To quote Jack Skellington from A Nightmare Before Christmas “What’s this?” Another blog post in the space of a week. “Well pickle my walnuts!” In all seriousness though, (and god-awful Len Goodman lines aside), The Batman seems like a call to arms film for moviegoing at the moment, a near 3-hour crime drama that promises to be a bold new direction for the comic book hero. Does it succeed? Well, you can find out after the jump. But before we get to my review, what did you think of The Batman? Let me know in the comments below.
There’s no doubt that Batman is one of the most versatile comic book characters. He’s been a silent movie creation in Tim Burton’s films, a high glossed celebrity of 90s excess in Joel Schumacher’s movies, and a socially constructed ideal in Christopher Nolan’s beloved trilogy. By comparison, Matt Reeves’s foray into Gotham is an engrossing graphic novel esque experience, that occasionally sinks under the weight of its unique spins on the comic mythology.
The 2022 film sees Bruce Wayne two years into his crime-fighting career as the Batman (Robert Pattinson). His grip on the criminal and mob elements is interrupted when a mysterious figure called The Riddler (Paul Dano) starts setting unsettling puzzles with the intent of unmasking the corruption of Gotham City. At the same time, Wayne crosses paths with Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz), a mob employee, who seeks answers on the whereabouts of her friend Annika (Hana Hrzic), after she ends up missing for many days on end.
In contrast to other films in the franchise, The Batman plays like a heightened neo-noir. Much like movies from that sub-genre, there’s an inherent cynicism from the protagonist who sees their mission to clean up a corrupt city as a futile exercise. This quality comes from various internal monologues that Batman has during the film. Despite this element, the Batman strives to be a twisty 90s thriller in the vein of Seven (1995), complete with a rain-soaked and persistently bleak portrait of Gotham City. In his direction, Matt Reeves juxtaposes this aspect with salacious and voyeuristic camera moves that feel at home in a Brian De Palma picture.
But his best moment of direction comes near the end where Batman guides survivors out of trouble. Reeves uses a top shot, which is illuminated by a red flare that the character is holding. It’s an excellent visual metaphor for the enduring appeal of the comic hero, as he becomes a symbol of light that leads people in the dark. It’s a shot that dubs Batman as The Dark Knight as much as the final shot of Nolan’s 2008 film, which visually gave weight to that moniker.
In his performance as Batman, Robert Pattinson comes closest to embodying the comic book character. Over the years, the comics I’ve mostly enjoyed are the ones that contrast Batman’s larger than life persona with his humanity. Pattinson walks this fine line quite beautifully with moments that illustrate sweeping heroism, such as a moment where he gets to the top of a building, contrasted with a palpable fear when he glides of said building. He also feels closest to Micheal Keaton insofar as his eyes illustrate so much of the character’s soul. At once, they gleam with an inhumane callousness (particularly during one tense moment with Selina) and an aching empathy, demonstrated in an early scene where he stares at a kid who has just discovered his father’s dead body.
I also admired how driven Pattinson’s Batman is. For all intents and purposes, his Bruce Wayne persona is scorched, rarely making public appearances and coming across as a distant and grungy rock star (when he does). It’s a mask he has to wear as a means to an end to his crime-fighting. This stark single-mindedness whereby Batman’s humanity is nearly extinguished has always been appealing on the page, and makes Pattinson’s subtle flickers of emotion all the more resonating.
With his erratic line readings and belaboured breathing, Paul Dano proves to be a fearsome screen presence as a reinterpreted Riddler, who exists as a missing link between the Zodiac killer and a Jim Jones styled cult leader. Colin Farrell delivers a transformative Robert DeNiro esque performance as Oz/The Penguin. Jeffrey Wright injects an excellent sense of casualness that goes a long way in showing the appealing everyman quality of Jim Gordon. And Zoe Kravitz brings a great deal of assuredness and righteous indignation to Selina Kyle.
Michael Giacchino’s score continues in the great tradition of Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard in delivering varied and interesting music. In particular, his haunting innocent theme for The Riddler proves to be a motif that embodies the damaged quality of many of the characters that litter the film. Likewise, his Catwoman theme is a noir-inspired piano and string piece that laments in the spirit of Jazzy blue music. And his heroic theme for the title character impresses in its relentlessness much like a droning atonal sound.
Despite these virtues, The Batman suffers when it comes to some of its underhanded elements; namely the revelations about Bruce Wayne’s parents. The Riddler’s last target is Bruce Wayne and his father’s legacy. However, the revelations prove to be fruitless because no context’s been given for them. The audience is told that Bruce revered his father, but we don’t see that in his actions or words. The plot point proves to be hollow and not used as an interesting irony in fuelling Wayne’s vigilante career. The same goes for a revelation of Bruce’s mother being an Arkham. It feels like a plot point as opposed to something that Bruce grapples with, i.e are his predilections to being Batman hereditary or learnt behaviour.
With these points, I was reminded of Roger Ebert’s criticism of Seven during his Great Movies essay on the 1995 film. “Seven is not really a very deep or profound film, but it provides the convincing illusion of one.” In the same vein, The Batman wears the clothing of profundity in the form of social disenchantment and Nietzschian parallels between Batman and Riddler, but proves to be for nought as it pulls its punches on its more subversive elements. In this way, the film is far from being the cinematic definitive article on the character. Instead, it comes across as a mildly thrilling if not shallow cover song.