The Batman — director / co-writer Matt Reeves’ long-awaited solo Batman film — has been marketed as a return to the character’s roots as a detective without retreading his famous origin story.
Reeves mercifully skips over yet another depiction of Bruce’s parents, Thomas and Martha Wayne, meeting their end to a nameless crook in a Gotham back alley, and jumps over the part where our young hero jets off to study with ninja clans. We’ve seen all that before. Unfortunately, despite a near three-hour running time, The Batman doesn’t bother showing audiences anything new about the character instead. For all its noir stylings, all-star cast and “gritty” world-building, The Batman aspires to be nothing more than The Darker Knight, mixing poor action sequences with a plodding mystery plot that lacks a satisfying resolution. Given its three-hour runtime and half-decade of development, it’s a shame that this latest entry doesn’t open new doors in our understanding of cinema’s most iconic superhero. It’s more of the same, and not nearly as good as what came before… or even particularly good in its own right.
This iteration picks up with Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) entering the second year of his war on Gotham City’s criminal element. The words from his journals act as the film’s voiceover, with Pattinson’s quiet but harsh tones setting the stage: It’s Halloween night, and the mayor of Gotham City has been murdered. Batman whines about the fact that his one-man fisticuffs war against crime hasn’t effected any lasting change in his city, despite it screaming to him louder than ever.
Soon he becomes embroiled in multilayered intrigue involving crime boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro); Falcone’s right-hand man, Oswald “the Penguin” Cobblepot (Colin Farrell); and the malevolent, murderous Riddler (Paul Dano), who is responsible for the mayor’s demise and, through the scribbles on his greeting-card puzzles, clearly coming for other major figures in Gotham’s law enforcement community. Thankfully, Batman has two allies: Gotham’s established “good cop” Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) and enigmatic cat burglar Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz). Each of these characters is portrayed by a great actor with a script that traps them in endless circles of brutal exposition.
Batman’s “Year Two” is a period of time well-documented in the character’s comic-book lore because it allows writers to play off of Frank Miller’s iconic Year One story, which introduced a novice hero fighting the mob and is largely responsible for the “grounded” approach to the character that has defined his mainstream depictions for roughly the last 20 years. It also allows filmmakers in particular to avoid Robin, a character still considered radioactive 25 years after Joel Schumacher’s infamous Batman & Robin. That’s a shame, because Robin is almost as old as Batman, having debuted as his sidekick just 10 issues after the Dark Knight himself and represents the importance of family in he character’s story… but I digress. The seeming benefit to storytellers about “Year Two” is that they can avoid giving Batman a family, despite it being such a major element of his mythos. It’s hard not to feel like it is principally done by adults who somehow feel shame that they’re tasked with spinning compelling stories for children.
Superheroes are for children. Batman is for children. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is for children. That isn’t to knock these characters down a peg in their cumulative cultural value. It’s just to say that there is a level of fantasy inherent in these stories, and removing that in favor of ‘realism’ destroys what makes them unique in our wider narrative landscape. You don’t need Robin to tell a story about Batman, but you should probably find a way to surround Batman with a supporting cast that emphasizes his humanity. That gives him something to do besides mope. Children’s stories need not be about facile things; after all, what is more complicated than growing up? But in a tapestry built to tell big stories with simple, universal language, it is a complete waste of time to tell such an minuscule emotional journey, and a Batman movie that boils down to “stop feeling sorry for yourself, rich boy” is pretty uninspiring. If you’re going to deconstruct something, you should probably build something worthwhile in its place, and The Batman doesn’t succeed in doing so.
Instead of discovering his own pathway into Batman as a multifaceted character, Reeves simply doubles down on the most maudlin aspects of the premise. “Year Two” is once again used as a setting, just as it was in The Dark Knight. This time, though, The Batman makes Bruce Wayne an isolated, angry and traumatized young man who doesn’t care about anyone around him, not even his caretaker, Alfred (Andy Serkis). He is a bad detective and a poor superhero whose ultimate victory is learning to care for others, which should be baked into the premise of a superhero movie. That’s the whole point. That’s the first act of Batman Begins.
