Logan Kenny’s review published on Letterboxd:
in Batman Returns, Batman/Bruce Wayne is a cog in the machinations of Gotham. he is the element that ties the other characters together, that provides multiple distinct arcs with an ending. but he barely exists on his own terms, used almost entirely to provide further context to the tragedies of Selina Kyle and Oswald Cobblepot, to verge closer to the darkness that they’ve fallen almost entirely into. it is a cynical, sad movie that has little interest in the idea of a hero, but in the different ways that people live with their pain, the different ways that it breaks us. Wayne, Kyle and Cobblepot are all part of the same equation, only differentiated by the support and circumstances around them. it makes the ending so tragic, with even the shedding of Bruce’s mask not being enough to save the two “villains” from their destinies. all Bruce can do is sit in the back of his car, barely remember it’s Christmas, and drive by the alleys that helped cement the man he is. tortured, incapable of saving everyone, destined to do this until his wheels fall off. making the character of Batman a piece of the overall puzzle, instead of the unequivocal centre, was a big reason that I felt a disconnect to Returns as a Batman obsessed kid. this was also perhaps the main reason why I drifted from the two Nolan Batmans that I really liked, as I found Bale and Nolan’s interpretation of the character to never leave much of an impact. he always felt peripheral to me in his own story. I doubt that my opinion will ever change on my infamously loathed Rises, and it remained remarkably static on Batman Begins when I recently rewatched that, but my eventual loving embrace of The Dark Knight has manifested in a similar way as my love for Returns did. instead of seeing Batman’s lack of impact (at least in comparison to 5 supporting characters) as a bug, I now see it as a feature.
most of my very favourite Batman stories are the ones where every frame is covered in the Bat, whether it’s the anguish of Bruce reckoning with the weight of the cape, the battles of wits against his villains, or the loving dynamics with the Bat Family in multiple mediums. Mask of the Phantasm, Return of the Joker, most of the Batman Animated Series, Batman Arkham City, the Telltale Batman games and recently, Matt Reeves’ interpretation all fit this bill. to say nothing about the comics, especially Batman: Hush. but I love the sense of tragedy in Returns and TDK so much, that give their humanistic villains so much time and space to grow and change, for the audience to feel devastated when they manifest into the iconic villainous personas. TDK captures the same sensation as the classic graphic novel The Long Halloween, a guttural sense of anger and loss that the world of Gotham could be so cruel, to force good people into monsters. it is a remarkable blend of cynicism and compassion, broadly depicting the fallibility of heroism’s image and the rot omnipresent in multiple systems (both legislative and criminal) but without ever losing sight of the possibility of good. not just in the big moments, like the convict throwing the detonator out of the window, but the dozens of little textural details and grace notes scattered throughout this version of Gotham. the city’s sense of geography and visual identity might be borderline non-existent, but the tone of what Nolan wishes his Gotham to be is impossible to deny.
it is a seismic improvement from Begins in every way. instead of Nolan relying upon his pretty poor ability to direct hand-to-hand combat, he switches up his approach to action directing. the few sequences of Batman extensively fighting with his hands are embedded with some ambitious visual ideas, like the cuts to the sonic distortion during his raid of Joker’s lair, which make them more visually interesting than Begins’ sludge. but mostly, he decides to use his skills for spectacle to good use. the biggest bombastic moments are either primarily built around expert cross-cutting to generate tension, there are frankly too many examples to cite one, or centred on Batman in the Batmobile/his lil Bat Bike. the former sequences take advantage of the excellent montage, escalating the existing structural successes by adding immense tension to their foundations. the latter also allow Nolan and his editors to play to their strengths, the action is allowed to breathe for longer, the more guttural cuts are timed more expertly, there is far more of a sense of space etc. in contrast to Begins, which has excellent structural editing when relying upon the flashbacks, TDK remains incredibly consistent in construction throughout. unlike some of his later films, the editing never just feels like a technical exercise, there is no getting lost in temporal experiments that detract from the narrative elements of the films. everything here is built to strengthen the emotion and the tension.
while I still believe that Bale is just okay for the most part; although he’s got a couple moments of brilliance, I don’t think I’d change the handling of Batman or Bruce in this at all. arguably the best choice that Nolan makes narratively in TDK is the decision to commit Rachel to Harvey, making their love evident and Bruce’s role as interruptor feel conflicting and sad to the audience. Harvey gets the focus because this is ultimately a movie about him, about the levels that someone can sink to when they lose the person they love the most in the world, in a way that just feels punishingly unfair. I can tell you for a fact that the cynicism he feels towards the world, the anger that he expresses towards himself and anyone around him who he feels is responsible, that’s all real. the little detail of him rejecting the skin grafts so that no one can forget his scars or his trauma, resonated extremely hard as well. it’s not a nice thing to relate to Two-Face, but on top of the emotions being ones that I can relate to, they are expertly sold by Aaron Eckhart. I can be hyperbolic, I’m aware of this, but I’m not sure there’s a better performance in a comic book movie than his. the charm offensive that he provides as Harvey, the emotional weight of his decision to falsely reveal himself as Batman, the amazing chemistry he was with Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Rachel, the relentless rage that he showcases in the hospital and in his final scene, he has it absolutely all. I’ve always loved this performance, even when the film didn’t win me over fully, but it resonates in an entirely different manner now.
