RSS

Movie Review: “The Batman”

It says something remarkable about the character of Batman that, almost 100 years since his first appearance in the pages of Detective Comics #33, storytellers are still finding new things to do with him. Just in the years since I’ve been alive, we’ve gotten Tim Burton’s eerie 1930s-inflected cityscapes, Joel Schumacher’s colorful camp extravaganzas, Christopher Nolan’s brooding crime epics, and Zack Snyder’s brutal late-career Caped Crusader. Personally, my favorite iteration of the hero is the one featured in Rocksteady Studios’ Arkham game series—a saga that blends the techno-sophistication of the Nolanverse with the surreality and mysticism of the 1990s animated series.

And yet somehow, despite all these different takes, Matt Reeves’s long-anticipated “The Batman” still manages to offer something new: a living and breathing Gotham City, so viscerally realized you can practically smell the rain-slicked concrete, and a grim-jawed Batman who incarnates it.

As the film opens, we meet Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) just two years into his career as the Dark Knight. He’s unsteady, and less experienced than the versions of the character we’ve come to know, more comfortable marching out of the shadows like Darth Vader than delivering aerial stealth strikes. More notably, though, this version of Bruce has no qualms about working with Gotham City’s police department, especially Jim Gordon (a wonderfully cast Jeffrey Wright). And the police certainly need him: looming over Gotham is the shadow of the Riddler (Paul Dano, playing a mashup of Jigsaw and his character from “Prisoners”). The masked serial killer has been picking off a succession of Gotham’s highest-ranking officials, promising ultimately to expose their lies once and for all.

Seen in the theater, “The Batman” is an immersive, overpowering experience. Gothic architecture looms over dingy city streets, their corners lit by a mix of old incandescent bulbs and modern neon displays. The Riddler’s serpentine symbols spill over pages and computer screens, transmitting inscrutable messages of death and violence. In the depths of industrial facilities transformed into elite nightclubs, beautiful girls mingle with compromised politicians. And behind it all is Michael Giacchino’s haunting score—which, to my delight, relies heavily on character leitmotifs, and is a strong contender for the greatest superhero movie soundtrack of all time.

All of it, taken together, captures the Batman ethos in a way I’ve never seen before. Nolan did himself no favors by deploying radically inconsistent visions of Gotham across his trilogy: “The Dark Knight” is clearly set in Chicago, and “The Dark Knight Rises” in Pittsburgh. By contrast, Reeves’s story is rooted in a profound sense of space and place, one that feels both familiar and arrestingly alien at the same time. It’s the sort of movie that made me want to inhabit its world, to just sit in a lonely Gotham café and watch the raindrops trail down the windowpane as police sirens howl outside. I’d happily watch half a dozen spinoffs set in this storytelling universe.

And how does Pattinson—perhaps best known for his turn as the “Twilight” saga’s Edward Cullen—stack up as the Bat? Pretty well, for the most part. Pattinson spends most of his time masked up, but out of the cowl, his Bruce is a cipher. He’s pale and awkward, even antisocial—the polar opposite of Christian Bale’s suave übermensch, but without the world-weary melancholy of Michael Keaton’s version. And there’s a sense in which this odd affect works: Pattinson’s Bruce is the privileged scion of a wealthy family, without friends or love interests (or mentors—Andy Serkis’s Alfred Pennyworth doesn’t seem to have much influence) to keep him on the straight path. Without his foray through the criminal underworld and the Tibetan domain of the League of Shadows, mightn’t Bale’s Bruce have ended up in the same place?

To put it simply, the first hour of Reeves’s film is probably the best live-action Batman adaptation of all time, deftly weaving together themes and imagery from almost a century of storytelling. It’s great to see a Dark Knight who’s also still the World’s Greatest Detective, chasing down villains through an underworld rife with freaky figures.

But momentum like that is hard to sustain.

