I remember watching Superman (1978) back when I was a kid. It was one of my dad’s favourite films growing up, and had everything I considered to be “perfect cinema” at the age of 10; alongside films like X-Men and Spiderman, of course. A huge portion of us first seeing Superman in his suit is dedicated to him saving people. He catches a woman falling from a building and a helicopter in one swoop. He even saves a cat from a tree. It’s a stark contrast from modern superhero films where we rarely see superheroes directly save anyone. Sure, now days they all indirectly save the whole world by punching a baddie until his plot is undone, but we don’t often see the heroes rescue anyone who isn’t already a close friend of theirs. I mean, Tom Holland’s Spiderman sure as hell save’s his best friend’s asses a lot, but considering it was his actions, and those of other superhero-affiliated people that put them in danger, it’s not as meaningful or impressive when he saves them, as it is when Superman merely gives a girl her cat back because he happened to be in the area. Sometimes a five second sequence of a hero moving a person out of the way of falling debris is more powerful than the fake tension of a five minute one, consisting of the hero saving a notable side character we know won’t die anyway.
The Batman (2022) is, in many ways, an answer to this depiction of super “heroes”, which I think is one of it’s core strengths. The whole film is about a severely depressed Batman going from the typical “save the world by punching the bad guys” depiction of a hero to realising the most meaningful difference he can make in Gotham is saving people directly affected by the atrocities the villain’s wreak on the city. The finale of this movie caught me off guard as a huge flood begins wiping civilians off the street and into debris; I got not-so-welcome flashbacks to Man of Steel thinking about how meaningless it’s going to be for Batman to stop the baddies if this is the cost. But, to my surprise, Batman also realises this very same thing and spends the last moments of the film not in a big action set-piece (although that does admittedly prelude this realisation), but saving a child trapped under debris and leading lost people out of the water and to the high ground.
Although this character arc wouldn’t be as touching, were it not for the countless films of super powered people generally not caring about the individuals at risk in the moment, it is still a good one and one I appreciated. I mean up until now entire films had been made by studios to justify or explain why superheroes don’t save people as much as they fight – the likes of Captain America Civil War and Batman vs Superman. But for all their super elaborate plots, none work as well as Batman simply looking down at people in water and thinking to himself “I’ve made a mistake, I need to do something” in this movie.
Not only for this reason, but because Robert Pattison is a damn good actor and the Batman suit looks great, I think this film might have my favourite depiction of Batman in any media. And that’s saying a lot because I’m really not a huge Batman fan – I might be burned at the stakes for saying this, but the Dark Knight trilogy really doesn’t do anything for me, but that just meant I was more pleasantly surprised by how much I liked the character in this film.
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, though. This movie is three hours long and I do not think it at all needed to be. There were long stretches of this film where it just failed to hold my attention and, even while sitting in a cinema with recliner chairs and popcorn, I found myself caught in the occasional daydream. This was mostly in scenes involving Cat Woman or the endless conversations about Bruce Wayne’s parents who, just like in Joker (2019), find themselves directly involved in the villain’s main plot. For the record, this films story does a much better job of integrating them than Joker did (by a long shot), but it is still corny to a level that seems to be at odds with the dark tone and style the film is going for. Maybe if this was a tongue in cheek film – in a similar vein to how Tobey Maguire’s Spiderman always coincidentally had some personal connection to every single super villain he faced – I could get behind it, but it just didn’t work for me. As for Cat Woman, her character just isn’t that interesting; she wants to avenge the death of a lady who had five seconds of screen time and has a rather forced relationship with Batman.
Honestly, cutting down on those two things to make a more concise back and forth between the Batman, Commissioner Gordon and the Riddler would have probably made me enjoy the film a whole lot more since those characters are all played by who I feel are the strongest actors in the film. Paul Dano always puts on a god show and is a very creepy villain (though he very nearly over-does it here), and Jeffrey Wright is well suited to the grizzly depiction of his character. Also, surprisingly, of note is Colin Farrell as the Penguin – a side villain who works for the mob.
The last thing I want to touch on is the action. There isn’t a lot of it because, as you’ve probably already read, this is a very slow paced movie more concerned with being a murder mystery/detective story than a traditional set-piece after set-piece superhero film. For me that’s fine and it was a nice change of pace. But the action sometimes deviated from gritty to traditional superhero silliness: There’s a lot of grounded, hard-hitting and well choreographed fights here that work well to show that Batman’s vulnerable, but a force to be reckoned with nonetheless. As far as I’m concerned these are all damn good action scenes. But then there’s a few that add weird CGI shots into them that just don’t work because of how overtly fake they are. In the final fight scene, for instance, Batman jumps around on his grapple hook a lot and it’s so jarring watching what is obviously a CGI Batman go from quick, flawless and fluid movement into a real disorgansied struggle as the actors take over. It’s a let down to see the superhero silliness in otherwise grounded action scenes that would have worked well without it.
Overall the Batman was a mixed bag for me. It’s the first Batman film I can say that I liked, so that’s good. It’s got mostly good action, an excellent cast and unique story with a kind of meta-narrative on how superhero movies aren’t really so much about “heroes” anymore as they are about super people punching other super people. I guess it’s also nice to see a dark superhero film by DC that isn’t just depressing for the sake of being depressing, but one which actually ends on an optimistic and hopeful note. But on the other hand it’s needlessly long, with the characters who are given the most subplots being those that actively switched my brain off from the movie for extended periods of time.
I personally wouldn’t sit through it again, even though I did enjoy parts of it, but I can definetly see why it’s doing so well because it does genuinely feel at least a little fresh in the stale and formulaic state previous DC films and, indeed, Marvel ones have left the genre in. So if you’re more of a superhero movie buff than I then I’d recommend it to you, as it might surprise you.