The Batman is not the Batman movie we need. It’s because we didn’t need another Batman movie. Not yet anyway. Perhaps if Christian Bale’s climactic self-sacrifice at the end of The dark knight rises had hit a little harder, sans the wink, now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t-resurrection designed by Christopher Nolan (still glamorous after all these years); maybe if we hadn’t had Ben Affleck looking through various Snyder cuts as the human embodiment of contractual obligation.
The Batman is the Batman movie we deserve, though: overworked and overlong, but also carefully crafted and exhilarating. It’s just good enough to wish it were better – a lavish piece of intellectual property that ends up priced to deliver cheap thrills.
Directed by Matt Reeves, The Batman begins as an exploitation film, with a voyeuristic, quasi-Hitchcockian point of view, seen through super-powered telescopic glasses – heavy breathing on the soundtrack and a family in the crosshairs. Shades, certainly, of dirty harry and his all-seeing sociopath sniper, or maybe Thesilenceofthelambs‘Buffalo Bill. As the sequence continues, stitching us together in an act of surveillance, then cutting stealthily into the home of Gotham’s embattled mayor (Rupert Penry-Jones), there’s a sense of dread that feels new and strangely alien compared to other iterations of the franchise. by Nolan Black Knight the films were dark and melodramatic and full of brutal and sadistic acts of violence, but they were never frightening. The actors were having too much fun, and the excessive psychological intensity was subordinated to the spectacle. Reeves, however, uses the visual vocabulary of a slasher movie for all it’s worth. When the owner of the original POV shot suddenly materializes in the shadows behind the mayor and blasts him with a blunt instrument to the head, the effect is truly unsettling. We don’t feel safe.
Paranoia is in Reeves’ wheelhouse; at his best, he’s a smooth, brooding virtuoso. Think of the excellent first half of Cloverfield, with its anxious first-person perspective on an impending apocalypse. Or the terrifying car accident scene in his remake of Let me enter, which unfolds with the camera as an unhappy rear passenger staring unblinkingly at the world upside down. Reeves isn’t above showing off camera work, but that’s less about giving his own sense of control and more about throwing the audience off balance.
The tension is therefore between a filmmaker specializing in the treatment of imbalances who is almost ritually familiar.
During the first 45 minutes, The Batman does a nice job of giving us the beats we expect, just rigged enough to sound fresh. There’s a crime-riddled Gotham criss-crossed by low-level mobsters; the main character hitting the hoods at street level during his nightly rounds; and a police force resentful of the vigilante among them. We’ve seen it all before, but not usually with such a patient, grasping sense of confidence. When Robert Pattinson’s Batman walks through the bloody crime scene of the mayor’s apartment, staring at the cops lining his path, the effect is pure pulp friction – a kind of lively, frothy immediacy. And when Batman steps out of the shadows to punch face-painted gangbangers, the dark imagery evokes vintage Frank Miller.
Miller’s 1987 DC comic arc Batman: Year One is an obvious inspiration for Reeves and Peter Craig’s script, making it clear that Pattinson’s incarnation is just experimenting with his nocturnal alter ego. In this version, Batman is less genuinely world-weary than prematurely exhausted – a nice Gen Z twist on the archetype. “Two years of nights,” he growls in a voiceover sounding (deliberately) like Taxi driverit’s Travis Bickle or the Rorschach of Alan Moore’s 1986 graphic novel watchmen. Miller’s vision of a Gotham City plagued by Reagan-era anxieties—nuclear proliferation, inner-city crime, pervasive spiritual malaise—remains deeply influential even after Tim Burton’s gothic, expressionist Gotham. Although Reeves’ style and color palette are different from Nolan’s, he’s also interested in Miller’s spin-off idea of the city as a psychic protagonist, with plenty of earnest monologues about whether a cityscape as corroded is worth saving, or if a self-proclaimed crime the fighter is just wasting his time.
Once it’s clear we’re going to be spared another version of Batman’s origin story – no flashbacks to his parents being shot outside the opera house or close-ups of a little Lunar and grieving Bruce Wayne – the novelty of watching a relatively young superhero gain his wings kicks in. There’s probably less Bruce Wayne in The Batman than any other movie version, and so the usual trick of having the star play up the differences between the two characters doesn’t apply. Pattinson’s skill at playing goofy, antisocial characters works well for a vigilante who hides in solitude and isn’t interested in making friends (except for Jeffrey Wright’s handsomely moving James Gordon, imagined here as a principled winger rather than a great leader). That said, it’s not like there are any galas or fundraisers that Bruce can attend anyway. The only time he is called upon to appear in public is at the mayor’s funeral, which ends up turning into a murder scene also at the whim of the masked killer whose sporadic appearances enliven the story and punctuate it with a series of question marks.