“The Batman” is a hair under three hours long, and it feels drawn out. Particularly egregious is the film’s messy and turgid second hour, which basically amounts to an extended detour through the intricacies of Gotham City political history, featuring the Penguin (an almost unrecognizable Colin Farrell) and organized-crime boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro). Frankly, most of this could’ve been cut from the film with next to no impact on the plot. (That being said, Zoë Kravitz makes a far better Catwoman than Anne Hathaway or Michelle Pfeiffer, and her appearances are some of the best parts of the movie…even if, strictly speaking, her involvement doesn’t move the storytelling ball forward much.)

Fortunately, things do get back on track once the Riddler reappears and takes center stage, pushing the film towards its inevitable big-budget climax. And it’s here that Reeves’s film almost, but not quite, becomes a great Batman movie.

(Spoiler discussion to follow. You’ve been forewarned.)

The thematic core of Reeves’s film, we eventually intuit, is the inherent ambiguity of Batman’s role as a symbol. In standing outside the authority of the city and the law, dispensing “vengeance” at will, Batman has given rise to unintended consequences: the Riddler (and, we eventually learn, his many followers) have been inspired to do likewise, understanding themselves as self-styled agents of vigilante justice working alongside the Dark Knight. This vigilantism, contrary to Batman’s own intentions, is ultimately destructive to the social fabric of Gotham City; it can only be offset by Batman himself, as Batman, being seen to support the existing apparatus of justice. But this, in turn, raises very uncomfortable questions about the corruption of that system, and Batman’s complicity if he chooses to reinforce it. (Reeves doesn’t frame things quite this explicitly, but the subtext is present nonetheless.)

In short, Reeves’s Batman confronts a diabolical catch-22: continue to operate outside the law, and in so doing legitimate those like the Riddler who would do likewise (to destructive ends), or instead choose to symbolically shore up the existing power structures of Gotham City—with all their observed susceptibility to decline.

That’s quite a compelling moral dilemma. But Reeves never seems comfortable teeing it up squarely, and instead decides to dodge: in the film’s closing moments, his Batman rescues reformist mayoral candidate Bella Réal, and we’re left with a vague hope that genuine change might be on the horizon for Gotham. One can’t help thinking that Nolan—responsible for the biting social commentary of “The Dark Knight Rises”— wouldn’t have let his audience off the hook so easily.

Additionally, if this is the story that Reeves is telling, it’s not clear why the Riddler is the right choice of villain. (Hush, for example, seems like a much more obvious choice.) The Riddler never really works as an icon of crypto-populist violence, given that his background is in forensic accounting and cryptography is his hobby. If the Riddler is going to take center stage, there should be some final narrative payoff associated with riddling or disclosure of the truth as such.

Here’s a move I’d endorse: make Thomas Wayne responsible for Gotham’s historic drug crisis, as the original developer and marketer of the ultra-addictive “drops” flooding Gotham’s streets(How else does a doctor end up a billionaire?) The Riddler’s climactic revelation is that the Wayne fortune is Sackler-style blood money; Bruce’s life of privilege and vigilantism is directly funded by the pain and suffering of the people he seeks to protect. Batman’s final dilemma, then, is whether or not to let this secret reach the public. Both outcomes are defensible from a sequel-storytelling perspective: hide the truth, and Bruce becomes an even more troubled figure with a secret he must protect at all costs; reveal the truth, and Bruce becomes a pariah who must navigate his relationship with a public that despises him and a fortune he does not merit.

But alas, we don’t get anything quite this nuanced. And so I’m left with a fairly simple assessment of Reeves’s sprawling flick: atmosphere was amazing, plot was a mess.

That being said, I have a persistent tendency to change my views about Batman movies over time as I rewatch them (just to name a couple examples, I’ve come to think—against my initial impressions—that “The Dark Knight Rises” is a bit of a slog, and that “Batman v Superman” is a compelling interpretation of the character). So I reserve the right, down the line, to reconsider these thoughts. As it stands, though, it seems to me that to the extent “The Batman” succeeds, it succeeds as a matter of mood, not narrative.

