The Batman and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros Pictures
Directed by Matt Reeves
I wasn’t sure what to think about them doing yet another Batman movie when this first got announced. Say what you will about the Marvel movies, they haven’t beaten characters into the ground as thoroughly as Warner Bros have done to Batman and his crew. Multiple continuities and actors playing the same characters within years of each other, and all of them pale in comparison to The LEGO Batman Movie! Still, despite this looking like the grimdark fantasies of a nineties teen, it has an immense amount of talent that I genuinely respect behind it; particularly Robert Pattinson who has swiftly become one of my favorite actors. Is this a refreshing change of pace and a genuinely excellent interpretation of the character, or is this a whole lot of effort and prestige going to waste? Let’s find out!!
In the heart of Gotham, there is a man wearing a very strange costume attacking criminals and striking fear into the worst that the city has to offer. Unfortunately, this is not Batman doing it and it’s not the costumed bad guys who are getting their heads caved in; rather it’s some guy calling himself The Riddler who is murdering the corrupt politicians and their enablers. He’s also leaving cryptic clues for the city’s other vigilante, the one that attacks the easier to ignore bad guys, and so it’s up to Batman (Robert Pattinson) to find out who this brat is and bring him to justice! His investigation leads him to some shady figures in the underworld including Oswald Cobblepot (Colin Farrell) and Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) who are connected to this Riddler fellow in some way, and he even stumbles across a cat burglar (Zoë Kravitz) who may know more about this case and the people involved than she’s letting on. Can Batman solve the clues and find the man responsible for these killings before he gets to his grand finale? How has being the Batman affected the man beneath the cowl, and will this latest mystery push him too far into the darkness? Seriously, fanboys; what’s your beef with Robert Pattinson? Is he somehow not broody enough for you!?
If the fledgling DCEU has a silver lining, it’s that their inability to nail the Marvel formula has led them to throw everything at the wall to see what sticks. Batman V Superman and Joker were underwhelming to say the least, but we also get really solid movies like Wonder Woman, Shazam, and James Gunn’s Suicide Squad. Taking Batman to a grimmer and grittier place is hardly reinventing the wheel with the character, but it’s allowed to stand on its own as a movie and go in its own direction without worrying about how it fits in with everything else; both in terms and continuity and tone. This is a bleak and gloomy movie with an eye towards psychological thriller, so while there are enough Batman things to still call this a Batman movie, it’s at its best when it’s soaking in the atmosphere and creating what is effectively a mood piece; not unlike many of Pattinson’s other works. Then again, Pattinson’s other work usually doesn’t involve this many action scenes and really well (if completely excessive) car chase, but who’s to say that The Lighthouse wouldn’t have been improved by a barroom brawl or a shark attack?
The best aspects of this movie are the parts that arguably end up subverting the Batman formula, but that’s not to say that this isn’t a good Batman movie if you’re looking for some straightforward superhero angst. The pieces are definitely in place for a classic Batman story with a few classic villains, Catwoman doing her thing, and Gordon being beleaguered as usual, but it’s definitely on the darker side of things and gestures towards a sense of exaggerated realism. In fact, it’s probably most reminiscent of Tim Burton’s run with Batman as there is a definite sense of unreality to certain aspects of the movie and almost feels like a rejection of the more clinical and serious-minded Batman we got with Nolan. The streets of Gotham may be cold and rainy, but the people in this town are full of fire and personality with guys like Colin Farrell hamming it up as The Penguin and John Turturro giving one of the most chilling performances of his career. Good villains are the lifeblood of any halfway decent Superhero movie, and this movie manages to get it right where other companies *cough* Marvel *cough*) often leave me wanting. Mystery-wise, it’s a little lacking as The Riddler is less of an intelligent trickster as he is a serial killer with a message, but he brings a lot of tension to the movie and helpfully moves the plot along when things start to slow down a bit. It’s definitely a more contemplative and languid approach to the character so those looking for Snyder-style bombast will probably find it lacking, but there are enough great character moments and genuinely fun action set pieces to make it worth mustering up the patience to sit through it.
