Review: The Batman (2022)
Every generation gets a Batman. The Caped Crusader is incredibly flexible, able to morph into whatever the times need him to be. Sometimes that's a noir-stained avenger, other times a colorful camp icon. In the 1990s, his films became synonymous with blockbuster bloat. Under the creative hand of Christopher Nolan, he became a soldier in the war against terror and a hero for the post-9/11 era. Now, a decade after Nolan's landmark trilogy and its unprecedented realism, The Dark Knight returns once again in Matt Reeves' The Batman, the most political film in the lifespan of this character.
What is The Batman about? Pain and anger. That's what drives this Batman (Robert Pattinson). That's also what drives The Riddler (Paul Dano), as well as Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz), who has lost someone dear to her. Batman is so consumed with it that the black costume that he garbs himself in is not to strike fear into the hearts of criminals, but rather serves as a manifestation of the pain and anger he feels at the murder of his parents and the decay he sees in his city. This is a movie that's ripped from the headlines as the citizens of Gotham rage against the machine that was built and continues to be run by "old white men" (direct quote). The income gap, the absolute corruptibility of our elected officials and community leaders, the moral decay that starts at the top and trickles all the way down, The Batman is furious. It would seem Matt Reeves and his co-screenwriter Peter Craig have been paying attention to world events for the last few years and this is their answer.
I see what The Batman tries to do. I admire the filmmakers for attempting to bring something different to the screen, something we've never had before. This is Batman the detective (his foundational comic title is, after all, Detective Comics), and the movie puts great focus on investigation, clues, and riddle solving. I've seen some comparisons to film noir, but I think it owes a much larger debt to the Italian poliziotteschi cycle of gritty police procedurals (almost always about justice against corrupt infrastructures) that were made during the 1970s, as well as the realistic cop movies made by the "New Hollywood" at the same time. It makes sense; in our Twitter-fueled 24-hour news cycle where outrage sells, even our superheroes aren't safe from the blood-spattered backlash.
Perhaps it also makes sense that The Riddler as depicted in The Batman is almost a direct copy of Jigsaw, the twisted, strangely-sympathetic killer from another franchise, the Saw series. It's almost a one-to-one facsimile: Riddler teases Batman by torturing and killing morally-corrupted officials through a series of elaborate traps and scenarios. He even gives them a chance to survive if they'll admit to their sins. He also leaves notes and riddles that toy with Batman. "Let's play a game." This is what happens when the citizens have had enough. Fantasy fulfillment taken to an extreme.
But by trying to serve these disparate goals--superhero spectacle, horror movie freak show, and realistic crime procedural with a focus on detective work--the movie bites off more than it can chew and ends up succeeding at none of them. At nearly three hours, this movie lacks focus, action, and storytelling momentum. That would be unfortunate for any movie, but for a tentpole comic book film, it proves to be fatal. The Batman is at least 30 minutes too long and has serious pacing issues; a major plot loop is closed and it feels we're about to wrap up, but there's still 45 more minutes of plot. Scene after scene just creeps along, as our Batman sleepwalks through his own movie. The screenplay was several drafts from where it needed to be. Is this the fault of Warner Bros? After all, their meddling is infamous, as are the "notes" from their executives who have no business or experience creating movies. We all remember what happened to Zack Snyder, and we've all heard how Patty Jenkins fought them with her Wonder Woman movies. The Batman is unfocused and sleepy. How much of this the fault of the filmmakers? We'll know soon enough.
Pattinson brings something new to the table here in his portrayal of grief. It's true that EVERY cinematic Batman, minus perhaps Adam West, is a product of the tragedy that happened on a fateful night in Crime Alley which left young Bruce Wayne an orphan, but I can think of no on-screen Batman who seems so crippled by that event as Pattinson's version. For lack of a better word, he mopes through the film. He rarely speaks above a whisper. He never walks faster than a trudge. For a hero defined by action, this version of Batman is downright lethargic. To quote my teenage daughter: "he could save a lot more lives if he put some pep in his step." This is a Batman who listens to Nirvana in the Batcave and drives around listening to sad music. Yeah, that's new for this film series, but is it for the better? Did we want our Batman to be more flawed, more like us? I completely understand what both Robert Pattinson and Matt Reeves are going for in this portrayal of Bruce Wayne/Batman. With his mop of hair and downcast expression, he's representative of an angry and adrift generation. But understanding this approach and wanting to actually watch it in my superhero movies are two different things.
