Batman has returned, and he is furious. Director Matt Reeves’ dark reimagining of the legendary comic book hero, The Batman, introduces a fresh version of the Caped Crusader for the twenty-first century. There’s a lot of potential for something new after the Snyderverse’s failure to build a solo series with Ben Affleck’s elder statesman viewpoint and the ongoing appeal of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Regrettably, Reeves’ latest take has a lot in common with previous versions.
Did ‘Batman’ miss the mark or was it brilliant?
There are a lot of scenes in Batman that you’ve seen before, and they weren’t that long ago. It reenacts scenes from the Nolan trilogy at its most exhausting: A mobster reveals the reality about how the world works to Bruce Wayne, Batman rages his way through a nightclub or a hallway lit only by gunfire, and footage of the film’s villain tormenting their next victim is carried on the nightly news. With the exception of the Riddler, almost all of the characters are familiar from prior Batman films; the additional layers on exhibit here are simply deduced from what came before. The Batman isn’t a terribly daring character. Its power lies in its implementation.
The Batman is a meticulous quest for the Riddler (Paul Dano) after his brutal murder of Gotham City’s incumbent mayor in the lead-up to the city’s elections, in the style of David Fincher’s Se7en. Batman (Robert Pattinson) has been operating in Gotham for two years and has established a street reputation that keeps common criminals at bay, as well as a solid partnership with police Lieutenant James Gordan (Jeffrey Wright) that allows him access to crime scenes despite the disapproval of most other cops.
Bruce Wayne is focused
The investigation leads the duo on a tour of Gotham’s underbelly, where they meet criminal boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), hustler Oz “The Penguin” Cobblepot (Colin Farrell), thief Selina Kyle (Zo Kravitz), and all of Gotham’s mobsters and elites who have become codependent. The Batman, like its protagonist, is motivated – while the hunt for the Riddler takes many twists and turns, the picture never strays from its central theme. Bruce Wayne is rarely seen outside of his suit, as he is completely focused on his purpose and has little use for the world he was born into.
The Batman becomes a movie of abstract notions, about cities and where their citizens should place their faith when they know the game is rigged, by constructing a tale around Batman’s creation over his human alter ego or any other individuals around him. These are intriguing concepts to investigate, especially in this version of Gotham City, which is designed to resemble a dark carnival version of 1970s and 1980s New York City reimagined in the present day. In a fusion of fiction and reality, well-known monuments are given a dirty makeover, and theatrical gangs take over the streets, resulting in a metaphor in quest of a meaning.
If Batman is, as he repeatedly states, “vengeance”, then what is Gotham? The answer is pretty simple: It’s every city as portrayed by conservative commentators, a den of crime that needs Batman to clean it up, but maybe not the way he’s been doing it for the last couple years. Bruce Wayne’s arc is one where a young man who was molded by Gotham learns that perhaps it’s time for him to mold it in turn.
This is also a recurrent theme: Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy focused on the idea that Batman was a necessary response, but one with a time limit. It’s about a man who discovers how to shift from boogeyman to inspiration, and how the latter is a more powerful change agent.
The contours of how Reeves gets there is how he distinguishes The Batman. Like Heath Ledger’s Joker, the Riddler in this film is a cipher with a point to make: that Gotham City’s vision of law and order is a lie fueled by corruption, and Batman’s journey to stop him using the tools and means of his wealth calls that wealth into question. In the world of The Batman, all money is dirty money, powering the ascent of dirty politicians and mobsters while also blinding the well-intentioned to the reality of their impact on the community. The tension between Batman and Catwoman does not just come from their positions on opposite sides of the law, but also Gotham City. He lives in a tower and sees the entire city, while she comes from the gutter and tells him he can’t see a damn thing.
The echoes of past Bat-films are made worse when the people telling the story are so good. Robert Pattinson is a great Batman, surly and serious but not impenetrable. His Bruce is still open to learning, still capable of feeling, but isn’t invincible. He might not crack a smile in this film, but it’s conceivable that he could, once he achieves a better work-life balance. Zoë Kravitz also makes for a great Selina Kyle, even though the movie does little to establish Catwoman as a known presence the way it does Batman. As Batman’s de facto partner, Jeffrey Wright’s Jim Gordon is perhaps too similarly steely, a great movie cop but one that could lean a bit more into the fact that he’s a Gotham City cop, where a guy named “The Riddler” leaves birthday cards behind for Batman.
Paul Dano kills it in the part of The Riddler
The film’s portrayal of the Riddler may be its most polarizing feature. Paul Dano, like Batman, is masked for the majority of the film, playing a villain more akin to Jigsaw from the Saw franchise than the quizmaster from the comics. He’s a merciless death trap builder on a mission to teach a moral lesson that won’t be disclosed until the end of the film. Unfortunately, he appears to be rather ridiculous, needing even more suspension of disbelief than the person with pointy ears attempting to catch him.
Fortunately, The Batman’s detective tale structure means he’s mainly offscreen, and as silly as he is, everything else in The Batman looks beautiful, with ambitiously choreographed battle sequences unfolding in a metropolis cloaked in shadows and streetlamps. Only one of the film’s most ambitious set pieces, a car chase that strives to give its pursuit the physicality of a fistfight, with tight shots and massive crashes, is difficult to decipher. Because the cinematic idea of what Batman can be has grown incredibly constrained, it’s a failure of ambition in a film that mostly lacks it.
The parts were meant to be used in a unique way. With his Planet of the Apes sequels, filmmaker Matt Reeves established himself as an unexpected blockbuster director, two pictures that converted a repetitive series revival into significant and bold show-stoppers. Over a decade of dark and bleak Batman stories based by the same handful of comics has primed fans for something fresh, and his ensemble is led by popular actors with outsider appeal.
Batman is a safe movie, nothing exciting but the cast
Instead, The Batman is a painfully safe film that has the capacity to be so much more but settles for less. It preaches to the choir, reaffirming the same themes that have been tread over and over again in five films, many video games, and every comic book in the Batman: Year One mold by Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli. If they are your Batman touchstones, you might enjoy the flick. If, on the other hand, you’re curious whether Batman can communicate with a different audience, it’s probably time to turn off the radio. There will be no one to save you.
The Batman will be released in theaters on March 4th.