The Red and the Grey: A review of The Batman and Pixar’s Turning Red

Image from US Weekly (Finally, an emo role that won’t humiliate Robert Pattinson.)

Do we still need Batman as an icon of popular culture? Do we even need a new Batman movie considering how recent the last two cinematic takes of the character have been? At the end of Matt Reeves’ three hour re-re-reintroduction to the dark knight, the answer is in some places an enthusiastic “Yes” and in others an apprehensive “Maybe”.

The world I live in in 2022 is not a world I would wish for anyone. It is a world that is slowly dying in part due to human caused climate change and our infuriating refusal to take immediate and meaningful action against it, though seemingly intractable internal corruption in our global system perhaps speaks more to the state of the stomach-churning crisis than the actions of the average, powerless human individual.

One of the factors that leads to my and your future growing increasingly bleaker is that the rich not only refuse to use their considerable means to directly challenge what should be the unifying threat of our time, but they helped along the crisis through their support of the industries, oil and gasoline, that most contributed to it. All against the renewable and clean initiatives that would replace and best shore up our chances of a survivable future.

So, why should I expect myself to further ingratiate myself to a fictional representative of that class of people who is slowly murdering me? Well, because in spite of Bruce Wayne the Batman being part of that upper echelon of people, he is an icon who can be framed into a figure that would and should fight the same systems that lead to such ruin. More than Iron Man, I believe that Bruce Wayne can be a class traitor for our times.

Bruce Wayne lost his parents as a consequence of Gotham City’s decline, both moral and economic. Reeves’ latest take mercifully spares us the moment where Thomas and Martha Wayne get plugged much like how the Tom Holland version of Spider-Man deigned to not show us Uncle Ben getting killed in much the same way.

The takeaways to a childhood traumatic event like that are many and varied, though one’s position in life can create certain perspectives which might take emphasis over others. At the start of the movie, Bruce Wayne/Batman narrates to us that he has become a symbol of fear to the criminals that lurk on Gotham’s many dilapidated streets. Echoing the immortalized assumption that “criminals are a cowardly and superstitious lot”, he believes that what he must do is drive the fear of the Batman into their hearts so they plague Gotham no more.

In that same narration, Bruce yet admits that two years in, his plan is failing miserably. The city is still the gothic cesspool you know, the streets haven’t become safer just because Batman prowls them. All he’s doing is smashing his bat-fist against the wall.

Reeves does all of us justice let alone for Batman by finally, purposefully focusing in on the one key aspect of the caped crusader that was either missing or only played with: being a detective. He’s yet to be the world’s greatest detective, as Bats makes some prime grade mistakes in this film’s investigation, but cut him a break: he’s still early on in his bat-career.

The earlier bat-films to include investigative vigilantism mostly pertained to the Dark Knight trilogy, but only in parts. Batman v Superman’s Batfleck also did some detective work but it was hampered by this Batman being an emotionally vulnerable, gullible moron who was stringed around by Mark Zuckerlex. Aside from that, big screen Batman was often a more reactive figure in facing his rogues’ gallery and it stands to reason that some detective work might’ve occurred off-screen.

Having Batman face a terribly deep rabbit hole into Gotham’s morally bankrupt history through solving the Zodiac-like killings and brain-games of Paul Dano’s utterly terrifying Riddler helps accommodate this new take on Batman as being one that is more deconstructive and self-critical than earlier works.

Batman’s vengeful fixation on the lowly poor thugs and mooks that slew his parents blinds him to the darker reality of what he should actually be facing. Namely, how the rich and powerful of Gotham, alongside its mostly bought off police force and organized crime families are the true Hydra that he must face. That, much to his own personal horror, his family’s own standing in the city contributed to the nightmare he is facing. In a sense, the Waynes might’ve brought their own heinous murders upon themselves through the system they either didn’t challenge or didn’t challenge strongly enough.

The Riddler, like Bruce Wayne, absolutely seethes with hate for the powers that be that led Gotham to its current state. Unlike Batman, the Riddler is more than OK with murder to make his point, to attain the justice he believes is sorely lacking.

