Batman has been captured on camera a lot for a character who has adopted the shadows as a primary source of fear. The Batman seemingly faces the challenge of proving the worth of a newly rebooted Caped Crusader, following so many live-action efforts in recent years. Fortunately, director Matt Reeves is up to the task, pushing the character further into the pitch-black atmosphere of a crime-ridden Gotham City. While the approach may lack a particular freshness key to making a zeitgeist-capturing phenomenon like the films from Tim Burton or Christopher Nolan, the effort to bring in a certain kind of soulfulness amid a creepy mystery leads to some often stunning results.
This time around, Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) has been wearing the cape and cowl for two years. He’s formed a shaky alliance with Lt. Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) and regularly upsets his loyal butler, Alfred (Andy Serkis), by retreating further into this Bat persona. Adding a deadly wrinkle to Batman’s efforts, a sadistic killer calling himself the Riddler (Paul Dano) begins taking out high-ranking Gotham officials, leaving clues to his ultimate goal. To stop the Riddler, Batman will have to delve deeper into the criminal underworld than ever before, forging a new relationship with cat burglar Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz) along the way.
That’s the story in a nutshell, but The Batman has chosen to stretch this mystery out to nearly three hours. Was that necessary? Well, interestingly, it’s not even as though Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig set out to craft the most epic of Batman tales. The Batman is a fairly grounded motion picture, with a big enough cast and a few subplots, but it hasn’t set its sights on being the definitive Batman story. Instead, the film balances a detective story akin to David Fincher’s Seven with notions of having Bruce Wayne understand his place in Gotham.
Portraying this version of Wayne, Pattinson is an entirely fitting choice. Over the past decade, the actor’s wide range of roles has undoubtedly prepped him for anything. Here, he is tasked with playing a Bruce Wayne who is angry and on the verge of a mental break at any moment. Batman is a true force in this film. He’s far from perfect when it comes to tact (he takes a lot of hits) but has all the tenacity needed to keep pushing himself forward, learning what it means to be a symbol of vengeance.
Notably, Pattinson is in costume for a good majority of the film. We’re far past the need to keep the actor’s face on screen at this point (having made a couple of Planet of the Apes films, relying mainly on actors in non-human roles, Reeves is used to this). Going this route only enhances our impression of this man and his goals. Does it come at the expense of better defining Wayne? Perhaps. The film may take the audience’s knowledge of the character for granted. Still, if we get to avoid yet another scene of Bruce’s parents being gunned down in crime alley, I think I’m okay with this.
More interesting is how Bruce relates to the other characters. His familiarity with Gordon is quite welcome. For one thing, Wright is excellent as the one incorruptible cop in Gotham. He brings the right kind of world-weariness one wants in a cop who has decided to accept a crazy man in a bat costume as an appropriate choice to help with all the crime he can’t handle. As a result, the two can cooperate in a manner that truly emphasizes Batman as the world’s greatest detective.
Even better is the tricky relationship Batman forms with Selina Kyle. Kravitz excels in this role, portraying the character’s moral ambiguity as something that confuses the Bat. Her emotional core is an integral part of the character, allowing us to see how her vulnerability affects her actions. At the same time, Batman’s own trust issues and motivations find him once again coming into his own as the eventual fully-formed Batman, making this alliance exciting and dangerous. Pattinson’s resolve in letting his straightened jaw do the talking to this femme fatale type makes for the film’s most exciting pairing.
Having the best rogue’s gallery, The Batman also offers an assortment of villains to contend with. Dano’s efforts as the Riddler diverge the most from his typical portrayal in the comics. Revamped as a Zodiac-like killer with terrorist-level motivations tied to important Gotham figures, there’s little room for Frank Gorshin-style glee. Some quirks do come out of this performance at times, however, and while Dano is a performer who tends to enjoy overselling, I can’t say I didn’t find his choices to be appropriately menacing.
Having more fun is Colin Farrell as Oswald Cobblepot, aka the Penguin. Still serving as second-in-command to Carmine Falcone (a terrific John Turturro), this rendition of the gangster is a showman of sorts. He’s the sort of villain who loves getting to do crimes, knowing he’ll generally get away with it. For a film that’s not exactly aiming to be four-quadrant fun, Farrell and his intense character/makeup design add some entertaining jolts to the proceedings.
Ah, but how does this film set out to provide blockbuster entertainment? Well, it’s tricky. With over ten live-action features, the risk of merely revamping old ideas is right there in the open. With so much time given to Batman’s detective skills, The Batman certainly wants to convince audiences we’re seeing something new. Sure, not everyone may have read all the comics or played all the games this film’s story is drawing from (it’s easy enough to name the comics in mind, but the Telltale Batman games were an interesting choice), but that doesn’t stop me from also noting the somewhat ponderous nature of this feature.
It would be one thing if the choice to let this film breathe allowed for a skillful dissection of what Bruce Wayne is fighting for, but this is not that movie either. Not unlike Joker, there are interesting ideas and themes brought up to highlight the separation of classes in the city, only to be explored at a surface level. It’s nice to hear Batman’s internalized emotions coming out as narration to better emphasize the noir-ish approach to the film, but when he’s out-and-out explaining his own character development, well, the weightiness of this film hits closer to feeling like a very assured parody of a Dark Knight tale.
With that said, this is still a comic book movie. It may be constructed to play as an elevated police procedural that happens to have an intelligent guy in a cape who beats up criminals real good, but it’s also a DC Comics character come to life again. As such, Reeves does find unique ways to deliver on the allowance of over-the-top choices to best emphasize that we’re all still watching a superhero movie.
For one thing, I like the car. Given the 70s neo-noir/crime thriller influences in play, the idea of a slick muscle car version of the Batmobile is a fun one. Suffice to say, all of Batman’s gadgets are still cool. Plus, even while feeling grounded, I like that Batman is just bringing out tools he can use on the fly (bat bomb, bat knife, bat squirrel suit, bat adrenaline!), and we’re all just supposed to take that seriously.
As far as how this translates to the filmmaking, one certainly cannot deny that Reeves has struck out on his own. Sure, The Batman still has some visual touches in common with the Michael Mann-style epics that were Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, but this is a suitably moody film that is at its best when it wants to explore the Gotham created this time around.
Far from the gothic wonderlands seen in Burton’s films, this sprawling, dimly lit urban environment allows cinematographer Greig Fraser to craft a series of compelling sequences based around camera placements, the shadowy corners of the city, and the unique personas occupying these spaces. While the thematic material only quelled so much desire for deeper takes on the character, The Batman has style to spare.
Finally, I would be hard-pressed not to say something about the terrific score from Michael Giacchino. Hitting at just the right time with both the minimalist but already etched-in-my-mind new theme for Batman, along with big orchestral moments matching the film and its ideas when they are at their best, there’s plenty to like about the sound of The Batman.
While delivering one of the bleakest takes the Dark Knight has had to deal with on film, it’s not without plenty of merits. Pattinson easily joins the ranks as a well-equipped Caped Crusader. Reeves and his team have created a world that may lack some of the zippier fun found in previous Batman escapades but certainly proves to be exciting and intriguing. Even the emphasis on telling a detective story has a subversive element as far as what viewers may expect when the movie reaches its climax. Perhaps not the most triumphant of Batman’s adventures, but certainly a brave and bold attempt to push the character in another direction.