatest Fictional Detective), probably smart not to try: if Pattinson and Benedict Cumberbatch ever had a face-off, Pattinson would likely soil his diapers from the stress.

Not just a question of talent: what sells Holmes’ deductive abilities in Moffat’s series is the conceit that Holmes pays a high price for his near-autistic abilities: he’s socially inept, emotionally unstable, an insufferable prima donna who loves standing in the spotlight. Pattinson’s WGFD doesn’t sell his case much beyond endless moping and greasy hair over sleepy brow. Pretty, not very persuasive.


Reeves does well enough with noirish imagery, makes inky shadows and deep unlit spaces especially menacing; when people come to blows, he stays at medium distance and cuts sparingly, unlike some directors (I’m looking at you Christopher Nolan). Chase is disastrous, though — we see the car’s nose bouncing up and down and roaring, not much else; we’re not sure of the spatial relationship between fleeing and pursuing vehicle, or if they’re still racing down the wrong-way lane or not. Chase ends with a big explosion, quelle surprise. According to production notes, explosion and concluding stunt were done for real; might as well have done it digitally, it’s so poorly framed and prepared for that it zips past without much impact.

7:45. I THINK.

Burton in Batman had designing genius Anton Furst create Gothic nightmare ’scapes recalling Fritz Lang, in Batman Returns had Bo Welch present Christmas Gotham as a vast Dickensian charnel house. Nolan brought it all crashing down to earth with actual locations in Chicago and Pittsburgh; Reeves shoots in Chicago, digitally adding buildings that recall the Art Deco ’20s. There’s warmth to the retro details (the wood furnishings, the rotary phones, the souped-up ’70s Dodge Charger with bright yellow rocket exhaust) unlike Nolan’s granite-and-steel Gotham, but little else lingers in memory.


Don’t rich superheroes have security protocols with regards to letter bombs?

Cute how Batman likes to meet all his contacts on the same corner of that abandoned building — like Woodward and Deep Throat faithfully keeping their appointments behind the same pillar in the parking garage while trying to bring down the President of the United States. Even Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz) gets a chance to neck with Bruce here — it gets so crowded you feel you need a guestbook for folks to sign. Did Alfred ever get to visit?


Oh plot twist, of sorts. Something to do with Selina. I’m not invested in the characters so the revelation flits past me like a — you know. Out of hell.

Character is no small issue; in Batman Returns when cat meets bat they’re exchanging kicks and blows like old lovers; unlike in Returns five minutes have passed and you realize that the comic banter barely generates enough sexual heat to defrost pizza. What, Daniel Waters wasn’t available for a rewrite?

Oh yeah, PG-13. An R rating means millions less in the box office, not to mention losing the lucrative Chinese market.

Incidentally, on subplot: Bruce’s daddy isn’t corrupt, he made “a mistake” for the sake of a beloved. Nope we’re pulling our punches here, we don’t cross the clearly delineated line separating “the good” from “the bad” and “the ugly,” we just pretend we do.


Finally The Confrontation. Nice evocation of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, that most noir of artworks that inspired more filmmakers than you can list in one breath. Hopper’s 24-hour diner is shot from a fresh angle, with a sinister figure sitting inside sipping frothy cappuccino, but you recognize the dim lighting and grimy color palette.

Paul Dano does good work with his deceptively doughy I’m No Serial Killer cheeks and bug-eyed intensity. When he starts shrieking however, you think back to Kevin Spacey’s John Doe, who almost never raised his voice (the one time he does is to catch your attention and, once caught, never let go): his Doe had the habit of staring past you at something wonderful and terrible at the same time, and the suggested details of what he’s seeing with such fervor and terror and awe sends chills down your spine.

Riddler’s ciphers also recall another Fincher film, Zodiac. That serial-killer procedural, however (Fincher’s hands-down masterpiece), had a real sense of everyday life rolling inexorably forward, grinding down killer and cops alike and lending an air of pointlessness to it all.

The steel shutters rising between Dano and Pattinson also remind one of the shutters rising and falling between Toshiro Mifune and Tsotomu Yamazaki in Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low — there as here the takeaway message is of two men of vastly differing financial circumstances, drawn together to become two sides of the same coin, but where Dano spells out their equivalence in painstakingly obvious words Kurosawa only suggests it, through an eerie superimposition of Mifune’s reflection on Yamazaki’s face.

As for Chinatown — John Turturro’s Carmine Falcone against John Huston’s Noah Cross? Oh please.


Wait this isn’t over yet?


Big explosions. Always with the big explosions. “We haven’t used up our pyro budget yet! Go back and write 30 more minutes into your movie!”


See, Riddler has the smarts to use explosives but to finish off Gotham’s political elite has to resort to snipers? Where did they come from? How is he paying them? Did he at least teach them how to shoot?

He was so focused — directing Batman here and there, skillfully selecting his targets, pulling puppet strings like a master. Suddenly he goes bonkers and decides to wipe out everyone in charge? Desperate attempt at epic finish, anyone?


At last the movie’s moral scheme fully unveiled, along with the reason why Pattinson whispers “I’m vengeance.” Final crisis forces hero to rise above himself, from avenger to true crusader, note of hope in sea of despair, etc., etc., with emergency flare literally leading the rich and powerful to safety (not sure that last detail makes for appropriate optics, not that anyone will care). Cute symbolic imagery, spelled out slowly and carefully so the audience can understand.


A word on realism — people sing hosannahs over the movie’s grittiness and realism, noting how much “darker” this is over what Tim Burton created back in 1989 (and perfected in 1992). I don’t see improved I see reductive, from a sophisticated mix of horror and comedy (add Dickensian pathos thanks to Danny DeVito’s Oswald Cobblepot, and erotic byplay thanks to Michelle Peiffer’s Selina Kyle) down to Christopher Nolan’s thud and blunder (not to mention longwinded pretentiousness), down to this incarnation’s near-indecipherable gloom. Comedy doesn’t always soften horror; sometimes it intensifies it, sharpening the flavor the way salt sharpens caramel, or lemon sharpens broth. If one’s idea of “better” only means darker and grittier and more realistic — well, golly gee, I guess this one’s for you.


Again with the long monologues. Nolan ended The Dark Knight with a monologue too, adding the insult of obviousness to the injury of boredom. I like Burton’s approach: he has someone read Batman’s speech to the general public and it turns out to be a hilarious snore that the crowd listens to with glassy eyes. Burton’s camera glides restlessly away, buoyed up by Danny Elfman’s doomy romantic score, till it discovers Batman standing atop the high roofs of Gotham, a (newly repaired?) church bell tolling in the distance.


Bat and cat part ways. Pizza fully defrosted, crust soggy as overcooked spaghetti.

9:00 P.M.

Finally. Now to go home and watch something entertaining, like Lav Diaz’ Historya ni Ha.