As much as Dano’s performance does register genuine horror on my part (I don’t even mind that his style reminds one of Nolan’s take on the Joker..), I felt at the bottom of my gut that I couldn’t totally disagree with his motivations. In fact, I dare say you’re missing the point if you don’t realize that Riddler’s own deep dive into Gotham’s rotten core is in fact correct.

In spite of Riddler’s brutal killings of what are yet clearly awful people and his terroristic ambitions that become more and more clear as the film goes along, his expose of why Gotham is the way it is is actually a net positive. The sad truth is that if Riddler didn’t kill or have those destructive ambitions, he could’ve been a genuine ally to Batman and those in Gotham who want a better tomorrow.

This line of thought is actually present in comics Riddler, in that he doesn’t necessarilly need to be a bad guy and could in fact be in invaluable to heroes like the Bat-family and even the Justice League. His own childhood trauma from his never pleased father and a desire to intellectually one-up Batman keeps him from a nobler place in life. A lot of Batman’s villains could just as easily be heroes (or anti-heroes) in Gotham. Some actually have like Catwoman, Harley Quinn after letting Joker go and nominally even Poison Ivy.

This version of Riddler echoes Hegel’s concept that an antagonist can positively influence the direction the protagonist takes in the future. A similar observation was made about how The Legend of Korra’s villain for each season influenced the titular character’s own worldview for the better. One of the most redeeming aspects for one of the most personally conflicting pieces of entertainment I’ve experienced.

It just so happens that this Riddler also has childhood trauma, albeit of a different sort from Bruce’s as well as a raging resentment for how the latter’s treatment following that trauma was a lot more swell than his. This Riddler also carries echoes of recently created Batman villain Hush, whose motivations are also reflective of resentment for Bruce Wayne and his lifestyle. The film more or less admits to this connection with some pretty blatant visual references. In fact, a recent direct-to-DVD animated Batman movie that loosely adapts the Hush comic storyline makes that connection between Hush and Riddler even more explicit.

Speaking of Catwoman, Zoe Kravitz’s depiction of the character is the most true to the text I’ve yet seen on the big screen, much like how the depiction of Gotham City is the truest as well, with only hints or perhaps visual gags to past versions like Chris Nolan’s over-dependence on making Batman’s home look or just be other known cities like Chicago.

Kravitz’s Selina Kyle oozes the alluring charm of the comic version that made her into one of Comicdom’s most immediately recognizable sex symbols, let alone one of the most significant female characters ever created for the medium. More than past iterations like the surreal yet literal Michelle Pfeiffer version or Hathaway’s more burger than cat take, Kravitz manages to be the femme fatale with very much a heart of gold crossed with cat themed burglar we all know her for the most.

Her interplay with Pattinson’s Batman is the closest to the comic text and also helps reflect the sense of accuracy that permeates their scenes together, as if you can just feel the self-assuredness that yes, they’ve really gotten it down this time. It also helps that this Catwoman, despite her deep ties to the conspiracy that embroils all the subjects of this movie, feels like her own person more than past movie Kyles, that she is not revolving around Bruce Wayne’s life. Like a cat and like the Catwoman we know, she does feel affection and connection to our caped crusader, but she is by no means bound to him. She is no dog.

The three figures of Batman, Riddler and Catwoman all represent three different perspectives to how Gotham’s fall has affected its denizens, rich or poor. Wayne as Batman is a symbolic figure, a force that haunts the criminals of the night and scares them away from breaking the law. The Riddler wants a more direct approach to targeting Gotham’s rot and his investigative nature obviously mirrors Batman’s. Catwoman does not have the same vendetta as the first two and only gets involved when she is forced into it by external factors. Despite her affection for the caped crusader and even admiration for his mission, once she is no longer directly affected by what Gotham is doing to her, she has no qualms leaving the city to its probable fate.

Despite the thematic interplay between the three, The Batman is a story of an ensemble web of figures, all stuck like flies in matters either of their own volition or not. It comes to be a story of fighting the spider that made that web and which approach is best.