The fact that it goes as far as it does in indulging the grimmest aspects and interpretations of this world is something that should have turned me off given how little patience I have for Try-Hard Mature Content, but there’s a genuine emotional core to Pattinson’s performance that anchors the rest of the movie and makes it about something instead of just indulging in its gritty vices. The Riddler may be a cringy Millennial Saw wannabe who beats people to death with blunt weapons, but there’s a terribly sad truth to it all as we see plenty of young men fall down this rabbit hole; perhaps not to this extreme (at least only in the most tragic of exceptions) but enough that it feels like an actual reflection of something that is wrong with society that needs to be addressed. Similarly, the movie takes a pretty bold stance as far as how it chooses to use this unrelentingly grim vision of the character to tell an emotionally driven story. Yes, different iterations of this character have tackled the messed-up nature of his work, but rarely have they done so in such an unflinchingly unflattering way and, perhaps most importantly, in a way that the diehard fans won’t find gratifying or aspirational. Bruce is not a playboy philanthropist with a dark side in this but is an emotionally stunted man child who seems fully aware of how futile all this is but just doesn’t care enough to do anything differently; seemingly pushed into action by the intrigue that Zoë Kravitz’s Catwoman brings to his life and the emotional turmoil that The Riddler inflicts on him throughout the movie. He’s not even especially disciplined as his endless stacks of cash do most of the work for him, and the question throughout the movie is just how much of this is about his own violent gratification and where he draws the line between that and being a protector. It’s not a movie about a man being an icon, a city in need of a hero, or even that much about the serial killer himself. The stakes are ultimately whether solving this case will soothe Bruce’s guilt for another day or if it will ultimately shatter whatever was left of him, and I found that approach really refreshing!
Where the movie starts to falter though is in the second half where it meanders for a while before going off the rails completely. It does such a great job of building up the world, getting us invested in the intricacies of its characters, and really pushing the boundaries of what we’ve come to expect from a movie about Batman that when it turns into a more traditional Batman Movie, well it feels pretty disappointing. It’s certainly no worse than a lesser Nolan film (The Dark Knight Rises comes to mind with its third act), but we were setting up for something really unique and interesting only for it to get loud and busy. The scope and focus of this movie almost demand a less bombastic conclusion, something that truly shatters the people rather than the buildings, but perhaps asking for a Seven style conclusion is a bit much for a movie that is ultimately about a character meant for all ages. Even if you’re more favorable towards the endpoint of the movie and the ramping up of stakes, you’d probably find it far too long. A lot of superhero movies struggle to find a solid pace when they have more than one villain to write and often it feels like two different movies got sandwiched together. That’s pretty much the case here, though imagine if The Dark Knight paused on the Joker story to do the Harvey Dent stuff at the start of the third act and then go back to the Joker for the wrap-up. Neither part of this movie is bad even if I do prefer the Riddler’s story over the other guy’s, but it’s an awkward fit between them and it makes the movie far longer than it needed to be.
What I find most fascinating about this movie is how well it manages its subversive elements while also giving Batman fans what they wanted to see from the character. Perhaps I’m painting with too broad a brush here in how I describe the most hardcore (and tiresome) Batman fans, but those who pine for the nineties Dark Ages of comic books or who enjoy that whole Batman Who Laughs thing I think they will find more than enough grimness and brutality in its tone and aesthetic to get a real kick out of it. For me, it’s the sadder and more emotionally driven moments that really shine as it paints one of the more realistic portraits of the man behind the mask. While the more fanciful version of the character is great and there are some fun stories to be had with him, there are a lot of fans who reject that for the darker version of the character and this is the closest approximation we’ve gotten so far of how that character would actually end up. Staying up all night punching guys in the face and spending all day sitting at your computer looking over gruesome crime scenes is not aspirational but a cry for help and no other movie has given us that version of the character. If you’re a fan of Batman, you’ve probably already seen it and loved it so you don’t need me to tell you otherwise. For those on the fence or for those who have been burned out by the Superhero genre or even Batman specifically, I think this has enough new ideas and an interesting enough interpretation of the character to make it worth watching, though that overlong runtime might just be deal-breaker. For being the world’s greatest detective, he still can’t seem to figure out how to make a movie less than two hours!