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A Unique Critical Perspective (all original articles copyright of Paul Anthony Llossas)
The American Culture Critic blog is getting its own podcast.
Watch this space for the first episode, coming soon.
Matt Reeves' "The Batman" is a dense film. At three hours, it is overlong, filled with enough twists and turns to require Dramamine, and it has the most controversial lead casting since 1988. It is also perhaps the closest we've ever seen the comic book Batman translated to the screen.
Gotham City is a municipality under siege. An individual known only as "The Riddler" (Paul Dano) is grisly targeting the city's elite. Lieutenant James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) is assigned to the case but his competence is called into question for his partnership with The Batman (an extremely effective Robert Pattinson). The duo's investigation is further complicated by the presence of Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz) and Oswald Cobblepot (Colin Farrell), whose involvement leads them further down a rabbit hole that leads to what could be the destruction of Gotham and its citizenry.
Director and co-screenwriter Matt Reeves reportedly told Christopher Nolan that it was his intention to unseat "The Dark Knight" (2008) as the ultimate "Batman" film. While that will be a matter of debate for years to come, this film is a major contender for the title. It's reminiscent of Nolan's first effort, "Batman Begins" (2005) in that Gotham is itself a realized character with it's own identity; one without the matte genius of Anton Furst's Gotham for "Batman" (1989). Gotham City is nihilistically and darkly oppressive, where the light is subsumed and overwhelmed by the shadows even in the daytime. It could easily fit into the 90's aesthetic and intensity of David Fincher's "Se7en" (1995) and the noirish sensibilities of Michael Mann's "Heat" (1995); aesthetics that are bolstered by the stunning cinematography by Greig Fraser who, under Reeves' eye, turns each scene as a painting. And for the purists, Easter eggs abound that honor the past while bringing The Bat to the present.
Casting directors Lucy Bevan and Cindy Tolan should get bonuses for the talent they amassed on the screen. Jeffrey Wright is the most proactive not-yet-Commissioner Gordon ever put to film. Zoe Kravitz' Selina Kyle conveys the felinis catus traits without devolving to caricature; a fully realized individual in her own right with understandable motivations. Further, her chemistry with the lead is downright and naturally electrifying. John Turturro channels his inner Don Corleone to bring mobster Carmine Falcone to life, yet bringing a restraint to his performance that reminds one of why he was the darling of indie film. Perhaps the most entertaining performance of all comes by Colin Farrell, practically unrecognizable under the prosthetics to bring Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin to life. He is clearly having the time of his life in the role and brings much needed levity this heavy film needs. Paul Dano's "Riddler" is no comic character. He is terrifying in ways that are almost banal and way too close to reality. He evinces moments of Frank Gorshin (look him up, young'ins) without the glee. His character is disturbed in a way that shakes one to the core. He could be Keyzer Soze, Jeffrey Dahmer; an animal in human form. However, his Riddler is also imbued in tragedy, one that calls out a major issue with the Batman mythos in these modern times.
The biggest question is, does the transition from one creature of the night to another work here? Back in the late 80s, I personally gave "Mr. Mom" (Michael Keaton) a chance and was pleasantly surprised (as was the rest of the world, given the high anticipation for the forthcoming "The Flash" attests to). Robert Patterson is more than just "Cedric Diggory" or "Edward". Just seeing "The Lighthouse" (2019) could convince naysayers in my opinion. As the titular character, Pattinson delivers the honest goods. His Batman is cold, focused, intimidating, and intelligent. He effectively uses his body language to convey menace in an outfit that could invite ridicule in lesser hands, and the rage he evinces is shockingly palatable. Some would take issue with his interpretation of alter ego Bruce Wayne as he seems to play it like an emo goth (an analogy that ties in with the role Pattinson is most famous [until now] for). But if one pays close attention, it befits this character interpretation. It's a performance that merits the fact that this is the first Batman film since "Batman Begins" where the focus is primarily ON Batman/Bruce Wayne. He's the main character, not a guest star in his own film; which makes the question of which is the mask and which is the reality all the more potent. (The film does provide its own answer to that question). If there's any actor that gets the short shrift in screen time, it's Andy Serkis as faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth. However, Reeves ensures that the character, and his dynamic with Bruce, isn't wasted; leading to a powerfully poignant development.
In this writer's estimation, Michael Giacchino can do no bloody wrong. Though repetitive, his score is a character in its own right, giving auditory heft to the unfolding events, capturing each moment's mood and ambiance. It in turn thrums and rhapsodizes, engendering anxiety, tension, fear, and romance.
This film will be a divisive one, as it is fully reflective of a post-2000 zeitgeist. It is, as all good art is, timely as there are hints of climate change and political commentary. It's definitely a younger generation's Batman. But that's how it should be. Every generation deserves its own iteration. The fact that Matt Reeves is able to deliver timelessly recognizable characters and myths into modern sensibilities, is nothing short of a revelation.
The bat signal shines again. Batteries to power, turbines to speed. Roger and move out to your local theater and watch the experience that is "The Batman".