The approach to justice that is often the main point of a Batman story reflects upon my own frustrations when it comes to what the approach justice in the real word should take. A combination of time or lack thereof, punishment in proportion to the crimes and whether the actions society could take to better itself do not also poison it in the process. There’s also the grim likelihood that there is no way to motivate the people of the world to take any action either due to lack of time in which the action wouldn’t even matter or that we are too distracted by little entertainments to focus on what should be attempted.

My mediation on that combined with my own political biases puts myself in the uncomfortable position of appreciating, even in some areas loving a movie like The Batman that maybe I shouldn’t as much. You can argue that I’m simply at odds with what Matt Reeves and the writers earnestly believe is the right course of action for a better world, that I’m placing too much emphasis on what I think the right thing to do should be when others either don’t know of those options or don’t agree with them.

The issue yet is that The Batman is consciously or not espousing a worldview and as it stands now in 2022, with both climate change and a horrifying rise in American fascism, the problem could be not that The Batman holds a bad worldview, it may not hold the best or most needed one.

In one area, the portrayal of the GCPD. Of course, Gotham’s police being (initially) corrupt and bought off by the mafia is a tried and true component of Batman as a medium critiquing the police. But it is yet the most obvious approach, perhaps the only approach that has in the past been broadly accepted by the American public.

The assumption of most depictions of police in comics storytelling is either as a force for good, a neutral force that still fights on the right side, a force that is basically good but for the purposes of a superhero story woefully unable to handle a situation typical to the genre like a supervillain or a force that is indeed corrupted not beyond salvation.

Jim Gordon, the ever eventual Commissioner for the force, is the “good” apple among the mostly bad ones which I suppose is actually truer to reality than not. With help from an outside force like Batman, vigilante or not, he helps mold the GCPD into a proper policing force and a valuable ally for Batman’s mission. This enduring partnership helps in turn give Batman legitimacy, as the exception to the rule that vigilantes are always more trouble than they’re worth.

In light of recent exposure of American police behavior, through highly public murders and abuse of citizens, how the smartphone era has better shed light on what was likely always there, the issue cannot just be that an institution like the police starts off good but is slowly corrupted. What recent examples in the past decade alone have shown is that the institution itself has an inherent perniciousness.

Perhaps as Reeves’ trilogy means to go on, it can and will dive deeper into the inner workings of not just how Gotham’s story of corruption goes, it could delve into how the institutions we hold for granted create the very problems we either pretend don’t exist or wish to have resolved. Perhaps it will take more than good men like Jim Gordon and Batman being around to make the GCPD and by extension Gotham better, maybe a different type of holistic approach to policing itself will be what assures Batman’s dream is more likely.

If you’re doing a narrative that is very much allegorical to the utter frustration and weariness many have to the status quo, it helps to actually give attention to the proposals that have been made to better society. In spite of where Bruce Wayne comes from, it is best to picture Batman, if you are interpreting him as as genuine good guy, to have his journey confront these topics and maybe even embrace them. If that can be done while still being a badass crimefighter who punches back evil with his fists and his brain, I would see that as a win-win that might make Batman a more relatable force rather than merely a fascinating one.

Michael Giacchino’s excellent score and theme for the Batman reflects off of the two core ideas of what makes Batman appealing on some level no matter what your political compass would indicate. A force that strikes from the dark against evil while not himself being so while also being a force that wants a place like Gotham City to shine, maybe for the first time and in more ways than one. A dark knight that yearns yet for the light. I would hate for the ultimate takeaway of Reeves’ three movie narrative to lessen the musical meaning behind that theme, make it a narrative that doesn’t honor the very best interpretation from that track of music.

In another comic property, in a whole other cinematic universe for superheroes, one of its villains stated to its heroic enemies that “You want to protect the world, but you don’t want it to change.” In spite of that villain Ultron’s plan being not agreeable to anyone but the suicidal minded (giant rock kills everything on Earth), can it really not be said that that line encapsulates one of the biggest complaints many have had with the superhero archetype: a lovable, protective figure who has the power to protect the innocent from harm but will not use that power to better the world and in turn lessen the necessity for most instances of protection?

