Peel the Onion | The Batman Review: A retro-futurist throwback that feels like an Arkham game on emo steroids (Part I)
Part I: All the Batmen
Exhaustion for Gotham City and its bat-themed caped crusader must exist. Haven't we reached superhero saturation yet? How many Batman movies must society endure until we run out of time to stop climate change?
It's hard to imagine a time before the dark knight brooded rent-free in our collective psyche. Eighty-two years since the first Bat-Man arrived in comic book form, his legend has only grown in the same mythical molasses of Sherlock Holmes or even King Arthur. Perhaps in a thousand years, Human Mythology's most famous tales will include Superman as a poor man's Hercules and Batman as a poor boy's sandbox Odysseus — Gotham being the sandbox.
As the hype machine cogs for director Matt Reeves's Bat-reboot churned online, I, an unapologetic 'bat-nut,' got re-suckered into this ridiculously appealing franchise. That and trailers using Nirvana songs tickled this boy's toilet-bound bat zeal.
But what is the lasting appeal of Batman? To understand The Batman is to understand all the Batmen that came before. The iconic superhero is one of the most well-known characters in American pop culture history. If Superman was the underclass hero sprinkled with good moral standing, Batman's vibe was always a little darker. This odd, nocturnal creature wouldn't think twice about killing you if his bat sense felt you "had it coming."
When Bill Finger and Robert Kane created the original Bat-Man, the world was different. Society drew its morals from a black and white Rolodex of right and wrong. A wealthy vigilante with wonderful toys fighting crime on his own terms? Does anything encapsulate the pulsating embers of the American Dream?
Depending on when you started, everyone alive has their own private Batman. He has remained a constant force in popular culture throughout most of our lives. Each landmark movie franchise edges closer to holding up society's mirror of the darkness and dysfunction lingering just outside the theatre.
For decades the definitive version of Batman was the 1960s zap-kapow-boom punch circus of the Adam West TV series. But the turning point for what we see in Reeves's revival comes from the gothic DNA of arguably the most influential Batman project ever made, Tim Burton's 1989 masterwork Batman. The film's noir tone was such a cultural phenomenon that it forever changed the way people saw superheroes in movies, jumpstarting the trends of a dark magic realism we see in DC/Marvel-verses today.
Since then and over the past 17 years, there have been a plethora of Batmen, from Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy to Zack Snyder's forgettable Ben Affleck batflicks and a host of other portrayals.
Thankfully, Nolan's run rescued our beloved Bat from the campy depictions of late 90s Joel Schumacher. But another notable entry into the Battheon of screen Bat is the early 90s Batman: The Animated Series, featuring Mark Hamill's winning voice acting of the Joker regarded by many as the best on-screen portrayal of Batman ever in one of the best-animated series produced.
The most recent DC Batverse offering was Todd Phillips' too sincere too shallow take on 2019's The Joker starring Joaquin Phoenix in a standalone supervillain origins movie. Like the Nolan films, the Joker saw DC suffering from taking itself way too seriously, stripping the Batman world mythos of its more surreal and playful elements.
Though beloved in equal seriousness by critics and broad stroke audiences alike, the Nolan Batmen were, in essence, dull and pretentious, focusing too hard on the psychological realism of characters that COULD exist in real life — a much too ill-fit for the flights of fancy the superhero genre needs (and is its appeal).
Reeves's The Batman risks being a footnote to Nolan's spate of "why so serious?" Batmen, other than he manages to salvage us from the daily ninja warrior struggles of Christian Bale's Bat. Sidenote: Bale has such a distinctive lower jawline and pronunciation shape that it always boggled me why he was cast as Bruce Wayne when everyone could tell. I digress.
Instead, Reeves injects new life and wonder into his new Bruce Wayne, strummed to perfection by Robert Pattinson, cleverly positioning him 20 years after his parents' murder, but only two years into his profession as a vigilante on his quest for vengeance. It's a timeline that allows Reeves to build his Bat anew, crafting as he does a new standalone story with unique tonal design choices, restoring in my mind the identity of Gotham as a character first established during the Tim Burton era.
This is the first part of a two-part article. Read part two to discover whether The Batman is a worthy entry into this legendary franchise.
As he would refer himself, J.B. Browne is a half "foreign devil" living with anxiety relieved by purchase. HK-born Writer/Musician/Tinkerer.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of DotDotNews.
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