* NOTE: In the following review, when I say, “The Batman”, I am referring to the name of the film. The Batman without the quotes refers to the character. *
** SPOILER WARNING **
There are few characters in western culture that connect with the masses quite to the level the Batman does. It is a character that thrived in the 1960s as a campy, kid-friendly tv show starring Adam West. In the late 1980s, Batman once again dug its way into our hearts with the Tim Burton and Michael Keaton-led films (Joel Schumacher, Val Kilmer, and… George Clooney existed too I guess). The 1990s gave us the animated series with Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill. The 2000s gave us the Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale Trilogy as well as the start of the Arkham video games. The 2010s gave us the Snyder-verse, which many people are a big fan of (I am not really that into it myself). And now, it is Matt Reeves’s and Robert Pattinson’s turn to add to the catalog with “The Batman”.
Matt Reeves set out to forge a version of the character with the type of story that had not truly been attempted (in live-action film) before. In the world he created, the Batman (Robert Pattinson) is not the beacon of hope the character has been known for in previous iterations. He is a blunt instrument of vengeance who the people fear. He has not refined his approach or even come to understand what he is fighting for yet. Only Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) believes in his ability and willingness to help the city. During Gotham City’s mayoral race, a new killer named the Riddler (Paul Dano) begins systematically picking off major governmental figures in the city, starting with the sitting mayor, in a crusade to expose a generation of corruption within the city. Jim Gordan turns to the Batman to help him decipher the mystery surrounding the killings, much to the opposition of his allies on the Gotham Police Department. The Batman follows the clues and shows us why he is the world’s greatest detective, unweaving the grand mystery that the Riddler has created.
“The Batman”, while at moments, borrows heavily from “The Dark Knight”, constructs a narrative that thematically and structurally different from the formulaic approach to comic book filmmaking that we’ve been bombarded with over the past 14 years. A film should always be commended for taking a risk at all as any attempt to stray from the safety of the norm is a rarity in itself. The choice to invest heavily into the mystery is one of the risks that pays off for the film. Instead of seeing the Batman solve an idealistic conflict with his fists, Reeves takes great care in showing us the cerebral side of the character. The Batman is forced to keep pace with an intellectual foe, which is a quality that is not as common as you would expect. Many films who attempt this dynamic often have a habit of either making their protagonist be carried by more competent side characters, or too cunning that they fail to establish any real stakes in the conflict at all. Pattinson’s Batman hits the sweet spot between the two. He is sharp, seeing things that others miss. But he also needs some help identifying simple things, such as the practical use of a murder weapon.
As strange as this sounds, in “The Batman”, the Batman is actually the main character and attraction in his own film for the first time. He is no longer overshadowed by the suave public persona of Bruce Wayne or Oscar winning villains. We are really given a movie where the Batman is the primary focus, and he spends most of his on-screen time as the caped crusader. The film makes it explicitly clear that Bruce Wayne is not important (yet), and that the Batman will sacrifice anything involving the Waynes if it gets in the way of his mission of being the Batman. We quickly see just how far he has sunken in the opening moments of the film when Pattinson delivers a “Taxi Driver”-esque inner-monologue that sets up who his character is and how he sees the city. The Batman has weaponized fear to such a degree that he says “They think I’m hiding in the shadows. Watching. Waiting to strike. I am the shadows.” He sees himself as abstract concepts of fear and vengeance but no longer the man Bruce Wayne.
As the film boasts an ensemble cast of actors, as is tradition for a Batman movie, there were high expectations for the performers to meet. For the most part, I believe they rise to the occasion. Pattinson as this incarnation of Bruce Wayne and the Batman probably had the largest shoes to fill, as the entire film could sink or swim on his performance alone. He forgoes a lot of the tact that some of his predecessors chose to embrace, mainly because his version is hellbent on ignoring the Bruce Wayne part of the dichotomy, and the Batman is not a healthy person by any stretch. He has no attachments to anyone, no personal goals or dreams, no alternative methods of helping the city. He is a force of nature with a singular focus on his own inward pain while seeking aimless vengeance for it. Pattinson is very cold and monotone as a man completely lost within his own circumstances. His character would rather forgo any feelings at all than work through any of the years of pain he burdens. He is an immature Bruce Wayne for that, but one that has set himself up for positive growth as a person and a hero.