Following on the heels of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) (and released just before the controversial Justice League (2017)), the Patty Jenkins-directed Wonder Woman (2017) took what (or rather, who) was the best part of BvS and built a foundation that was more than just a film; it became a cultural touchstone that transcended its comic book and cinematic milieus. In short, Wonder Woman is a tough act to follow. "Is", not "was". The colors are brighter, the bombast is greater, the stakes seem higher, but despite attempting to tackle some pretty hefty and current culturally relevant themes, WW84 attempts to do too much with mixed results.
The year is 1984. Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) is an antiquities researcher at the Smithsonian Institute who still finds the time to don the red, blue, and gold; rescuing civilians yet somehow remaining an urban legend, all the while still PINEing for the decades-deceased Steve Trevor (as in, Chris Pine; Star Trek; Unstoppable). She crosses paths with wallflower/co-worker Barbara Minerva (Kristin Wiig; Bridesmaids, Ghostbusters), who is in possession of a magical stone that can grant wishes to whomsoever possesses it, at significant cost. This puts her and Diana in the crosshairs of the television personality with the mega-watt smile and chutzpah to match, Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal, The Mandalorian; Game of Thrones). This leads to a domino effect of events that will not only test Diana’s mettle, but may cause her to sacrifice all she holds dear, including herself.
It is an ambitious film in attempt and scope with resonant themes that, given the time period wherein these events take place, show that not much has changed. Yet like the mythical Icarus, its reach exceeds its grasp. At 2 hours and 30-plus minutes, the film’s pacing is one of its major faults. By the same token, it’s pacing is understandable. Jenkins takes the time to allow the characters to breathe in development. However, there are times when those scenes continue long after their point is made. Further, there are a few plot holes and leaps of logic that undermine the film’s narrative flow. Another issue is that of the special effects. The film is sumptuous to look at. Definitely brighter in visuals and in tone (at least, on the surface), but at times a few effects, including some involving the Lasso of Truth, look like they needed one more polish before release. But underneath all the 80’s glitz and glamour, Jenkins and fellow screenwriters Geoff Johns and David Callaham, can’t help but bring our current concerns to the fore. Political commentary aside, we are living in a year where we’ve faced despair and loss daily. Who now wouldn’t want to wish away our troubles, or wish our loved ones back into our lives? The film’s conceit is the old adage of being careful what one wishes for...which is both necessary yet hard to take given that we’re still in the midst of a global pandemic. Yet it’s one that gives Godot’s Diana an extra dose of humanity that grants an almost-all-powerful demi-goddess some relatability.
Speaking of the narrative, it is peppered with echoes and beats from DC films from the past, namely Superman II, Batmans Returns, Forever, and Robin. The homages are there if one looks for them, but executed in such a way that it’s not distracting for those not in the know. The action set pieces, when they finally do take place, are engagingly well executed, even if it does take some time, and the aforementioned leaps in logic, to get there. Hans Zimmer’s score is surprisingly diverse and helps carry the story along, even if at times he left the temp track to Marvel’s Ant-Man’s acoustics on repeat (not to mention a key BvS underscore).
Fault cannot be found with the actors, whose performances are the best part of the entire affair. Gal Gadot’s Diana is a woman in transition between Wonder Woman and the warrior we meet in BvS. While still beguiling, there’s an added pain behind her eyes and aloofness in her carriage. But, as with the first film, the heart of the proceedings is the relationship between Diana and the newly resurrected Steve Trevor. They bring in the necessary humor and poignancy that bolster the movie. Their chemistry together is as electric as in the first film, and as genuine as one can get. Theirs is a team of equals, each leaning on the others’ strength even at the time of their greatest weakness. In Wonder Woman, it served as that film’s spine. Here, it serves the same function while almost beubg enough to forgive the film's faults. It follows a mythological hero's journey trope for Diana, and anyone who is not affected by their journey has citrine stone for a heart.
Kristin Wiig borrows heavily from Michelle Pfeiffer in her portrayal of the (unnamed) Cheetah, yet surprisingly makes Barbara a formidable, menacing character in her own right, with understandable motivations. Perhaps the most challenging of roles, Pedro Pascal’s con-man-entrepreneur-turned-world-dominator Max Lord is the epitome of the 80s “greed is good” Gordon Gekko/Tom Vu/Tim Robbins mentality. Again, without getting political, Pascal manages to turn in a performance which is at times over-the-top camp, yet totally in keeping with the time period…yet, even with that, he turns in moments of dramatic gravitas that belie the bluster. He serves as cautionary tale of ego unchained; one which is made all the more terrifying when taken metatextually. As a whole, their combined performances lead to a rounding climax that doesn’t end in the way a standard super hero film would…and is all the better for it.
For all its issues, WW84 should be lauded for being something different, something new. Think of it as a James Bond film pre-2006, when the films were only tangentially connected by character alone. It tries to do too much to varying degrees of success. Yet despite its logistical and pacing issues, WW84 is, at its heart, a fun movie that tries to show that despite our hardships and personal turmoil in a world seemingly gone mad, hope does exist if one has the fortitude to grasp it…even if that message does seem heavy handed at times. Despite the hiccups, it embraces the, dare I say, wonder.