The sins of the father shall be visited upon the son.
Clouds perpetually hang above the crumbling skyline, a gray stasis floating above a city corrupted and corroded from top to bottom by avarice and death. The grimy streets are constantly littered with heavy rainfall and creaking, pained rust. A city without hope, ruled by forces unseen, enforcing the will of the few as the rest of its inhabitants are slowly crushed beneath the weight of the money they sit atop. Through the gray clouds and torrents of rain; through the pooling blood in the gutter; through the overbearing threat of decay and disillusionment, a beacon shines bright in the sky: a glimmering notion that a vicious and brutal force of justice may be lurking in the shadows, waiting for the wrong person to make the wrong move. A compelling story to deter the would be petty criminals looking to get their kicks and make a quick buck. But, the beacon doesn’t faze the true depths of Gotham’s corruption, who exist in darker shadows, in the spots the helicopter spotlights choose to pass over.
Gotham has always been characterized by the thick layer of scum and villainy that forged a burning necessity for its long running vigilante savior, but this has never been more palpable and permeating. The heavy stench of acidic corruption weaves its way through every cold alley and each brick that builds its harsh gothic architecture. It has also never been more abundantly clear that the city’s long persistent and widespread criminal enterprising is but one piece of an intricate and destructive puzzle, a puzzle that the caped crusader can only endeavor to trail endlessly in the wake of. Here, finding the root of corruption is an all but impossible task, a violent and suffocating cycle of greed, a system that is unable to reward good intentions or honest living.
Matt Reeves’ The Batman takes a refreshing and distinct new approach through its grimy voyeuristic lens: a meticulously crafted crime epic that not only understands the necessity of extensive, systemic change but the seemingly impossible task that is. It is not so straight laced or reductive to present authoritative force as a simple solution to the violence consuming Gotham, it methodically explores how the corruption that molds the psychotic behavior of primary antagonist Riddler (Paul Dano) is the same corruption that molded Batman (Robert Pattinson), here an emotionally distant and cold arbiter of vengeance whose privilege has made him blind to Gotham’s true disease while he enacts enraged furor upon its criminal symptoms. Though Batman’s presumed path of eradicating the city’s issues is rooted in virtuous intent, while Riddler weeds out corruption through disturbing acts of violence reminiscent of David Fincher’s Se7en (1995), Riddler’s insistence that their journey is not adversarial but symbiotic shines a light upon just how broken Batman as a simplistic symbol of violent vengeance can be.
The impetus of all of Batman’s battles against the corroding rot of insanity overtaking the city always emerge as a response to the impossibly overbearing system, one that grabs the vulnerable by the throat and beats them against the pavement until their psyches crack and they unleash their unhinged violence upon their perceived creators. It’s been explored and discussed ad nauseam through the history of the franchise but often the root of the problem is ignored, ultimately advocating for militant police state aggression to curb the swell of violence before returning to the status quo. In a modern Gotham, crumbling and rusted, violence is steeped in contemporary paranoia and radicalized responses to systemic failure, characterized by men who hide in the darkness and stew in their destructive fantasies, waiting for the right person to come along and invite them to act on their hateful impulses. Critically, the lingering advocacy for forceful response, however, is absent, as law enforcement is depicted as both inept and ineffective, more often interested in partaking in criminal enterprise than solving it. These are not bad actors in a solvent and functional system, they simply are the system, and the film endeavors to systematically deconstruct Batman as a character until he is just as understanding of the flaws within this society as the rest of us are.
The result of this cocktail of exploration and complexity is a well measured and hard boiled detective journey that uses the character as a captivating and methodical force, slowly winding through the narrow streets and caustic underbelly of Gotham and encountering new iterations of familiar characters to bolster the dizzying climax it builds to. Each piece of it feeds into the kaleidoscope of Batman’s psyche, revealing a layered understanding to both audience and Wayne alike of just how complex the world and this character can be. While Riddler commits to uncompromising evil with his harrowing and brutal vision, Zoe Kravitz’s Selina Kyle emerges as another response to Gotham’s burgeoning corruption, slinking unnoticed through its interlaced web of criminality until she can take back what’s rightfully hers. Cast aside by the world, she lives among the rot consuming the city, surrounded by outcasts and strays, all too familiar with just how broken and acrid it all is. Colin Farrell’s Oswald Cobblepot lurks beneath the surface of Gotham’s thick layer of grime, a shadowy presence hosting the city’s buzzing crowd of corrupt officials, at the center of which is Gotham underworld frequent Carmine Falcone (John Turturro). But of course, all roads lead to Thomas Wayne, every puzzle piece seemingly stemming from a promise made decades ago by the city’s famed late billionaire, who once ensured that he would singlehandedly fund a transformation of Gotham from crumbling decomposition into a dazzling picture of perfection.
We’re all too familiar with the empty promises of the unimaginably wealthy, hollow words that hang in the air to boost reputation and image while the rest of the world continues to be crushed within the destructive teeth of systemic gears. Gotham is plagued by this promise, littered with iconography boldly promising renewal while it has all slowly faded and corroded over years of negligence, absent any notable improvements but instead burdened with endless construction in progress, a city in stasis perpetually awaiting improvement as it teeters on the brink of being submerged. This vision of eternal hopelessness is emboldened by Greg Frasier’s cold and bleak cinematography, consistently extracting beauty from the darkness, always angled just so to provide the tiniest sliver of hope within even its most chilling moments. That hope is critical, a persistent ideal through all the death and decay of it all that though villainy will continue to fill the vacuum left by aggressive response, real leadership and symbolically embodying more than the puerile notion of vengeance can provide people with faith in a brighter future.
Scrubbed of the high octane energy of past pursuits of the character, stripped of extravagant or colorful imagery, and even foregoing explicit mentions of comic book names, The Batman zeros in on the detective roots of the character and crafts a gritty and brooding epic. It’s a pursuit all too familiar for the character and the wider franchise he exists within, but here it finally emerges as cogent and earned in its endeavors. While never quite capable of justifying its exhausting 175 minute runtime, its vision is consistently clear enough for it to never feel stagnant, always pushing forward with forceful energy while the vortex of sin coalesces and bears down upon Batman. A film that rumbles and growls with aggressive energy, sends chills and shivers with haunting imagery, and booms with sweeping musical cues. The Batman, the perennial symbol of vengeance, transformed from a symbol of violence to a beacon of hope. It may seem as though Gotham is doomed to be mired in corruption forever, but change cannot come unless you fight for it. With enough work, maybe the clouds will begin to dissipate and light can shine brightly once again.