Another year, another Batman reboot. When you’re one of the three most popular comic book heroes (Superman, Spider-Man), your proverbial signal will always go in the sky per Warner Bros’ beacon call. It speaks to not only Batman’s aspirational strength and Gothic demeanor, along with an unparalleled rogues gallery, but Gotham’s rich world that helps us explore crime, vigilantism, and what justice really means. But as our modern discourse about the balance between law & order becomes increasingly complex, while the gap between the haves and have-nots widens, can Batman’s world adequately achieve justice? Director Matt Reeves is at bat to try his best.
Our new Caped Crusader (Robert Pattinson) is partially inspired by Mike W. Barr’s 1987 comics run Batman: Year Two. As the name suggests, Batman is in his 2nd year of action, infamous enough to be on the lips of every cop/mobster/politician in Gotham, not yet notorious enough to be instantly recognizable by every citizen on sight. This version of Batman is just as violent as any on-screen iteration, while hitting the max on the brooding and the emotional turmoil. He doesn’t even get along with Alfred (Andy Serkis), who drops in on Bruce (after many a late-night adventures) with the trepidation of a parent entering the war zone of a moody teenager’s bedroom. This Batman just hasn’t learned yet to appreciate the help.
Who Batman does get along with is Lieutenant Gordon (Jeffrey Wright). Not yet Commissioner, but he’s already partners with Batman. Batman is practically interning with the Gotham PD, much to the chagrin of everyone on the force not named Gordon. Together, they discover a sinister crime – the work of a potential serial killer, whose ruthless crimes point to a mass conspiracy involving Gotham’s politicians and crime bosses. At the scene of each crime, he leaves a riddle for Batman, all making a piece of the puzzle that condemns the city’s history of corruption. Not spared from the expose is Bruce’s own parents, as The Riddler (Paul Dano) has the dirt on the Waynes’ darkest secrets.
The Batman is slow and deliberate, at times to its own detriment. The movie is clearly inspired by the calls from hard-core Bat fans who’ve desired a movie that showcases his detective work. Reeves has taken that to heart, crafting a painstakingly slow procedural that has more in common with the pace of Oscar-winning dramas, rather than the zippy, fast-paced editing of modern superhero films. Batman often walks into frame very slowly, conversations are long with unedited pauses, and most of them speak at a leisurely pace without ever registering above a whisper.
Bruce keeps a diary on his nightly outings, which I assume could be very incriminating if he’s not careful. His diary entries are spoken aloud via his own voice-over, which helps the movie cover some expository ground. The Batman is a homage to the great noir crime dramas, and narration is a huge staple of that genre. Another big staple is the Femme Fatale, and The Batman has that covered with Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz). Selina has skin in the game, as her roommate is entangled in the movie’s conspiracy. This inspires her to don the alter ego Catwoman in order to solve the mystery involving her friend. But when her path crosses with Batman, the latter forcibly involves her in his own investigation, using her as an instrument to traverse corners of the underworld that are a little out of the reach of both Batman and Bruce Wayne.
As far as on-screen Catwomen go, Kravitz is still probably second to Michelle Pfeiffer. Kravitz and Pattinson’s chemistry just doesn’t quite reach the levels of Pfeiffer and Michael Keaton. But Kravitz is still highly suitable for the role, her athletic/slender frame making Catwoman’s acrobatics more believable. She makes for an engrossing secondary hero, one who has her own tragic Gotham backstory, and a vendetta that may lead to revenge. While her and Batman make an interesting couple, their differences make it hard to imagine a peaceful, happy ending for the two of them together. Batman is too rigid and dedicated to the cause. Catwoman is too much of a free spirit, opting to be able to drop everything and leave town on a moment’s notice if necessary, or if she just fucking feels like it. That’s what the dynamic between these two should be.
