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Thursday, February 29, 2024

'The Batman' Leans Hard Into the Emo Revival

Gotham fatigue is real. Over the past 17 years there have been roughly a half-dozen big screen Batmen outings, and all of them, from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight to Zack Snyder’s Batfleck, have been the same: a weary, hardened hero gearing up to fight another day. That Bruce Wayne is nowhere to be found in The Batman. Instead, director Matt Reeves alleviates the burnout by capturing the Caped Crusader at a different point in his life—20 years after his parents were killed, but only two years into his quest for vengeance. It’s a time that allows Reeves to build his Bat anew, and craft a compelling standalone story with a distinct style and tone.

And that tone is undeniably, unashamedly My Chemical Romance video circa 2005.

Make no mistake, this is the most emo Batman movie you’ll ever see. That’s meant as a compliment. Normally, comic book heroes are pretty hard to identify with—all muscled super-soldiers or principled scientists. Even the ordinary ones plucked from obscurity by spider bite or radioactive incident have some deep well of courage to draw from that, if we’re being honest, is almost entirely alien to most people (and that’s before you even get to the actual aliens). So early in the film, when Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” kicks in and the Caped Crusader rips off his mask to reveal Twilight’s Robert Pattinson looking like Gerard Way, with his hair covering his eyes and his makeup running down his face, my 17-year-old self thought: “Finally, a Batman I can relate to.”

Not since Peter Parker got infected by Venom in Spider-Man 3 has there been a superhero more likely to shop at Hot Topic. This is a vulnerable, sophomore Bat, one in full amateur detective mode, trying to find his feet as he tracks down a mysterious killer targeting Gotham’s political elite. In showing us this proto-Batman, Reeves explicitly frames Bruce Wayne’s fight for justice as a misguided coping mechanism for dealing with tragedy—although, because of Batman’s vow never to murder, his teen angst does not actually have a body count. This Dark Knight is far more comfortable in the suit than he is as himself—when we see Pattinson venture out as Wayne he looks every inch the awkward adolescent. There are layers of camouflage.

Production on The Batman, out Friday, predates the recent emo revival on TikTok, which sparked a brief resurgence in popularity for the angsty guitar-heavy music, swoopy hair, and skinny jeans that dominated the early 2000s. But the movie’s emo-ness goes beyond the eyeliner and sartorial choices; it’s also the general vibe. The rain pours down in sheets. Gotham’s elite hang out in an underground club (run by the Penguin, a snarling mob fixer played—unbelievably—by Colin Farrell). Andy Serkis’ Alfred wears a waistcoat and shirt with the sleeves rolled up, like an indie rock bass player. (“You’re not my father,” Bruce shouts at Alfred at one point, before presumably storming up to his room to scroll tearily through MySpace.) When he’s not stomping around the city in his knee-high boots, he broods, vampire-like, in a gothic skyscraper. He keeps a journal.

There’s also the city itself. Reeves—perhaps best known for his gritty reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise—has crafted one of the better renditions of Gotham City ever put on screen. In the Nolan films the metropolis seems like an afterthought—just a series of set pieces knitted together. It didn’t feel lived in. This one does. There’s a dampness to it, a rot. Old ledgers crumble and flake away. Paint peels off walls. The city pulses with life—it feels bigger than this rookie Batman, liable to swallow him up.

Even the main villain, played with an unsettling intensity by Paul Dano, has something of the scene about him. Dano’s Riddler—a disaffected man, angry at the city and his circumstances—has the feel of a singer in a mathy Midwest band: all strange time signatures and quiet-loud dynamics. It’s an admirably serious and shockingly plausible take on a very unserious character; this version inspired more by the Zodiac killer and alt-right uprisings than the campy, green-clad source material.

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As he works with Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) to try and solve the Riddler’s clues (rather straightforward in many cases, like pre–New York Times Wordle), Batman also has to contend with the mob, politics, and mob politics—crime bosses Silvio Morone and Carmine Falcone, and Farrell’s Oswald Cobblebot, a violent crook with a prosthetic snarl. Selina Kyle’s Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz) is another complication—she has her own motives and doesn’t adhere to Batman’s moral code—and there’s a tension between the pair which is resolved, in true emo fashion, with a poignant moment at a cemetery.

The Batman’s great success is knitting all these disparate facets into a coherent story that feels real and grounded and propulsive, despite the nearly three-hour runtime. It’s also a movie with a three-act structure that almost perfectly mimics the narrative arc of the first three My Chemical Romance albums: the first is gritty and underproduced; the second more composed but built around a passionate but doomed pairing out for sweet revenge; the third striking a surprising note of hope and unity: Welcome to the Bat Parade.

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