Neo-Noir in Gotham City
Even though a beloved part of the Bat legacy, the 1960’s Batman TV show is still best remembered for its ridiculous antics and weird storylines that where a 180 degree departure from what the caped crusader was intended to be when he debuted in 1939 – a vengeful shadow fighting crime, not just through brute force, but through his un-matching detective skills. He was a tough and gritty character from the start up until 1954.
Due to restrictions through the Comics Code Authority comic book writers were forced to tone down the violence and exchanged detective stories for stories about Batman meeting aliens, gaining super powers, being turned into a baby or being forced to wear a different colored suit every night. It just became ridiculous.
(Unfortunately all of those covers are real)
Starting in the 70’s, along with the return of the killed-off Joker, new writers decided for the Bat to return to his roots. The rebooted the whole story, decided to partner Batman with a new Robin, who was later on killed by the Joker in the “A Death in the Family“ storyline, which became one of Batman’s most haunting experiences that still haunts him until today.
And then 1987 happened. Frank Miller, fresh off his job of writing some of the best Daredevil stories to date took on the task of retelling Batman’s origin. “Year One“ told the story of his first year as a crime fighter, with his ally Commissioner Gordon still being a detective and the public still unknown to the masked vigilante protecting their city.
When Tim Burton took on directing the first big screen adaption at the end of the 80’s he was heavily influenced by Miller’s work and presented cinema audiences a Gotham City filled with gothic architecture, crime and little hope. His epic “Batman“ (1989) was followed by “Batman Returns“ (1992). Both were critically acclaimed and box office hits, but due to the fear of not selling any Bat-Toys with such mature content, the studio bosses decided to exchange Tim Burton for director Joel Schumacher for “Batman Forever“ (1995) and “Batman & Robin“ (1997). Schumacher decided to add more colors, camp and wackiness to his movies. He basically went back to the style to the 1960’s TV series. That plan completely backfired and until this day “Batman & Robin“ is hailed as the worst Batman movie ever. It took eight years before Christopher Nolan decided to cast Christian Bale as the caped crusader and unleashed his universally praised “Dark Knight Trilogy“ consisting of “Batman Begins“ (2005), “The Dark Knight“ (2008) and “The Dark Knight Rises“ (2012). It was an up and down regarding the tone of the movies. Burton was heavily influenced by Frank Miller’s “Year One“, Schumacher failed to bring back the camp of the 60’s and Nolan decided to bring Batman into a more grounded world, while still being influenced by some of Batman’s most influential storylines, once again touching “Year One“, but also adapting parts of the “Knightfall Saga“. Mid-90’s “Knightfall“ marks one of Batman’s most important turning points in his career as he was introduced to his nemesis Bane for the first time and having his back broken by the aforementioned villain.
Eager to play with the big boys of the Marvel Cinematic Universe the birth of a shared DC universe happened with the release of 2016’s “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice“, which paired the Dark Knight with Superman and Wonder Woman. A Justice League movie including the characters of Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg among others followed, but was mostly dismissed due to problems during production. For those two movies Ben Affleck took over the cowl and played a rougher, older, more violent version of Batman, similar to the one of the pages of Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns“. A new solo movie starring and directed by Ben Affleck was planed, but scrapped.
So in 2019 we got a Joker origin story, in which the Clown Prince of Crime was portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix had the heavy task of following Heath Ledger, who’s performance of the Joker in 2008 still amazes fans to this day.
*** SPOILERS AHEAD ***
And now in 2022 we are witnessing another reboot with Matt Reeves‘ “The Batman“ starring Robert Pattinson as Bruce Wayne / Batman. Or should I say Batman / Bruce Wayne?
Let’s make one thing clear: Somebody who dresses as a Bat and leaves his house at night to fight crime or better said tries to avenge the death of his parents can by no means be in a healthy mind state.
There is no Bruce Wayne. He also “died“ when his parents where gunned down.
Batman is his true personality.
Our hero is only in his second year of crime fighting and accordingly still very young and very angry. A new aspect that has not been used in any Batman movies before is that Martha Wayne, his mother, has been an inmate at notorious Arkham Asylum. This brings a whole new perspective to the Batman and his mental state. Is he suffering from hereditary mental disease or is he just “mad vigilante“?
The soundtrack that accompanies us into the story is Nirvana’s “Something in the Way“. A very different take than the iconic Danny Elfman or Hans Zimmer themes we grew familiar with.
The Gotham City we see is by date the most gritty, dark and dirty personification we ever got (We don’t have to mention Wayne Manor, which looks like it comes straight out of a 1920’s gothic horror movie). I’m saying “personification“ because Gotham is one of the main protagonists of this movie. Maybe even the antagonist. There is definitely a “Taxi Driver“ vibe. And just like Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle, Batman keeps a diary, through which we get a glimpse into his psyche.
But there is also a note of David Fincher’s “Se7en“ to it. Talking about Fincher… David Fincher directed 2007’s “Zodiac“, a story that “The Batman“ seems to be heavily inspired by.
