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The Batman Back in the Mud

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THE BATMAN. Despite the time, space and vitriol I've maybe/probably/definitely wasted bloviating about the state of movies in the shadow of the comic book-adaptation monolith, I've been a Batman shill for longer than I'd like to admit. Being of a certain age, I saw Tim Burton's Batman (1989) in the theater with my parents and younger brother. Shortly thereafter, having been shuttled to Musicland in the still new Bayshore Mall, I asked the cassette steward for the soundtrack. Presented with Prince's album of original songs, I balked and, not yet capable of righteous indignation, falteringly asked for Danny Elfman's original score instead. Incidentally, I'm listening to the same (on vinyl) now because nerds don't die. The subsequent winter break, I watched Batman something like 18 times on VHS. I never really committed to an exploration of comics. I watched the goofy '60s TV reruns as an era of near-obsession with the Dark Knight onscreen set in.

After Batman Returns (1992), the sequels worked to erode my fandom, as did the simple passage of time. Still, I watched them all, with ever-diminishing returns. And so, by the time Christopher Nolan was rebooting, I was still interested but only passingly. I was underwhelmed by Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008) until second viewing, likely due to my virulent contrarian streak. By the time the tame backlash against The Dark Knight Rises (2012) began, I was back on board.

I still haven't seen anything with Affleck as Batman, though, which brings me to another misguided observation. As vocal as I am regarding my lack of engagement with Marvel product, I must grudgingly admit an appreciation of the clarity of vision, foresight and undeniable planning of the executive team. Under Kevin Feige, they've put together an immense slate of movie and TV projects that, despite my not giving a shit, hang together narratively, thematically and aesthetically. There really is a cinematic universe to engage with, while DC projects have cast about in a dozen different directions without establishing sure footing. Zack Snyder and James Wan have worked on the biggest, greenest of screens to deliver an over-the-top, quasi-dark spectacle in an apparent attempt to contend with the Avengers, but with middling success at best (at least artistically). Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman (2017), despite greater overall cohesiveness of vision, belongs in their camp.

But there is hope, as I see it, in the new crop of DC-spawned projects. Joker (2019), though admittedly problematic, conjured a squalid, lawless, ground-level vision of Gotham and the DC universe, while Birds of Prey (2020), despite pacing problems and some obvious studio meddling, introduced a degree of neon-psychedelia and bleak humor. The Suicide Squad (2021) and the Peacemaker (2022), both James Gunn projects, succeed with a combination of ridiculousness and gore, shot through with a tricky mélange of hope and hopelessness.

And now Matt Reeves, who made the re-imagined The Planet of the Apes franchise something greater than it probably should have been, as well as elevating the found-footage model with Cloverfield (2008) and remaking a modern classic with a usually unseen reverence and vision (Let Me In, 2010), has brought us a distilled, troubling, ethically dynamic vision of Batman that stands apart from its predecessors and feels like something vital and viable.

Eschewing the gloss, technology and spectacle of Nolan's iteration, Reeves brings us down into the mud puddles of Gotham City, a struggling, sodden nightmare of a city that may be beyond salvation. Two years into his Batman experiment, Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) has all but abandoned his duties as steward of his family's fortune, focusing instead on his efforts to save himself from his grief and rage by channeling them into anti-violence violence. The results have been fair to middling. Wayne is still a depressive recluse, and the Batman a marauder without true focus.

When a masked murderer begins dispatching prominent public figures and baiting the Batman and Lt. Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) with ciphers and cryptograms, our protagonist finds both a profound antagonist and the impetus toward closer scrutiny of his own actions, origins and intent. When Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), herself a defender of the defenseless and a creature of the night, gets involved, things get even more complicated.

Reeves' vision harkens back to a down and dirty version of the Batman, and he and Pattinson have cast Bruce Wayne anew as something both simpler and more complex than versions I've seen. He is still a product of grief, desirous of vengeance (there's probably something Freudian in my fascination), but his sadness and ambivalence are rendered as far more real, more immediate. And the style of the thing, with its menace and elemental dichotomies, is transcendent. Granted, I haven't been out to the movies much lately, but sitting in the dark watching this almost — almost — made me forget the burning of the real world because I so enjoyed the creation and destruction of this imagined one. PG13. 176M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR. 

John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.

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For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456.

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