I highly recommend spending some time in Reeves’s Gotham. And I’m guardedly optimistic that some of these storytelling kinks can be worked out eventually, hopefully by the time the inevitable sequel rolls around. But until then, I can’t honestly say that “The Batman” is the definitive Caped Crusader adaptation. It’s a story we might need right now—but not quite the one we deserve.

 
1 Comment

Posted by on March 7, 2022 in Sci-Fi

 

Movie Review: “The Matrix Resurrections”

I may be one of the very few people out there who genuinely enjoys the two “Matrix” sequels—“Reloaded” and “Revolutions.” Arriving four years after the iconic cyberpunk epic first hit theaters in 1999, the sequels inevitably ran into the meat grinder of impossibly high audience expectations. And to be sure, the sequels had a very different feel from the original film: they were thick with ponderous meditations on free will and determinism, overtly Christian symbolic references, and heavily saturated color palettes. Frankly, that’s why I like them.

“The Matrix Resurrections,” for all its visual and narrative callbacks to the first groundbreaking flick, isn’t a movie for those who hated these sequels. Rather, it’s a sort of open-ended coda to the series, the completion of a thematic circle that “Revolutions” tried and failed to close.

(I’m going to spoil basically everything about this movie in this review, because I can’t do justice to the major ideas otherwise. That said, it’s streaming on HBO Max, so no need to hit the theaters to see it.)

“Resurrections” opens by introducing us to world-famous programmer Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), who resides in a world very much like ours. The “Matrix” trilogy exists in this universe as a series of overwhelmingly popular video games: the characters “Neo” and “Trinity” are household names in the same sense as Mario and Master Chief. Thomas spends his days glumly brainstorming a fourth installment in his series, pining after the pretty soccer mom Tiffany (Carrie-Anne Moss) who bears an uncanny resemblance to his own character Trinity, and visiting his therapist (Neil Patrick Harris).

Then strange things—strangely familiar things—begin breaking into Thomas’s world. The world around him seems increasingly unreal, and strangers—in particular, a figure both like and unlike the legendary Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), and a young hacker named Bugs (Jessica Henwick)—keep turning up out of apparently nowhere.

And all of a sudden, it becomes clear that “Resurrections” isn’t a reboot or a fully meta take on the series, but a full-on sequel. Following their apparent deaths at the end of “Revolutions,” both Neo and Trinity were revived by the Machines and had their consciousnesses reinserted into a new, improved version of the Matrix. The notion that Thomas is a video game programmer who created the “Matrix” series as fiction is itself an illusion wrought by the Matrix; the game series really does reflect his real-world memories, though he has been conditioned not to apprehend them as such.

This time around, the landscape is different. Thanks to the peace treaty brokered by Neo between humans and Machines (in “Revolutions”), old battle lines have blurred. Some of the Machines now collaborate directly with the humans, and sentient programs can now interface directly with the physical world through projector-like technology. But the overall situation, on the whole, is pretty bleak. In the wake of “Revolutions,” energy shortages—sparked by humans disconnecting from the Matrix—led to civil war among the Machines and the eventual emergence of a particularly aggressive Machine faction, which in turn produced the new Matrix and its digital overlord, the Analyst. It’s up to a newly emancipated Neo, coming to terms with who he is and with his own past, to free Trinity from her own bondage and confront the Analyst.

In the runup to release, I’d heard rumblings that the new “Matrix” film would go in a “meta” direction, and honestly I wasn’t looking forward to that. I expected an overwrought take on capitalist greed that swapped the original trilogy’s intricate cosmology for a fairly banal fight-the-system plot. How wrong I was: “Resurrections” leans harder into the saga’s gnostic structure than anything before, plumbing the depths of the potential deceptions that stand between the human soul and its final truth.