the Rachel Dawes arc is the reason I love this movie now. as much as I appreciated the flow and entertainment value of the structure, it’s the Rachel stuff that killed me and forged a (likely permanent) connection with me and the film. my girlfriend died over a year ago. I write about this often. I have to, because it’s the only way I know how to remember her and the emotions that her life and death bring to me. I find new ways of seeing my grief, of experiencing it in my gut, of recognising it in art and other people around me. I remembered that Rachel would die, but I didn’t realise how it would feel to watch the person that loved her, that would have died to save her in a heartbeat, realise that he was going to have to live without her. Gyllenhaal is outstanding throughout, such an improvement upon the unfortunately awful Katie Holmes performance, but the face she makes when Rachel realises that she’s going to die…it stopped my heart for a second. I knew what was coming in the minutes leading up to her death, and it still didn’t stop the tears from pouring down my face, or the desperation in my body to run out of that theatre and get lost in the dark streets of Glasgow; to run away from my grief and sorrow and shame and guilt and anger, to run until my legs couldn’t move any more and my brain reminded me of something else. but I stayed in that chair. and I saw a cut that I’d forgotten about. in the hospital bed, Harvey looks over at his lucky coin, the one that he keeps with him at all times. as he touches it, the film cuts to a recognisable shot of Rachel interacting with it, one of the most tender scenes of Nolan’s career. in silence, we see the love in her eyes, that precise mixture of eye rolling and adoration that only comes towards someone you’d die for. and then, it cuts back to the coin in the present, and its charred side. Rachel is gone now, she exists only in memory, and even the reminders of her will be tainted by black and brimstone. I felt so much seeing that.
I’m rambling on and on now, but I have a couple more points to make. one of the big ones is about the film’s ideologies. while Nolan’s politics can come across as frighteningly right-wing in certain movies, including this film’s direct sequel, I think TDK reckons with the complications of law enforcement, heroism and the utilisation of unethical methods to get results far more directly than a TDKR or a Dunkirk. whereas the former is a garish manipulation of Occupy Wall Street, and the latter is a Churchill coated ode to British perseverance and exceptionalism, TDK directly confronts its demons and contradictions. Batman builds his ethos around not killing, but murders Harvey Dent to save a child’s life. he willingly embraces a fascistic tool to the dismay of Lucius Fox, lets people be assassinated in order to protect his identity, and eventually chooses to be seen as a murderer in order to protect the image of a fallen hero. while I’d prefer it if some of those elements were engaged with more aggressively, the resolution of Batman’s temporary embrace of fascism is a little too clean cut, I do think that TDK is far more open about the messiness it brings to the table. Batman’s depiction of the police in literally every version of the character is some form of questionable, this is not an exception, but I’m grateful that the film’s cynicism extends to the majority of the police force. TDK’s belief in the idea of a bunch of good cops doing their best to fight against inner injustice is fundamentally flawed, but the dedication to showcasing those injustices vividly helps balance it out personally. there is still a current of idealistic naivety throughout this film, one that believes in the power of the two boats not blowing each other up, one that believes there are a few good men left to keep the world from destroying itself. in the world of Batman, it’s something I can allow myself to believe.
the last major thing I want to talk about is Heath Ledger. I haven’t seen this film since the oversaturation of abysmal Joker performances, since the destructive method acting or embrace of ableist gestures or the total reliance on broad tics. what’s so remarkable about Ledger is that he’s transformative in a way that hides the acting he’s doing. with most showy performances (including Leto and Phoenix’s performances as the Joker, and Paul Dano’s dismal showcase as The Riddler), the emphasis feels based on showcasing how much acting these performers can do. they can command the screen, contort their facial muscles, modulate their voices frequently, act so crazily that you can’t take your eyes off them. but for me, I rarely feel a connection that suspends my disbelief. the performance style is so artificial and derivative that I can only see the actor, not become immersed in their character or their actions. if the intent is to embrace a more comedic Joker, like Cesar Romero or Jack Nicholson, that showmanship and bombast can work brilliantly. for a more serious or disturbing interpretation, it can fall so flat. with Ledger, the best thing I can say is that I forget it’s him. every single time I see it. I can barely bring myself to imagine that it’s the same man who acted in Brokeback Mountain just a couple of years before. it is a performance that is intoxicating and unpredictable, but one that often acts in a lower register. he isn’t screeching every other word, or slowly dictating his lines for dramatic effect. he uses his skill as a performer to make it impossible to take your eyes off him. there is so much to that character that you can tell isn’t being said or shown, but that Heath has brought to it. history and pain flows through his very walk. it is an immense performance that showed just how multi-faceted he was as an actor, and it breaks my heart constantly to remember just how little we got of him.
I am aware that I’ve been very negative towards Nolan a few times on here. I stand by my reviews of Dunkirk and Tenet, and will be stunned if I gain any respect towards Rises on rewatch. but I’m willing to accept when I’ve changed my mind on a film, and I’m very glad that the shift has been so positive. maybe it was benefited by being in a particularly emotional place, maybe it was because I needed the escapism, or maybe it was just because I finally understood what I never could before. regardless of why, it resonated very deeply. it has proven to me that the Cotillard scenes in Inception will absolutely destroy me when I eventually revisit that. he’s a filmmaker I’ll likely struggle with forever, but in this case, it’s a struggle that I’m grateful to have had.