That concept has been explored certainly enough with stories like DC’s Injustice showing the downside of the Justice League enforcing a “better” world through their authoritarian control of it. And yet, maybe what superheroes should be today are not a series of watchful guardians only, but forces for positive, necessary change.

These beings who use their power not to enforce a new world but influence the masses towards one. In this day and age, that message would reverberate far more than you might think and the ending of the Batman inspires some amount of hope that that is actually what is being aimed for. Not a complete hope, still a chance of the bat-ball being fumbled indeed, but it is in the end more than I was expecting.

The Batman, in and out of universe is an exercise in wrestling with what Batman should be at this stage in the 21st century. It’s conclusions will not and have not hooked everyone but it is still better than never wrestling with them at all.

Batman is often called the best superhero or at least the very best at what he can do as a superhero. In relation to martial and mental prowess without enhanced properties and to his ability to stand fast to his own integrity, undeniably . Robert Pattinson’s Batman is all that but trying (emphasis on trying) to be more than before.

Turning Red (2021)

Image from The Walt Disney Company (A rough approximation of my demeanor watching and internally enjoying this movie alongside my parents.)

Turning Red, Pixar’s latest movie, is many things.

It is proof that they’re still the masters of computer generated animation nearly 30 years after their start. It is proof that they’re by no means a “safe” purveyor of ideas and imagination if the high conceptual explorations to be had in 2020’s Soul wasn’t a tip off. In spite of the missteps or outright bad films that have been made under their banner since 2011’s Cars 2, they can still make thought-provoking, engaging entertainment for the whole family even when directly addressing a particular point in time in a person’s life.

2009’s Up focused in on the emotional plight of a nearly 80 year old man, filled with regret for the things he wasn’t able to accomplish before he reached that age. I am not yet a senior citizen in case you were wondering but I still found Carl Frederickson’s conflict very moving. Perhaps it was because it was tackling issues that we may one day face or could face before reaching Carl’s age. Or maybe we were won over by other topics Up has to offer. Or we just enjoyed it for how fun and funny it was. Or maybe as it often is, all or most of the above.

Turning Red centers on a 13 year old Chinese-Canadian girl going through a moment in life that all who reach that age will experience in some way. There is just a mystical Chinese twist on that “moment” in growing up that is indeed very out of the ordinary. Her ability to turn into a giant red panda upon puberty can be seen as analogous to more than just one thing though all sharing something in particular.

You might think a story about female puberty in particular would be inaccessible to a grown male like myself, but much like Carl Frederickson and his old age hangups, there is something relatable yet to Mei’s own take on adolescent arrival and what it does to her friend and family connections.

Female puberty is denoted as having one distinct difference from male puberty, we all know what it is. Turning Red brings it up directly in a manner that is still all ages appropriate. To those who think that it is a subject matter which is not at all appropriate to a young audience, I might remind you that it is actually the age group that would benefit most from this film’s thematic exploration.

All teenage girls start experiencing that certain thing upon becoming a teenager so having that be featured in a movie involving teenage girls makes plenty of sense. It’s that this subject matter has never been presented before in a movie like this that is perhaps where the “controversy” stems, or a notion that certain natural aspects of the growing human body should never be expressed outside a conversation between a kid and their parents. There can be a discussion on how to handle it of course through media but it is quite self-limiting to have certain topics be off limit for concerns some may have for “appropriateness”.

Turning Red nails not just how to handle this subject matter in a “PG” setting, but also confronts the personal embarrassment one may feel not simply of it being revealed to their friends but by having their parents inadvertently expose it, as one notable scene features. Despite being a cisgender male anxieties, annoyances and concerns over my own puberty and the emotional and physical messiness that comes with it were aptly reflected in Mei’s own struggle.

Like a good Pixar film, it’s not content to stop at just the growing pains aspect of this moment in Mei’s life, further exemplified through it featuring a “Teen Wolf” panda transformation, it also tackles expectation of role in life, old and new generations and their ever varying sensibilities about basically anything and what yet remains good about old traditions and what should instead be cast aside for something different. If nothing else, Turning Red presents a novel examination of the very old chestnut of “be yourself” while also expressing that a seemingly frightening aspect of yourself is only frightening if you let it be so.