Kravitz, Wright, and Farrell all do tremendous work in this film. As Selena Kyle, Kravitz arguably presents us with the deepest incarnation of Catwoman we have seen yet. For every emotion that Pattinson’s character is resistant to show, she counterbalances with a far more impulsive and emotional display. Her character is essential for keeping Pattinson’s from being too detached. Wright is a very active Jim Gordon who embodies the good cop who is willing to do what needs to be done. And, although he had very limited screentime, Farrell oozes charisma as the Penguin, especially beneath layers of prosthetics that render him completely unrecognizable.
But I would be remised if I did not mention that John Turturro is arguably the greatest casting choice and delivers the best performance of everyone in the film. He plays the Gotham mob boss, Carmine Falcone, who serves as an antagonist and a major player in several of the greater mysteries presented in the film. Turturro’s presence is calm yet unnerving, and he adds a considerable amount to a character that could have been more of a plot device than an antagonist in the wrong hands. Every moment he is on screen, he grabs your attention with his presence, as he fully encapsulates the power and influence his character is supposed to radiate.
However, a relatively disappointing performance of the film was Paul Dano’s. The character was written fairly sharply, and for the first three quarters of the film, he is very compelling in a minimalistic role. But, towards the end, Dano is given seemingly Carte blanch to really flex his acting chops on us. And while the goal was likely to give Dano a chance to reach for some accolades, and to a lesser extent show a character who is unhinged, it really just comes off like a high school drama student trying too hard to nail their big monologue. There are ways they could have conveyed his character’s mental instability without devolving into the depths of over-the-top that Dano felt compelled to take it. I felt as though he had a very strong performance before this, but he doesn’t get out of his own way and ends up lessening his performance because of it. The irony is that the Riddler was already unique and memorable. Reeves took his time constructing the thesis of what the Riddler would represent within the story and to the character of the Batman.
What makes the character so fascinating is that the Riddler is not even a corrupted mirror of the Batman; he essentially is what the Batman is at the time. He views himself as the Batman’s partner in his mission to cleanse the city of the corruption it is so deeply saturated with. The only difference between the characters is that one has a self-imposed no-kill rule. However, the Batman has violently acted outside the law seeking vengeance for 2 years, and his actions inspired others, like the Riddler, to seek vengeance for themselves. So, while the Riddler is meant to be this politically motivated murderer, someone who the Batman views as the antithesis of himself, he is actually just the natural continuation of everything the Batman has shown himself to be. And here lies the message of the film: the Batman needs to grow up and learn to become a beacon of hope rather than vengeance from the shadows. It takes the Riddler showing how badly he has missed the mark with his crusade to help the Batman understand that his actions were not helping Gotham City, rather just quenching his own lust for vengeance. Although he did not view himself as an adversary, the Riddler owns one of the most unambiguous victories over the Batman because he showed him so clearly how wrong he was.
I am compelled to mention and praise the setting that Reeves spawned in the totality of the film. He creates a tone that is akin to a Noir-horror blend that is enhanced by the most thoughtfully crafted version of Gotham City we have seen to date. The streets are filthy, and the buildings are worn in. The Batman has been patrolling the streets for 2 years and Gotham City looks no better now than when he began his crusade. Michael Giacchino’s beautiful musical score reverberates the dread of the city, complimenting every purposefully imperfect frame of the film. The atmosphere is not a product of one, but all aspects of technical filmmaking at their pinnacle like a finely tuned machine.
There are various elements to this film that I could ramble on about forever: The legacy of Thomas Wayne; The extra final act; The cameo that I really wish didn’t happen; etc., because there is such a copious amount of content in this film. For the vast majority of the time, they are handled with care, but it is inevitable that there will be a slip-up here and there. And that’s ok. I have never seen a perfect film in my entire life, and it is completely unfair to start holding films to that standard now.
Unfortunately, “The Batman” is burdened by the expectations that come with carrying the torch of the character. It will never escape the constant comparisons to its predecessors, specifically with “The Dark Knight”. “The Batman” is imperfect, as most films are. But simply being that may inevitably hold it back from exceeding the others within the family, especially considering just how highly “The Dark Knight” is revered. However, we cannot let that overshadow that “The Batman” absolutely does more than enough to stand out and provide something different than the others and it will always have its place within the library of stories. Some will inevitably call this their favorite of the bunch too, which is a victory in itself. Being an optimist, the fact that “The Batman” even strikes up a legitimate debate in this conversation is a testament to the quality of the film we have received.
I give “The Batman” an excellent A-.
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Jeffrey Wright, Paul Dano, John Turturro, Andy Serkis, Colin Farrell, Jayme Lawson
Directed by: Matt Reeves
Runtime: 2 Hours and 55 Minutes