The main antagonist of the movie is the Riddler, who after being portrayed by Jim Carrey before, is now played by Paul Dano (“12 Years a Slave“, “There will be Blood“, “Little Miss Sunshine“) and borrows a lot of aesthetics and his modus operandi from the infamous and never-caught Zodiac Killer, who stroke fear into the hearts of Californians in the late 1960’s.
There is no green suit and matching bowler hat with a question mark on it this time. This Riddler is clad in a green leather army-mask and sports an olive M65 jacket. Throughout the movie, he is seen killing several “honorable“ citizens of Gotham, exposing their double life full of corruption and lies. Not even the mayor… Nobody is safe from him and we later find Batman struggling with the realization that even his father was not exactly who he thought he was.
Every kill is gruesome, whether a carpenter tool, a cage full of rats or a bomb device straight out of Netflix’s true crime documentary “Evil Genius“ is used.
The storyline of secret corruption that rules Gotham for decades is inspired by one of the most important comic storylines of the last years – “The Court of Owls“. “Hush“, another very influential story line is also referenced throughout the movie. As is “The Long Halloween“.
While investigating Batman finds a surprising ally in Selina Kyle aka. Catwoman, this time portrayed by Zoe Kravitz.
Catwoman never was a real villain in the comics, more of an anti-hero. Her main goal in the movie is to avenge the death of her friend Anna, who just like her used to work at the Iceberg Lounge, a night club run by Oswald Cobblepot, better known as the Penguin.
He is played perfectly by an almost unrecognizable Colin Farrell. It was just announced that a spin-off series about the Penguin is already in the works at HBO and by seeing his performance in this movie I can only support this idea.
But let’s go back to our protagonist. When we see him for the first time Batman’s entry is suspenseful and absolutely menacing. He enters the screen to safe a Gotham citizen from a group of thugs beating down people to film it for thrills. Batman wanders slowly out of a dark and foggy alley and after declaring himself to be “vengeance“ beats the group into a pulp. Every criminal in Gotham has heard about the Bat, which alone makes some of them so paranoid that they actually should think twice about their job choices.
Social media also plays a big part in the plot. Not only the thugs use their smartphones to record their attacks, the Riddler also uses social media to broadcast his threats to the elite of Gotham and to stay in contact with his “followers“. And this is the most grounded and shocking part of the movie.
When “Joker“ hit cinemas I was already wondering if a glorification of such a character and especially the ending of the movie, wherein the Joker basically “wins“ would inspire people to re-enact what they saw on screen.
We have to keep in mind that the movie start of Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises“ was overshadowed by a shooting at a screening of the movie in Aurora, Colorado.
But of course Batman manages to catch the Riddler, but it is only then that his real plan unleashes:
He parked several vans full of explosives near the breakwaters to initiate a flooding of the city.
But that’s not everything. Through his social media accounts he has also gathered a loyal following of people eager to join his fight by donning his outfit and starting a shooting spree at the newly elected mayor’s press conference. It’s a continuation of the crowds cheering the Joker in his 2019’ movie and it is very scary to watch this play out on screen in times nowadays where shootings orchestrated over the internet are no works of fiction anymore.
We see Batman’s full rage coming down on the assailants, but it also marks a turning point as he almost sacrifices his own life to save the citizens of Gotham, who found shelter at the mayor’s event, from Riddler’s followers. When he leads a group of scared people out of the flooded building, he understands, that there is no sense in being “vengeance“. He has to become “hope“. He has to inspire the people to still believe in the good. You can say that this story is a perfect companion piece to “Joker“, whose ending went into the exactly opposite direction.
“The Batman“ is grittier than it’s predecessors, but it also ends on a completely different note than the last movies we saw over the last years. And it actually stays very true to its comic book roots. While “Year One“ and “The Dark Knight returns“ are influential to this day, they are more of one shot-storylines that take liberties from the weekly releasing comic book series. But this movie does not end with Batman on the run or presumed dead, it shows how he seems to slowly win over the people of Gotham.
“The Batman“ comes with a run time of almost three hours, but definitely delivers. It takes the best aspects of the Nolan and DCU movies and combines them with the best comic book storylines.
And it is quite clear that we can expect the sequels to pick up some other comic book storylines, that have not been used before. The flooding of Gotham seems to lead us directly into “No Man’s Land“, a storyline in which Gotham is almost completely destroyed by an earth quake and falls prey to Batman’s rogues taking control over the city. And have you seen that green substance Batman infuses to suppress his pain while taking out the last remaining “Riddlers“? This will hopefully lead us into “Batman: Venom“, a storyline about Batman using the same drug his enemy Bane uses to gain his powers to push himself into being nearly unbeatable.
But at what cost? Addiction.
This would definitely fit into this new Bat-verse and the now established topic of mental issues and mental health in the Wayne family.
The movie is full of action and gives us an awesome car chase between the Penguin and Batman’s new and very menacing Batmobile and it can surely be said, that the fight scene between Batman and the machine gun-wielding henchmen of Mafia boss Falcone (John Turturro) is one of the best fight scenes the Bat ever had in his movies. But besides the action “The Batman“ it is a classic neo-noir detective movie, once again bringing the character back to his roots. I mean… The D in DC Comics does not stand for “Detective“ by accident, right?