One interesting wrinkle to my appreciation for Turning Red is in the form of its humor, definitely centered around the tribulations of being a adolescent girl. Mei’s relationship with her three friends contains much in the way of young teenage girl slang and expression and some of their verbal humor isn’t exactly laugh out loud funny. The distinction that keeps it from being cringey is that there’s an organic feel to Mei and her friend’s interactions. You can tell or at least I could tell that a lot of Turning Red came out of director Domee Shi’s own childhood. Considering her birth year of 1989 and the film’s time being set in 2002, we are looking at a semi-autobiographical movie, with some considerable liberties taken, like the whole giant red panda stuff of course.

It wouldn’t take a genius to recognize that Shi’s own life and friends she had are reflected in the cast of characters that make up Turning Red. How her friends acted are retold in Mei’s friends. Knowing this background makes it feel like a more authentic take on childhood in the oughts’. I didn’t have the same early 2000s’ childhood like Mei’s nor the same type of friends, but I can definitely feel the accuracy due to experiencing that era for myself.

It was nostalgic but not a frontloaded example. It’s a feature, not the feature of this film’s colorful depiction of Toronto. This might be the warmest depiction of a Canadian city I’ve ever seen and it does wonders to remind you that New York is hardly the only melting pot city in North America alone.

As you would expect from a film about a Chinese family not living in China, it deals with a third or fourth generation Chinese-Canadian girl not just trying to control the panda within her and her own new feelings that come with puberty but her own personal desires and interests independent of the expectations that come from being in a tradition minded Chinese household.

Sandra Oh plays Ming Lee, the very strict but still loving mother of Mei who very much expects the most out of Mei, especially when it pertains to her role in basically fulfilling the role she herself lives. One, as future dutiful wife and family raiser and as a manager of the family’s temple. Because a Chinese-Canadian developed this movie, it feels a little less uncomfortable watching a movie, coming from the heart no less, that confronts shall we say conventions of the Chinese or Asian family dynamic, namely the high demands that parents place on their kids.

It has become a stereotype for the parents to expect their kids to not just be smart but to enter a field or career that comes with a great yearly income. There’s a blink and you’ll miss it reference for this demanding lifestyle when while looking under Mei’s bed, you can see a test that Mei completed with a B+ score. To people in most demographics like my own, a B+ is very much a commendable score in education. For Asian families like Mei’s, if your best is under A….

Again, if a non-white director or writer was to touch on this subject matter and they didn’t do so tactfully at least, it can be seen as playing into derogatory stereotype. For Domee Shi, it’s admittance on her own life experience at least, that sometimes stereotypes can be correct or at least not wrong, and better yet her film promotes not a resigned acceptance on that grueling expectation but a pronounced retort, presented with all of Pixar’s eye-catching bells and whistles.

Despite not having those kinds of demanding parents in my childhood, I can still relate to the still relevant message that it is OK that you explicitly do not become your parents. That it can be psychologically unhealthy to be tied to only what your family wants and never what you want or believe you’re good at.

A quite surprising third act twist on the mother’s part reveals that among the themes of puberty, childhood friendship, self-control and familial/cultural tradition, there is also the universal topic of resentment, resentment that can be borne from those who had no ill will for you in how they molded your life. That alone can take on a whole host of applicable places to explore, making Turning Red a much more intellectually robust film than at first glance.

Turning Red is a swift, sound and fuzzy examination of subject matter that has proven to unsettle those that are not accustomed to seeing such matter explored. It shouldn’t need to, as this is a film meant to make both kids and adults ponder matters that may very well be pertinent to their life at this very moment. A film to both entertain and open up your mind to the obvious and not so obvious matters in how life naturally happens. In other words, it’s a Pixar film in the truest sense, even on the surface it appears a very different beast.

Next time, a long overdue entry in the 80s’ retrospective.

Originally posted 2022-04-13 01:45:01.

Leave a Reply