American Gothic: Arley Sorg and Josh Pearce Discuss The Batman
Batman was first introduced in Detective Comics #27 in 1939, and this year’s The Batman tries to bring him back to that super-sleuth tradition: showing up at crime scenes, looking for clues, outwitting criminals and police alike. There’s nothing fantastical, futuristic, or even particularly outlandish about this story — without the Batman name on it, it could be any other crime story. There are explicit Chinatown influences in the length and complexity of the mystery, and frequent reminders of 2019’s Joker. Where Joker was essentially Taxi Driver with a guy in clown makeup, The Batman is Seven with a guy in a bat costume.
Josh: What do I want to say about this movie? I think it was too long. One sentence review, three hour movie.
Arley: I described it to people as a perfectly average crime flick. I like the idea of the detective work, but I felt like they could have leaned into that a little more. His biggest detective work was figuring out the riddles, and in the comic books Batman goes full forensic.
That guy in the bat costume is Robert Pattinson, and he faces down a rogue’s gallery of cat burglars, mobsters, and facepainted gangs in yet another grimdark version of Gotham. The casting is all fairly solid: Zoë Kravitz plays Selina Kyle, John Turturro plays Carmine Falcone, and Paul Dano plays the Riddler, but most notable is an unrecognizable Colin Farrell, whose Mafia-gangster performance demonstrates that James Gandolfini would have made an excellent Penguin.
Arley: It used to be very common to see this sexual dynamic where the early flirtations between (almost always male) action hero protagonists and (pretty much always female) instant romantic interests have the male physically dominating the female, such as holding her down. You know, of course she becomes frantic or hysterical, and the male pins her arms, or holds her close covering her mouth. And then she usually capitulates. It’s a very old misogynistic narrative style, and they brought that back in this, between Batman and Catwoman. I find it to be really gross. There’s a reason that a lot of movies don’t do that shit anymore. Even those scenes aside, I just felt like Pattinson and Kravitz don’t have good chemistry.
Josh: Yeah, I kind of laughed at some of those scenes where they kissed. It didn’t feel like they had any attraction towards each other — maybe on a superficial, physical level, but it wasn’t romantic. I thought Catwoman was maybe manipulating him. They were both trying to get each other to do stuff, so the flirting and the kissing came across as some kind of power play. It wasn’t playful or friendly like the Batman/Catwoman dynamic is in other media.
Arley: In terms of the concept of superheroes I felt like Catwoman was ten times the superhero Batman was because she doesn’t have body armor. And she keeps going into danger and taking risks, and she kicks more ass. She’s a better fighter! And she’s taking on opponents who are bigger than her. There’s that scene towards the end, where people are firing rifles and shotguns, Bats gets knocked down and she runs up there to help him. Bullets aren’t going to bounce off her.
Josh: Some of the fighting style stood out to me because they tried to make it look like Batman was shouldering through these guys based on his bulk. Pattinson is not a bulky guy. He’s very thin, he’s tall, but he doesn’t have a lot of heft to him.
Arley: Basically, they treated him like a tank. Batman is not a tank. He has no superpowers.
Josh: He took a lot of direct shots from automatic rifles, shotguns, hunting rifles — I guess you can just skate over it, but it was catching my attention. Like, what armor class is he wearing?
Arley: I had a really hard time with this aspect of the movie. He doesn’t even bother dodging most of the time, and doesn’t utilize stealth. Yet his armor has an opening where the mouth is. This broke suspension of disbelief – that he’d take that much direct fire, kind of just walking into it? With no powers? You wouldn’t live very long doing that. It was too much.
The film’s production design skews heavily gothic-noir, which not only aligns with earlier on-screen adaptations (Tim Burton’s two films and Batman: The Animated Series) but also comic-book Elseworlds versions such as Gotham by Gaslight, Batman: Gothic, and the Batman & Dracula trilogy. For the most part, Pattinson blends seamlessly into the roles of both the Batman and Bruce Wayne, but there is a shot of him — pale, thin, and moping around the baroque architecture of his manor — that reinforces his typecasted Twilight vampirism.
Arley: In that first shot of him without the mask, with the long hair and eye makeup, I got hardcore The Crow vibes.
Superhero comic books, including DC’s early stories, evolved from the hero pulps and dime novels of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the modern detective mystery was invented by that master of Gothic horror, Edgar Allan Poe, so we can envision this Batman as a penny dreadful character — a cross between Spring Heeled Jack and Varney the Vampire. Although there are explosions, fistfights, and car chases, The Batman spreads its action far and few between, departing from the recent Zack Snyder Justice League and Christopher Nolan Dark Knight effects spectacles to instead focus long stretches of time on the convoluted, riddle-riddled plot.
Josh: There were some brief moments of interest. The wingsuit sequence looked good. The Batmobile was cool, but that just went on for a while, without a clear purpose.
Arley: It’s an obligatory crime movie car chase.
Josh: And then it got to the point where the Penguin crashes all those trucks and hella people just died because of Batman.
Arley: I had a huge problem with that. We’ve talked somewhere about this before, the idea of heroes having no consequences in some iterations. All these people died, and Bats doesn’t bat an eye. On a writing level, it’s a complete disconnect from later dialogue about not killing people. But even without that kind of flimsy, tacked on philosophical piece, why isn’t he trying to avoid getting all these people killed? Why doesn’t he at least acknowledge that wow, we just killed a bunch of innocent people? I have mixed feelings about the flying scene because the setup is that he’s been doing this a while, but then he goes to the roof and you can see he’s scared. Which would be cool if this was his first night out, but it’s like, wait, is this really his first time jumping off a roof? It’s one of those things where if I liked the movie more I probably wouldn’t care, I wouldn’t be nit-picking. It seemed like somebody had an idea to do what they thought was a cool thing, so they just squeezed it into the movie even if it doesn’t make total sense.
