The Batman movie review: to bat, or not to bat

MaryAnn’s quick take: No snark, no spandex pantomime spectacle. Just noir mystery, Pattinson’s sad recluse a detective in a cesspit of corruption. Relentlessly grim, all darkness and despair, not escapist but of our time.
I’m “biast” (pro): intrigued by Robert Pattinson, in general and as the Dark Knight
I’m “biast” (con): getting bored of superhero stuff
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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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.

The Batman Robert Pattinson Jeffrey Wright
The Batman has a somewhat contentious relationship with the GCPD.

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.)

The Batman Zoë Kravitz Robert Pattinson
The cat and the bat…

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 Batman Robert Pattinson
Bruce Wayne, fast and furious.

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.

The Batman Robert Pattinson
Much sad, so emo…

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.

more films like this:
Zodiac [Prime US | Prime UK | Apple TV | Netflix UK]
The Dark Knight [Prime US | Prime UK | Apple TV | Netflix US | HBO Max US]

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Tue, Mar 08, 2022 11:02pm

A mixed bag for sure. The cinematography is worth the price of admission – the lighting and shot composition are the best work Fraser and Reeves have ever done. There are three issues preventing all the ingredients from holding together:

The pacing – I enjoy a slow-paced movie, and this definitely takes its time, but there aren’t enough peaks and valleys in the plot to maintain interest. The obvious inspiration is Se7en, another movie with pacing issues, which brings me to…

The structure. Again, I like the idea of a noir detective Batman story instead of another comic book action cheeseathon, however following a murderer means that the characters are repeatedly arriving after most of the action has concluded. That would be fine if some interesting detective work was on display. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the main villain, it mostly consists of deciphering not-so-cryptic messages and childish riddles. Batman has a huge lab and lots of tech, but uses very little of it, and his leaps of deductive reasoning are more akin to unimpressive stutter steps until the final few scenes when the writers try to force a standard baptismal “rebirth” in his outlook, which leads to…

The tone. The first ninety percent of the film is a dark, dour, cynical, depressing noir mystery, and that tone is perfect for a Batman film. Then, about midway through an ill-timed voiceover that plays over what should have been the penultimate shot (overhead and very symbolic – you’ll know when you see it), you can practically hear the focus group and marketing team telling the filmmakers, “I don’t know, this is kind of a depressing ending, shouldn’t Batman learn some kind of uplifting message about hope or something?” (lord, justing typing “hope” gives me hilarious Rogue One flashbacks) It doesn’t simply clash with the overall tone, it’s specifically a complete mismatch with the major events that transpire at the end. Which reminds me…

The romance is tacked on and every kiss is poorly timed. You know the trope of an action movie star and his or her love interest escaping a dangerous situation and then locking eyes and kissing when they should be traumatized or at the very least running for their lives and/or helping someone? This has several classier, more beautifully shot versions of that. All the Cat/Bat slow moments would have been better if they ended still brimming with unresolved tension rather than messily destroyed with an ill-timed kiss.

The most emotionally moving scene is actually the second Alfred and Bruce conversation. I particularly got a kick out of emo Batman saying “you’re not my dad!” covered in messy eyeliner and mascara (in all seriousness, Pattinson does a great job). The villains are so-so, but I appreciate the lesson about the dangers of political extremism. Although the fight scenes do very little to drive the plot or themes or the film, they are shot and choreographed extremely well.

All the the right components are present, the vision is solid, and everyone’s doing good work, but the pieces don’t fit together in a way that moves a viewer or leaves a lasting impression, and the end is one foul tasting concession after another to crass commercialism, unearned focus-grouped optimism, and brand obligation. If it ended about five minutes earlier than it did, it’d be a beautiful, slightly monotonous, above-average neo-noir flick. As it is, the best I can say is that some of the early shots are so perfectly lit and composed, they will give you chills. Wish I could say the same about the film as a whole.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Tue, Mar 15, 2022 4:31am

I’ll have to take your word about the single kiss, and I agree that there’s nothing romantic about their relationship. I attributed the lack to the absence of chemistry rather than a conscious choice by Pattinson to be a clueless dork, but you might be right There were definitely a couple scenes of them on the rooftops framed in a romantic light though.

Like you, I was briefly excited at the thought that it might end with Bruce rejecting the whole “Gotham Project” and becoming a heroic, less vengeful Bruce Wayne in a bold attempt to end the cycle of violence and extremism he had inspired. That ending would have been much more interesting and in line with the rest of the film.

It certainly is one of the prettiest comic book movies I’ve ever seen (Gotham has never looked better), and the camera work in the car chase was outstanding. I really hope this same team has another crack at it with a more focused story next time around. Pattinson has a fantastic, unique take on the character – Batman as a reclusive, socially awkward, emo rock star. Although, I had mixed feelings about this, I’m very curious to see where he take the character next.

Paul Wartenberg
Paul Wartenberg
Tue, Mar 15, 2022 3:40am

I liked it. But I felt burdened by several unhappy realizations:
2) The only light fixtures that were working were the red-tinted ones.

What? That’s all I got for now.

Thu, Apr 28, 2022 7:35am

this review is spot on