In just the past decade, two different actors have portrayed billionaire Bruce Wayne and his vigilante alter ego Batman in central roles on the big screen, in more than two films. (We can count five actors and many more movies if we go back to Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman.) Did we need another?
I’m not asking this in the framework of the “Hollywood is a business!” shit that the fanboys love to remind me of when what makes money happens to coincide with what they idolize, or *ahem* how the entertainment-industrial complex has weaponized fandom as a function of late-stage-capitalism as we all grasp desperately for something to believe in while the world collapses around us.
Yes, I know Hollywood will do almost anything if it thinks it’ll make a buck, or a billion. I don’t care about that. I care about stories, and what the stories we tell say about us (while also acknowledging that what is popular also says something about us).
So I mean: Does Batman have anything to say to us — as a culture — now that hasn’t already been said in recent years?
And The Batman’s answer is mostly no.
This is not to say that this isn’t a pretty good film, as craft and narrative go, or that the always intriguing Robert Pattinson (Tenet, The Lost City of Z) doesn’t bring a fresh and even provocative take on the character. But if Bruce Wayne/Batman is — and I don’t think this is too much of a stretch — our modern Hamlet, there’s only so much give in this cultural avatar and his milieu before he ceases to be him. You can retell his story with tweaks here and there, and it can be a good retelling, but it can still leave you wondering why.
The tweaks here? Director Matt Reeves (War for the Planet of the Apes, Let Me In) — cowriting with Peter Craig (12 Strong, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2) — has dialed the comic-book action stuff way the hell down, certainly as compared to the genre onscreen in recent years. We don’t get, thank goodness, one of those interminable 40-minute-long superhero battle sequences. In fact, apart from a spectacular car-chase scene that makes you feel like you’ve never seen a car chase onscreen before, there’s little in the way of the usual blockbuster junk. There’s no snark, no winking self-awareness, and — even given that there’s a guy running around in a caped bat suit — no sense of the spandex pantomime spectacle to which we’ve become accustomed. Nobody in The Batman knows they’re in a Batman movie, which is extremely refreshing. (Zoë Kravitz’s [Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald] excellent Selina Kyle is, like, not CATWOMAN, just a stealthy burglar who “has a thing for strays,” some of which are of the feline variety.)
Instead, this a noir mystery. Reeves has dialed the awfulness of Gotham way the hell up, the city a cesspit of crime and corruption, and Bruce Wayne is a detective (as he is in some comic-book interpretations), attempting to solve a series of murders of prominent Gotham citizens by a killer who livestreams his crimes from behind a disturbing mask and leaves cryptic puzzles behind with the bodies he gruesomely destroys. (Paul Dano [Love & Mercy, Prisoners] plays the killer, though we don’t see his face until close to the end of the film. Of course he’s the Riddler, but I don’t think that name is mentioned even once.) Batman is a boogeyman, too, a specter haunting the lowlife villains of the city, the bat signal in the sky above the city a threat… and now that those murders are revealing the duplicity and dirty dealings of Gotham’s powerful and influential, it may be that he is beginning to haunt them, too.
This is a relentlessly grim movie, all darkness and despair; cinematographer Greig Fraser also shot Dune and Rogue One and Zero Dark Thirty, and the vibe, metaphorically and visually, is similar here. In many ways it is precisely the wrong movie for our own grim times: there’s nothing escapist about The Batman. But that’s where the answer to my question — can a Batman story have anything new to say? — is also a bit yes.
The corruption of intertwined power and money is at the center of everything here, and there is no respite from it. Other versions of Batman on the big screen have made a point of contrasting Bruce Wayne’s glamorous life as a billionaire socialite with the skulking vigilantism of Batman. But in the hands of Reeves and Pattinson, Wayne takes little pleasure in anything: he’s a sad, solitary recluse; even Alfred (Andy Serkis: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Long Shot) feels more remote than this story usually has him. During what is, if I recall correctly, Wayne’s only public outing as himself in the film, a mayoral candidate (Jayme Lawson: Farewell Amor) out to clean up Gotham castigates him for falling to carry on his dead father’s philanthropy. This man is more Batman than Bruce Wayne, and so The Batman has little positive to offer about people with great wealth… which is an attitude very much in tune with the 2020s.
Though this isn’t an origin story — another thing to be thankful for — Wayne is only a couple of years into his “Gotham project” and hasn’t quite figured out the balance: he’s more angry vengeance than anything else, but in a diffuse way, as if he cannot even imagine another life for himself. But his rage sharpens into focus as his murder+corruption investigation continues, so much so that there comes a moment toward the end of the film — which just about earns its extraordinary three-hour runtime — when it seems as if Wayne is shocked into reconsidering “the Batman” entirely.
I was shocked for a moment, too: Could this be a standalone, one-off movie, one that builds toward an outright rejection of the rough justice that Batman stands for? That would truly be a new twist on the character, and perhaps the beginning of the end of our now 20-plus-years-old Superhero Cinematic Cycle.
But alas, that was not to be. Even after three hours, there’s still Colin Farrell’s (Artemis Fowl, The Gentlemen) gangster (the Penguin) to be dealt with; Jeffrey Wright’s (No Time to Die, Game Night) cop Lt. James Gordon still to be promoted to commissioner; and the arrival of yet another player who goes unnamed, though it’s plain who he is. There will be more The Batmans, more of his sins still to be remember’d.