Fitting with the Gothic theme of “the present being haunted by the past”* there are sins of the father, secret children and family connections, and an institutional rot that causes the ruination of not just a single manor, but the whole of Gotham city itself. Other Gothic mainstays include ornate cemeteries (filmed in the Glasgow Necropolis), abandoned orphanages, and women locked away in asylums under questionable mental health diagnoses.
Arley: I felt like a lot of what was going on with the character work was survivor’s guilt. They weren’t necessarily telling us it was that, but I could explain it in that way.
Josh: That makes sense. He kept saying he was vengeance, and the moral of the story is, “Don’t do vengeance,” or whatever, but I couldn’t really latch on to his motivation or buy into his transformation into a beacon of hope. They don’t show his parents’ murders, and he’s not actively trying to hunt down their killer, he’s just going around punching random criminals, like taking vengeance on crime in general. There’s no emotional throughline from their murder to the resolution. But you’re right, it might be survivor’s guilt and he’s taking it out on everyone else. He happens to find the murderer by chance, which kind of sucks, because if he’s being a detective, why hasn’t he been trying to uncover that mystery? Instead, he accidentally solves it.
Arley: The worst way to end a mystery narrative is to just give the solution to the detective at random.
Matt Reeves’s film directing began with Cloverfield, from which we can see he’s interested in non-traditional camerawork. The Batman includes similar filming tricks like vehicle-mounted cameras during the car chase, and helmet-mounted cameras during a wingsuit flight. Other than that, the cinematography is mainly distinguished by darkness. There’s a hallway fight lit entirely by muzzle flashes, some hand-to-hand combat in the strobes of a club dance floor. Much of the lighting is drab: overly red from emergency flares and police lights, the rest sickly yellow sodium-vapor as if watching Jack the Ripper work by gaslight.
In the end, the movie feels too long for the ultimate payoff and false endings. It wants to double down on the grimdark, but it doesn’t go sensationalist enough to drag the audience through Gotham’s gutters and turn their stomachs. (It’s teased at, but — hobbled by a PG-13 rating — we don’t actually see rats chew a man’s face off.) This all may be a matter of mismanaged expectations. Like how Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak was marketed as horror-suspense, so too The Batman appears to be something it’s not: superhero action or crime story, rather than the pure Gothic it is.
Arley: So let’s talk about the Riddler real quick.
Josh: Kind of like John Doe from Seven, but I don’t think the riddles or the mind games were intriguing enough for me to to care what the next one was going to be. There should have been way more manipulation and thought put into it if you’re going to base your whole movie on this kind of genius mastermind. In Seven, the clues were not blatant, in-your-face riddles. The detectives had to work for it.
Arley: Oh, one thing I did like is this tension they had of Batman not really being sure if Riddler knows who the fuck he is. With the Riddler character, there’s another similarity to Joker: at the end of Joker, all these people are like, pro-Joker, anti-establishment.
Josh: Right, it’s a very similar thing with the Riddler — there are protestors holding up the Riddler cards.
Arley: But in this movie, I don’t buy it as much. Even though I am, generally speaking, kind of anti-establishment myself, I just don’t buy that all these people would go out with guns and follow in Riddler’s footsteps.
Josh: Yeah, this guy somehow found 500 willing domestic terrorists off the internet. Joker was a little more believable because people had economic concerns and actual mass protests. And this was like, we found hundreds of people who are willing to take guns and just randomly fire into a crowd. You’d get maybe two who would actually follow through, at most, hopefully. But maybe it’s just a more cynical vision of reality than I want to think about.
Arley: Several of my friends said they really liked this movie. I’d give it a solid meh. It’s not a superhero movie, and as crime flicks go, there are many which are far, far better. At my local theaters, most of the showings were sold out, so obviously there’s a lot of anticipation. I think part of that is, it’s Batman, and part of it is people want to get to the fucking movie theaters. When we went the theater was pretty full, and it felt like people were trying to get into the movie, but the energy wasn’t quite there. After the movie, there was this lackluster applause. It’s like, well, we’re probably supposed to applaud, because it’s Batman and it just opened.
Riddler tells Batman that the mask allows them to be their true selves. Take off the mask, and what are you left with? A nobody. Take off Batman’s mask and what is this movie left with?
[*Characteristics of Gothic fiction]
Directed by: Matt Reeves
Written by: Matt Reeves & Peter Craig, based on characters created by Bill Finger & Bob Kane
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Jeffrey Wright, Colin Farrell, Paul Dano, John Turturro, Andy Serkis & Peter Sarsgaard
JOSH PEARCE has stories and poetry in Analog, Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Cast of Wonders, Clarkesworld, IGMS, Nature, and more. Find him on Twitter: @fictionaljosh, or at fictionaljosh.com. One time, Ken Jennings signed his chest.
ARLEY SORG, Senior Editor, has been part of the Locus crew since 2014. Arley is a 2022 Kate Wilhelm Solstice Award recipient, as well as a 2021 World Fantasy Award finalist and a 2022 Locus Award finalist for his work as co-Editor-in-Chief at Fantasy Magazine. He is a 2022 Ignyte Award finalist in two categories: for his work as a critic, and for his essay “What You Might Have Missed” in Uncanny Magazine. He is also Associate Editor and reviewer at Lightspeed & Nightmare magazines, columnist for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and interviewer at Clarkesworld Magazine. He grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado, and lives in Oakland, CA. A 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate, he can be found at arleysorg.com – where he has started his own “casual interview” series with authors and editors – and on Twitter (@arleysorg).
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