It’s telling that Reeves went with the Riddler as the main villain for his first crack at the Batman. universe. On the one hand, it’s not like Paul Dano has to rival a universally acclaimed film in the role. (Nearly 30 years later, we still can’t sanction Jim Carrey’s antics in Batman forever.) On the other hand, the character’s enigmatic shtick is easily integrated into the kind of provocative zodiac-style cryptography that Reeves uses as a visual motif. (Fincher’s comparisons also extend to Se7fr, down to the Riddler collecting his scribbles in a series of unmarked notebooks; the line between robbery and homage remains razor thin.) Dano, who is usually billed as a punching bag, is incredibly creepy in small doses and disappears for long stretches that leave us wanting more.
The complexity of The Batmanit’s the narrative is both a bug and a feature. Reeves goes for something sprawling, and there are subplots for Zoë Kravitz as the subtly feline cat-burglar Selina Kyle and Colin Farrell as the beleaguered, battle-scarred, and humorously ineffectual penguin. (As usual, Farrell is at his best when playing against his leading man guise; his middle-aged transformation into a leading man is something to behold.) They both work for the Chief suave crime lord Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), who has the cops in his pocket and a nebulous connection to the late Thomas Wayne, imagined here as a kind-hearted but barely blameless father and mogul with skeletons in his dressing room. The big line running through is the idea that the Riddler’s victims are all tied to a dark and harrowing civic secret, which also involves the Wayne family, and the clues are spread out wisely, with enough mystery and fulfillment to suggest that the revelation will be worth the wait.
Sadly, it isn’t, not quite, and certainly not after more than two hours of disturbing build-up involving loaded references to rats, moles, and other nocturnal animals. It’s bizarre how Reeves and Craig come up against a potentially daring twist without pulling the trigger; the way the story is shaped, it seems like the characters of Dano and Pattinson are meant to be secret siblings, as opposed to two different case studies of the psychology of desperate orphans. The theme of the duality between Batman and his enemies – already trampled on by Nolan, Burton and just about everyone else who’s had a crack with the character – stands here, but not as disturbing as the filmmakers seem to think. A big late showdown between Pattinson and Dano takes aim at the sociopathic chill of Se7fr but feels lukewarm, as does the reveal that one of the film’s characters has gradually amassed an army of equally wronged incel-style sidekicks – the same idea that Todd Philips has already (and more effectively) hinted at in Joker.
The bigger problem is that having finally unraveled each tightly coiled strand of his narrative, The Batman takes a grueling swing at apocalyptic grandeur. For all the expectations Reeves tries to subvert or at least play with, he’s as sensitive to the appeal of a blockbuster-sized spectacle as Burton or Nolan. The carnage is staged technically well, but it’s oddly disjointed, even as it pushes topical hot buttons around the idea of armed and civic insurrection. Depending on the shooting dates, The Batmanit’s the stark evocations of Jan. 6 must be coincidental, but either way, it feels like Reeves and his collaborators are trying to capitalize on a wistful, disenfranchised zeitgeist more than saying anything about it.
As for what they say about Batman – that it’s lousy, lonely work, but someone has to do it – suffice it to say that it’s all been said before. One of the reasons Michael Keaton’s portrayal of Bruce Wayne holds up is that he was able to retain a sense of the ridiculous; Pattinson is a terrific actor and his gaunt jaw line and battered, battered body language are striking, but he acts in such a narrow emotional range that, for the first time after a string of killer performances, he becomes monotonous (especially when he does not sell Kravitz come). A Listening Batman MTV Unplugged in New York repetition is a perfectly fine idea in theory, but there’s something about the way Reeves piles on signifiers of tragic alienation that just feels pretentious. It’s the same mock gravity as when he used “The Weight” to score a lyrical downtime moment during Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, as if trying to channel the ghost of Easy Rider in a story of mutated chimpanzees firing guns from horseback.
“Revenge will not change the past”, observes Bruce Wayne at the end of The Batman. “People need hope.” There are worse thesis statements to base a movie around. But there’s also something dishonest about a film that drenches in unpleasantness before ultimately trying to peddle and recast the main character as some kind of humanitarian activist. Ultimately, this Batman comes to terms with the thankless, death-defying role he stepped into and the sacrifices that come with it. But that choice would be more compelling if it wasn’t phrased as a tacit acknowledgment of all the inevitable sequels to come, whether we need them or not.
Adam Nayman is a Toronto-based film critic, teacher and author; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Truly Ties the Movies Together is available now from Abrams.