The film adeptly uses other members of Batman’s rogues, from Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) to an unrecognizable Colin Farrell as the Penguin. Farrell sinks into the role incredibly well, making for a highly entertaining villain that doesn’t get enough screentime. Luckily, however, it seems Penguin will be a recurring antagonist for future movies. To his credit, he is showcased in the film’s best action sequence, a death defying car chase reminiscent of a similar set piece in The Dark Knight. Other great scenes share at least a little DNA with Batman Begins and Mask of the Phantasm, including an awe-inspiring chase sequence between Batman and the Gotham PD. We also get to see Pattinson show different elements of Bruce’s personality, mainly his fear as he stands near the edge of a skyscraper. Pattinson instantly ranks as one of the best Batmen, with a shot to cement himself as the best ever. So much of his acting comes down to his eyes and facial expressions, and the mask doesn’t seem to hinder his performance at all.
Reeves has made the most comic-accurate aestetic of Batman and Gotham City. Gotham feels unique while also assuming an amorphous identity; we could be in Chicago, New York, or London. In the action scenes, the franchise has never captured the balance between light and shadow this well. It’s fun to see the evolution of the character on-screen, from Burton’s Gothic horror elements, to Nolan’s use of deception. The Batman stands on the shoulders of those efforts and more, with fantastic cinematography that highlights the character’s constant back & worth between stealthy ninja and a blunt weapon of destruction.
However, the film’s magnificent action and photography still needs a great script to compliment it. That’s where The Batman isn’t without its faults. A great salute is owed to Se7en (1995), not only for the film’s grimy/rainy look, but for the murder mystery story at the heart of it. The Riddler is a scarred man, who is on his own crusade to shed a light on the corruption in Gotham. His final act is a biblical plot in nature, but is not consistent with his modus operandi in his previous crimes, so the intended biblical aspect could be lost on some viewers. Nonetheless, Dano gives a solid performance, balancing Edward Nashton’s dorkiness with his sinister callousness. But the film’s use of the “OUR SYSTEM IS BROKEN!!~!!” trope feels trite and generic. There’s no reveals here that are all that interesting, and haven’t received better treatment in about a dozen other crime movies. It also doesn’t help that the movie trips over itself to exonerate Thomas Wayne as quickly as his big secret is revealed, so as to paint him in a negative light for as little time as possible.
These plot points are all designed to give Batman something of an arc, something to show growth in his choices. He starts the movie by exclaiming “I’m Vengeance!” as a Batman is ought to do. Then for the next 3 hours we have to hear everyone call him that like it’s his nickname or something, all leading to a pointed moment where a criminal turns that word on its head in a way that stuns Bruce. Batman finding himself unexpectedly in the same light as the criminals he fights is a lesson he learns often (and was infamously bungled in the “sAvE mArThA!!” Moment from Batman V Superman). It’s supposed to show he’s evolving past an angry brute and into a true hero. But do I buy that this means actual change for Batman? In the aforementioned scene in Batman V Superman, about 5 minutes later he’s flagrantly murdering his foes in a warehouse. I hope that Robert Pattinson’s Dark Knight has a bit longer memory.
I don’t feel like The Batman knows how to critique power structures, or deal with a compromise regarding Bruce Wayne’s obscene wealth. However, I never expected the film to tread those waters well in the first place. What Matt Reeves’ The Batman does establish is how we can view the Caped Crusader in our contemporary world. Even if the power fantasy is enticing, Batman can not possibly solve all of society’s problems regardless of his actions. Near the film’s end, we see our hero using his strength and leadership to rescue a group of civilians from certain death. The scene has an obvious metaphorical reading – Batman as the light to lead us out of darkness. But after all the death and chaos, so much more work needs to be done.
It’s up to the Mayor, to the service workers and politicians, and to Gotham’s citizens to avoid making the mistakes of the past. Riddler’s plan is so catastrophic that our government has to get involved and send aid to Gotham. For once, the entire load isn’t on Batman. He’s an important piece of the puzzle, but the battle to save Gotham will always require everyone’s help. The Batman takes one of our great heroes, and wisely tells us to not expect him to save the world by himself. For a film so committed to realism, that’s the most true to life statement it could possibly make.