Dir: David Fincher; Writer: Andrew Kevin Walker; Producers: Art Linson, Joel Silver; Executive Producers: Thomas Tull, Michael Uslan; Cinematographer: Andrzej Sekula; Editor: Angus Wall; Music: Trent Reznor; Original Songs: John Mayer; Cast: Edward Norton, Helen Mirren, Kevin Spacey, Ellen Page, Morgan Freeman, James Earl Jones, Phillip Baker Hall, Jonah Hill, and Bruce Greenwood
Christopher Nolan’s third and final Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, is still in theaters. Rather than wait any number of years before developing a reboot of the lucrative franchise, in early 2010, Warner Brothers studio head Barry Meyer hired director David Fincher to helm the first installment. The rest is old news. Execs held a small press screening of David Fincher’s The Batman in Century City earlier this week. Interestingly enough, Fincher’s version of the caped crusader finished post-production before Nolan’s wrapped principal photography and the result is an astonishing, mesmerizing, and splendidly nuanced tour-de-force.
The film opens with a shirtless Bruce Wayne (Edward Norton) staring into a bathroom mirror, his face partially bruised. Wayne’s voice-over, flawlessly weaved into the fabric of the film, tells us, or Norton tells himself rather, “I want you. When I put on the suit, I’m inside you, where you can feel me completely. You, being me, being him. If my rage has a meaning, if this darkness must be peeled apart and penetrated, then let’s spray the scum off the streets of Gotham one asshole at a time.”
It’s around that time, page one of Andrew Kevin Walker’s 192-page screenplay, when you realize it’s high time to strap in, forget The Dark Knight as you know him, and prepare for a long and wild ride through Gotham City’s dark alleys.
Yes. Bruce Wayne is gay, but he’s also got a big fat Bat problem: the man he loves just so happens to be: The Batman.
As Wayne splashes water all over his pale and sickly face, there’s a knock, knock at the bathroom door, and his butler, Alfred (Helen Mirren), arrives with a hand towel. Norton keeps his gaze locked on his own reflection as Mirren brings her lips to an inch of his ear and whispers that the mysterious Riddler (Kevin Spacey) has struck again.
While Trent Reznor’s apocalyptic score, Norton’s stoicism, Jack Fisk’s gritty production design, and Tree of Life cinematographer Andrzej Sekula’s unrelenting handheld cinema verite approach easily make this the most unique and courageous undertaking of the Bat franchise, it’s Spacey’s performance as Jack Doe, AKA the Riddler, that truly jams three fingers inside the meat of this superhero classic and makes it sing.
Doe, a bored, underappreciated telemarketer, shotguns his entire office after the round bespectacled nebbish in his neighboring cubicle (Jonah Hill) tells one bad knock-knock joke too many. Back home in his freakishly clean studio apartment, Doe transforms into The Riddler by punching the mirror and using a shard of glass to carve a giant question mark into his chest, the blood-soaked symbol he will soon leave behind at crime scenes.
The question becomes: what does the question mark question? Is it a snarky jab at the sexually ambiguous state of the protagonist? Does it question why Doe went insane, and began murdering the citizens of Gotham in a shockingly grizzly manner? In one early crime scene, Commissioner Gordon (James Earl Jones) discovers a victim’s intestines beside the corpse arranged in the shape of said punctuation mark and drones to detectives, “If this is the question, God help us if he decides to answer.”
Yet that’s just the beginning of Spacey’s murderous reign, a series of crimes that make Fincher’s Se7en look like The Pickwick Chronicles. When Batman performs a rogue autopsy and discovers the words “Knock, Knock” etched in a victim’s tailbone, the questions start to ask themselves, namely, what’s the answer to stopping The Riddler, and how many men just like him, are in me.
In the Batcave (Fincher opted for the Batcave from the original series, two real caves located at the top of Bronson Canyon in Los Angeles), Norton meets with Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) who reprises his role from the Nolan series. Freeman shows him the new Batbelt he’s created, equipped with tighter cables and dispensable lubricant grease, “In case you need to slide down a pole.” As they come out of the cave, Norton asks him how he thinks The Riddler can be stopped. Freeman stares at the sky and replies, “Knock, knock,” and ponders, “Who’s there, Bruce? Who’s there?”
And that’s the point. In keeping with Fincherian lore (think of the director’s antecedent films, all the way from Alien 3 to Se7en to Fight Club), the protagonist pursues his quest in defiance of the establishment, and in doing so, discovers the monster he’s chasing is the same as the monster within. However, unlike Fincher’s earlier endeavors, both Bruce Wayne and Jack Doe are in conflict with the other sides of themselves. Ultimately, it’s the joining of these selves in a climactic midpoint meeting between hero and villain at a ballet (reminiscent of DeNiro and Pacino’s meet-up in Ridley Scott’s Heat) where they realize they are simply extensions of the same person. That to hunt each other is to hunt the other. That only by becoming one, in the only way they can become one, can they truly become one.
The kiss is sadly going to be what audiences walk away remembering the most. Fincher did this on purpose and it just might cost him his job. In full-on brazen Warholian glory, the scene goes on for five uninterrupted minutes. Because it’s meaningless, yet it’s everything. As meaningless as the knock-knock jokes Spacey kills his victims in accordance with, his motivation to torture, maim, and murder Gotham’s citizens while speaking in his famous calm and comely cadence means everything to him. Why?
Precisely. To ask the question, is meaningless. That’s the ethos behind this picture, and the skeleton key you must insert to understand it.
It would be disingenuous to suggest The Batman is all dank and dirty. The casting of Ellen Page as Robin lightens the overbearing load of existentialism and dread, and reminds Norton of his inner conflict, not dissimilar to Tarantino’s interpretation of Kelly McGillis’s role in the Academy Award-winning Top Gun. Ironically, not since “Highway to the Danger Zone” has an original song for a movie been so blatantly on point as it is in John Mayer’s “Out and Back in Through the Darkest of Doors.”
That said, will Fincher’s vision of the caped crusader rise to the acclaim of its forebear?
Or will it be remembered as a flagrant display of self-consciously tolerant dreck, the syphilitic cousin of Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever, stretching beyond placing nipples on the Batsuit to molding a girthy dick print and chiseled posterior?
Most importantly, is America ready for a gay superhero?
Adam Cushman holds an MFA in fiction writing from Columbia University. His short stories have appeared in The Mississippi Review, Trop, The St. Petersburg Review, El Portal and elsewhere. He teaches fiction writing at Writing Workshops Los Angeles and is the President of Red 14 Films. His novel CUT releases February 2014 from Black Mountain Press.