In contrast to Pattinson's approach, I have nothing but praise for both Zoe Kravitz and Paul Dano. Kravitz has been an asset to every project I've ever seen her in, projecting strength, sexiness, and mystique. Dano sees the bar that was set by Heath Ledger as The Joker and attempts to raise it. The larger-than-life camp approach of actors who ham it up in Batman movies (Jack Nicholson, Jim Carrey, Schwarzenegger) might as well be on another planet. Dano's approach feels rooted in the theater. He's taking this very seriously, and comparisons to 2019's Joker seem inevitable. Would this minimalist take on the Batman mythos exist if not for the acclaim around the Todd Phillips movie that dared to completely burn our expectations to the ground? Solid turns are also given by Jeffrey Wright as Lt. Gordon, John Turturro as Carmine Falcone, Peter Sarsgaard as District Attorney Gil Colson, and Andy Serkis as Alfred Pennyworth, who doesn't have nearly enough to do here.
On the bright side (metaphorically, if not thematically or visually), the film wears its influences on its sleeve. Keen readers of DC Comics and the many decades-worth of great Batman storylines will recognize elements from Batman: Year One, The Long Halloween, Scott Snyder's epic New 52 run, and even the Cataclysm and No Man's Land events. The list of writers and artists included in the end-credits of the film is like a who's who of great Batman creators. Fans of the Arkham Asylum video game series will also feel right at home here, since this Gotham City seems to have taken much of its art direction from the famous games. A plot element dedicated to The Penguin (Colin Farrell, unrecognizable under a stellar makeup job) and The Iceberg Lounge are just as they appear in the lauded game franchise. The look of this film--which shot in the United Kingdom and Chicago--owes as much to the video game series as it does to the comics.
I also have kind words concerning the film's score, composed by Michael Giacchino. He's been inspired by Danny Elfman's iconic theme and reduced it down to just four notes--another nod to the increasingly-minimalist approach toward modern scores. It's a simple motif, but it's effective and it does immediately sound like Batman. There's even the familiar "gong" sounds and choral voices that raise this to an operatic stratosphere.
Does The Batman work as a film? Sometimes it does. On one hand, it's too long and packed with too many ideas; ironically, it moves at a snail's pace and its titular star lacks charisma, momentum, and the je ne sais quoi that all on-screen Batman must have. It's honestly hard for me to buy Pattinson as the Dark Knight, even though I just spent three hours watching him try. But in today's cookie-cutter comic book movie landscape, here's a film that finds real humanity beneath the masks. There are no alien portals over major cities, no cosmic threats. The real danger is one that we the people created ourselves through our greed and selfishness. Unfortunately, Batman himself, and much of the action that we expect from a movie of this variety, feels like an afterthought. This is Matt Reeves' artistic and philosophical meditation on the current political and social climate where the one percenters hold all the power and the other 99 percent grow bitter and angry at as the divide grows larger. If that feels like a strange idea for a superhero movie to you, you're in good company because I'm scratching my head too.
Ultimately, time will be the equalizer, as it always is. When the excitement of being at the movies has faded away, when the popcorn bucket runs empty, how will time judge The Batman? When we have four films from the Tim Burton universe and a spectacular trilogy from Christopher Nolan that balances darkness and heroism adeptly, what does The Batman do that makes it unique? At the end of the day, Batman is a product designed to sell tickets, video games, action figures, t-shirts, and everything else that you can slap a Bat-logo onto. Does the ticket-buying public really want a sad, angry Batman? Box office returns are tricky things; they tell the first part of the story, but not the complete picture. I'm curious to see how this movie ages once the zeitgeist has moved on to something new. Crime stories about corrupt politicians and the one percent don't exactly make for timeless entertainment for the masses.
About midway through the movie, Selina Kyle calls our hero "Bat Boy." It's just an aside, probably meant to be cute, but it struck me as poignant and possibly even a deliberate statement on this film's themes. Despite not being an origin story--well, not really, anyway--the Batman of this movie feels like a boy on the cusp of manhood, but not yet there. He's got the clothes, the car, the butler, and all the right moves, but something happened on the way to the Batcave: development interrupted. An overarching message in this movie concerns putting pain where it belongs and rising to meet life head on. With hints at a sequel and healthy box office returns, we may get a chance to see if this boy ever becomes a man.