Critical Questions and Expectations for The Batman and Robert Pattinson

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(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

The first leaked photos of Robert Pattinson in full Batman regalia for his role as the title character in Matt Reeves’ The Batman sparked the inevitable geekdom dissection and debate as to the potential for the film. Since Pattinson is set to play the youngest Bruce Wayne/Batman in one of his earliest cases ever portrayed on film, excitement at the relatively “new” take on Batman is combining with reticence at the possibility that the film will be another DC Comics film screw-up like Suicide SquadJustice League and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

The films have been hit and mostly miss. For every Wonder Woman – a film that had the combination of a workable story and the charm of Gal Gadot – there are five films that simply did not work.

DC has partially shunned the idea of copying Marvel and having the stories interwoven and interlinked. Marvel’s successful strategy in creating the Marvel Universe leads to people who would ordinarily not go see every one of the films to go see them because they do not want to miss the nuggets that will be hidden in the background and in the post-credits scenes.

DC has failed miserably since the stories were not sufficiently engaging for people to care. It was delving into Zack Snyder’s ego and what he wanted to see rather than pleasing the customer. There is room for both.

DC’s mistakes are many in their attempts to tell these rich tales. Trusting Snyder, whose real skill is in cinematography, to oversee the entire franchise was a massive blunder that has made the DC Universe essentially unfixable, hence the critical smash and monster hit Joker. Separate from the DC Universe and ushering in a different and darker vision that resonated with audiences better than the obscure symbolism, smugness and rushed product that the Snyder films were, Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix were freed from the shackles of Snyder and the producers who clearly wanted a sellable product rather than letting the tale tell itself organically and reaching a climax as Marvel did with Avengers Endgame. For Marvel, getting there took more than a decade and even casual comic book aficionados would say it was worth it.

Any superhero film lives on the border of “this is ridiculous” and losing the audience.

The success of Joker will inevitably tilt the direction of subsequent DC films toward an even darker direction of searing intensity. Reeves’ The Batman does not necessarily need to be that dark, but it can take certain aspects of what worked in Joker and use it to the film’s advantage.

The symbols present in Joker – Bernie Goetz, Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, Pagliacci – were not so offensively obvious that one would think Phillips was treating the audience like it needed the explanation spoon fed to it, but they were not in need of a set of CliffsNotes when walking out of the theater as they did with Snyder’s work.

Adam West’s campy, family-friendly portrayal worked for what it was because no one was expecting him to save Gotham City from a madman looking to set the entire place on fire for the fire itself.

The Michael Keaton Batman worked despite initial vitriol at the casting choice because the character most remembered was West and no one had seen the dark, brooding hero, the dismal Gotham, or a bad guy so charismatic as was Jack Nicholson’s Joker.

Batman and Robin was pure idiocy. Had Joel Schumacher been trying to make a movie that terrible, he couldn’t have done it. It’s not just the worst superhero movie ever made, but it’s in competition for the worst films ever made, period.

Christopher Nolan’s version of the character was not a good vs. evil morality play. It showed the perspective of the opposing characters and the consequences of their actions. Heath Ledger’s Joker did not want money. He was trying to prove a point. Aaron Eckhardt’s Harvey Dent sought to be the white knight who worked within the confines of the law with the help of Batman, who worked outside those confines with the tacit participation of the Gotham City Police Department, its commissioner, and the DA’s office.

Affleck’s Batman was unfairly criticized because of the scripts, yet Affleck was effective in the role as a world weary and older Wayne/Batman who wondered if he had any impact at all and if that impact was a net positive. He just kept doing it because he didn’t know what else to do with himself, eventually confronting an existential threat in Superman that he feared could destroy the planet. By then, the stories were so far gone that there was no bringing them back to something intelligible. Batman v Superman was a mishmash of stuff thrown in, seemingly at the last moment or at the behest of some producer who had no innate knowledge nor concern about the characters.

After Joker, the easy response is to go heavy on the brooding symbolism, but Pattinson’s Batman needs more nuance. Whereas Affleck’s Batman had been at it for two decades and realized what he was doing was not only fruitless but might have been making things worse, if Reeves is adhering to the conventional Batman wisdom, Pattinson’s Batman is seeking to right wrongs and prevent others by enduring what he, despite his life of wealth and privilege, has faced as the son of two murdered parents, shot in a robbery before his very eyes.

The moral ambiguity in any Batman film is self-evident, but worsens as he ages. Initially, right and wrong is relatively clear. It takes time before Batman can be cast as something other than a do-gooder, but as what he is: a legitimately deranged psychopath who just happens to be confronting so-called evil with a code never to kill. This is not something that can be accomplished when he has just begun his journey. His association with the GCPD and especially Commissioner Jim Gordon and Dent is one of expediency to achieve their ends.

Pattinson is far enough removed from his days as a ludicrous and reluctant teen heartthrob from the Twilight series and its intrinsically mockable vampire character that he can pull off the Batman role. Few ridiculed it better than the brief and still-missed Beavis and Butt-head reboot.

Still, the costumes do look to be tilting in the direction of a Joker-style concept rather than other interpretations.

A key problem that The Batman faces is straddling the line of credulity that every superhero film must navigate. If, as the rumors and casting suggests, the storyline is taking massive chunks from the 1996-97 comic miniseries The Long Halloween, Reeves has an even thinner line to tread than the usual neo-realism with a heavy dose of disbelief suspension.

Complete with some tired and lazy storytelling techniques like faked deaths, inexplicable disguises, multiple perpetrators in the puzzling denouement, the style was superior to the substance in a basically enjoyable storyline. Presumably, Reeves wants to do better than that and will use portions of the comic series while discarding others to suit the narrative.

The characterizations and how the actors perform in the roles is and will always be secondary to the story. If the script is convoluted and nonsensical as was Batman v Superman or is worse than a Saturday morning cartoon like Batman and Robin, then it’s not going to work.

If they’re heading in the direction of having Batman’s career as a crime fighting zealot with deep psychosis as he traverses a complex case early in his career while he still believes he is a force for good, then they’re on the right track. Trying to cram everything into one film with no reason for doing so will be a repeat of the disastrous versions which spawned the spin to Joker to begin with. The reinvigorated interest will be extinguished immediately by making the same mistakes other filmmakers made in the past.