The prime metaphysical villain here, unsurprisingly, is the Analyst—who turns out to have been Thomas’s longtime therapist. This Analyst is a very different sort of character than the godlike Architect of “Reloaded”: the Analyst is not a figure of omnipotent fate, but of lies and darkness. He is, in short, a consummate demiurge—a spiritual power presiding over the “realms below” who hopes to keep the souls in his keeping perpetually deceived with the language of the therapeutic. Hence his means of ensnaring Thomas: convincing him that his own personal story, the true story of his life and purpose, is simply a throwaway video game fantasy devised by himself—poiesis without a trace of mimesis.

And this is the lie that “Resurrections” rejects, in a fascinatingly paradoxical turn for the saga: a series often invoked as exemplifying postmodernism rejects the postmodern skepticism of metanarrative. For “Resurrections,” to know the genealogy and structure of a story, to know that it is a narrative, is not to imply that that narrative is untrue. Neo’s story is the true story to which he reawakens, out of a morass of lies and cynical social-constructivism. And it is a story that transfigures all metaphysical levels of the world.

Happily, the full implications of all these plot elements aren’t simply gestured at and then set aside. Rather, these themes are all borne out in the film’s conclusion, which finds a reunited Neo and Trinity teaming up to fight once again within the Matrix. 

In his essay collection The Sophiology of Death, Orthodox theologian Sergius Bulgakov distinguishes between chiliasm and eschatology as interlocking aspects of Christian thought about the future. Chiliasm—or, in more familiar terms, millenarianism—captures a longing for terrestrial perfection, or the restoration of immanent human affairs as we know them to an Edenic state. By contrast, eschatology is transcendent in orientation, centered on liberation into the direct presence of God and the utter transformation of all things. A Christian futurism worth embracing, Bulgakov stresses, must hold these chiliastic and eschatological poles together, without allowing itself to become fully world-embracing or world-denying.

“Resurrections” ends with the affirmation of something very like this unity. Those human beings within the Matrix are still invited to free their minds, to look beyond the shadows that imprison them and embrace a more authentic existence. But the Matrix as such is not abandoned to its fate: Neo and Trinity set out to improve it directly, to (literally) fill it with rainbows and help lead human souls toward their proper end.

There is a maturity here that’s not present in 1999’s “Matrix” or 2003’s “Revolutions.”  No longer is it sufficient to simply pursue one’s own freedom through esoteric knowledge, to become one of the “elites” who grasps the visible world as fake and hollow. The swaggering Neo of 1999 is no longer, properly speaking, a role model. Rather, “Resurrections” recognizes that to be awakened to the world’s truth is to assume a greater responsibility for the custodianship of that world. And that awakening, crucially, must be pursued in community—not as a solo voyage from, as Plotinus might have put it, “the alone to the alone.”

Suffice it to say that the ideas at work in “Resurrections” are every bit as fresh and compelling as those in any of its predecessors. If you love the “Matrix” series because of its intellectual depth and mythic power, you’ll find much to like here.

That being said, if you’re more attracted to the series for its eye-popping action, I am sorry to report that “Resurrections” is really nothing special. Despite what seems like a very high budget onscreen, there’s nothing like the chateau battle or freeway chase of “Reloaded” or the swarming Sentinels of “Revolutions”; director Lana Wachowski’s fight scenes are choppy and overcomplicated, devoid of the grace of the originals. And this, I must admit, is a real letdown.

But that’s not what I’m going to remember about “Resurrections.” What I’ll remember is the fact that, after almost 20 years, this series finally has something that feels like a proper ending. “Revolutions” concluded with the Oracle’s gnomic remark that peace would last “as long as it can” and that Neo might reappear one day; in “Resurrections,” those predictions are finally, satisfyingly, cashed out. 

I really hope there’s no “Matrix 5.” As far as I’m concerned, the cycle is at last complete.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on December 28, 2021 in Sci-Fi

 
 
%d bloggers like this: