2022 | PG-13 | starring Robert Pattinson, Zoe Kravitz, Jeffrey Wright, Paul Dano, Colin Farrell, Andy Serkis, Peter Sarsgaard, John Turturro | directed by Matt Reeves | 2 hrs 56 mins |
Are you Batman-ed out? I certainly am. After the completeness of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Ben Affleck’s Snyder-verse Batman and the release of Snyder’s 4-hour Justice League just last year, it couldn’t be a more cluttered time to bring us another interpretation of the Caped Crusader. Originally conceived as a stand-alone offshoot of Affleck’s DC-universe Batman before falling out of Affleck’s hands and into the capable vision of Matt Reeves, The Batman booms in loaded for bear with terrific performances and beautiful visual style and a new, younger Dark Knight in Robert Pattinson’s take that throws a lot of technical bravado at the audience in an attempt to jump start our Bat-fatigue.
It’s 2 years into Batman’s tour of vengeance through the shadows of Gotham, inspiring fear in the criminal class and uneasy distrust among the police, when a serial killer strikes the mayor, leaving a series of riddles for the Batman (Pattinson) and beat-cop Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) to wade through. The investigation leads them to night club owner Oswald Cobblepot (Colin Farrell, unrecognizable) and waitress Selena Kyle (Zoe Kravitz), who embarks on her own revenge quest, as they try to unravel the mystery of the killings before The Riddler (Paul Dano) exposes a secret that will tear Gotham City apart.
Because these are the only movies that capture the public’s attention, The Batman is the most important superhero movie since the last superhero movie (literally, Spider-Man: No Way Home). Despite Reeves’ obvious passion for the project, the craftsmanship put into it and the epic scope, the film feels cold and treading familiar ground. Also, because of Reeves’ obvious passion for the project, the movie is indulgent, laboring over every tiny thing, unfurling a story where Batman once again takes on a supervillain and the Falcone (John Tuturro) mafia over the course of a flabby, bloated 3 hour running time.
Reeves has an almost unsolvable problem on his hands. One one hand any gritty interpretation of Batman is going to fall in the looming shadow of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (a movie that still has legs), which stretched this character and explored these themes with such completeness that anything else will feel anti-climactic. On the other hand, modern audiences have resoundingly rejected a campy Batman pigeon-holing all modern incarnations to run as far as they can from Adam West’s 60s Batman and it’s Joel Schumacher spiritual adaptations so the only Batman we can get is “Dark, Gritty Batman” (another point for why The Lego Batman Movie is one of the best Batman movies in this era, beautifully splitting this difference). And The Batman is very serious, very dark and very gritty. Like The Dark Knight, it’s utterly humorless and everything in the movie, whether it’s Pattinson’s Dark Knight fighting off random henchmen or a simple conversation between him and Alfred (Andy Serkis), is given the weighty importance of a thousand suns. Also fitting squarely into the DC formula, is Reeves’ desire to over-clutter this movie with characters. It is unclear why this movie needs to feature The Riddler and Falcone and Penguin and Catwoman and a Batman origin story and a sequel set-up. It doesn’t seem to be a studio mandate, because a studio with a tighter control over the film would have chopped this thing to ribbons. All of this, along with Reeves’ Lord of the Rings-esque laboring over every detail makes The Batman feel like the finale to a film trilogy we never saw.
It sounds like I’m ragging on the movie. That’s not entirely the case. Reeves’ film is absolutely gorgeous. He takes his time to build the world of Gotham and immersing us in the environment. The opening act, which sets the tone both for The Riddler’s violent madness and Batman as a source of inhuman terror among Gotham’s criminals is fantastic. Reeves uses a lot of POV shots – even at one point from the Batmobile itself – to complete the immersion and turn the movie into a visual ride. The film’s best moments are pure cinema where Reeves’ terrific orchestral score and his perfect use of Nirvana’s “Something in the Way”, as the film’s defacto theme, set the melancholy tone just right.
You can almost feel the movie naturally drifting over the same ground as The Dark Knight (a corrupt Gotham in the pocket of the Falcone mafia, a comic book villain turned into a terrorist trying to rip apart it’s façade) and then jerking the wheel away to try to do something deliberately different. If Nolan’s Batman movies were gangster films, this is a serial killer procedural, visually recalling Seven, Zodiac and even Saw as it ups the ante in Riddler traps. I appreciated several of the changes: downplaying Batman’s gadgets, making his moments of flight rare & awkward and pulling out the Batmobile exactly once, and it’s a stripped-down muscle car.
Performances are uniformly fantastic all around with Pattinson filling the breathy role of a younger, leaner Dark Knight just fine, the Batman/Catwoman relationship feels like another piece of this pie that is rushed, but Pattinson and Kravitz have good chemistry. The villains are all showstoppers. Paul Dano, Colin Farrell and John Turturro all disappear into the roles. In the case of Dano it’s under a previously unseen primal rage, in the case of Farrell it’s under pounds of make-up and in the case of Turturro it’s under icy coolness.
Pacing is a recurring issue with the film. It isn’t just that it’s too long, it’s that every single scene is too long. Where Zack Snyder’s Justice League runs an hour longer than this movie, it’s a busy movie, a perpetual motion machine, with near perfect pace. The Batman by contrast, feels stagnant, going back over the same material and the same locations (the Iceburg Lounge is a favorite) over and over without feeling the movie is evolving each time. It’s hard to shake the feeling, particularly as the movie rounds into the third act, that it is taking several scenes to push out ideas that could have been easily conveyed in a single scene. The third act is a problem. The film comes to a natural conclusion, refuses to end and then – as if someone said “this is a superhero movie, we need superhero things” – rushes toward a grand city-wide finale that is not set up in the slightest.
If it wasn’t already clear with War for the Planet of the Apes, Matt Reeves is a talented filmmaker. His love for the Caped Crusader is on full display here. The Batman at times combines those visuals and audio into filmmaking excellence. I just wish someone had been there to focus Reeves into making a tighter, more efficient film. The Batman would have been more effective for it.