Credit to Nolan: He avoided Robin specifically, but nonetheless surrounded his Bruce Wayne with characters who made that trilogy more vivid and interesting. In his films, both Alfred and business associate Lucius Fox were father figures who helped keep their surrogate son in check. Rachel Dawes was a love interest who fell into some stereotypical categories but nonetheless gave Christian Bale something to play against when outside of the cowl. The main villains of Nolan’s movies all played off elements of Batman’s character to give the movies some thematic oomph even if they weren’t always successful.
Ideally, The Batman would stand on its own, given that the character has been successfully interpreted and reinterpreted for over 80 years by hundreds of writers and artists. So it’s frustrating that the film invites so much comparison to Nolan’s definitive Dark Knight trilogy. Everything good and bad in Reeves’ film lives in the shadow of that bat.
I’ll focus on the positive: Gotham City is a much more interesting, much more gothic location than Nolan’s habit of pulling in real-world cities as stand-ins. In this version of Gotham, it’s perpetually raining and the tall spires seem impossibly large. It is a fantasy locale for a fantasy character.
Additionally, the cast is mostly on-point, even if they’re given little to do. The Bat and the Cat should have real sexual chemistry together, and Kravitz singlehandedly carries their interactions against the stoic, expressionless Pattinson. Good for her, although it’s a shame Selina’s bisexuality is treated as window-dressing rather than explicitly stated when it would make sense given that Selina’s entire story is driven by revenge for her girlfriend.
Unfortunately the key casting choice is a bit disappointing. Pattinson is clearly more interested in playing the sad shadings of Wayne, and mostly just mumbles through the role. That may be more interesting to perform, but it gives the movie very little emotional range. Assuming we get another film with his Bruce, I hope he’s able to make room for some variety. Then again, the big tease for what comes next indicates Reeves is hardly done following old patterns.
The mystery plot Reeves spins involving the Riddler is aggravating and endless, with Batman perpetually one step behind and caught up chasing leads that seem beneath his supposed intelligence. In this film, the Riddler is depicted in ways that directly echo Heath Ledger’s Joker to frustrating degrees, including live-streaming crimes and clues while setting up ingenious lose-lose scenarios for Batman. Ironically, Joker’s final trick in The Dark Knight is more in line with a Riddler set-up than what we see here. Unlike the Joker, however, none of the Riddler’s motivations are particularly interesting in contrast to Batman, and Dano isn’t really given much with which to work.
Although wordplay represents an important element of the Riddler’s character, the clue (in this case) that sticks both Batman and Gordon comes down to neither of them understanding how to translate Spanish, which is … a choice. One key to mystery stories is a large cast of characters with an interesting central figure whose interactions with the ensemble ultimately reveal the solution. That isn’t the case, here. The plot basically follows the traditional mode while insisting it is new and fresh.
The Riddler does have a big monologue at the end, but it just boils down to the themes of escalation presented in Nolan’s movies. He also recruits a Riddler Gang (just as Nolan’s Joker had a Joker Gang) because the grand CGI finale requires someone on whom Batman can physically whale. Speaking of which, Batman’s method of dispatching those thugs is ripped directly out of The Dark Knight along with multiple other action setpieces. It feels like the references have to be intentional because so much of The Batman feels like it wants to purposefully remind audiences of the movies they loved just 10 years ago (in the case of The Dark Knight Rises).
But the issues are more than just shared source material. These are real setups that just pale in comparison to their direct antecedents in previous movies. Two particular sequences stand out here as reliant on previous attachments to alternate versions of a Batman story. One is an emotional sequence with Alfred that asks the audience to pretend this movie does any work setting that character up rather than assuming we already care about them thanks to general familiarity. The other is a car chase that takes place for no real reason other than to give us another Batmobile chase that directly borrows visual pay-offs from Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. As a fan of those movies, and Batman in general, it started to feel like I was trapped in a theater watching a tribute film rather than a new vision.
Pattinson’s lack of dynamism fits with Reeves’ obsessive desire to show Batman as “grounded,” which means the character spends most of the film walking into rooms and standing around normal folks like a big goober. The worst moment of Nolan’s trilogy is the final battle with Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, which had Batman fighting alongside an army of cops in broad daylight. The new Batsuit looks good, sure, but it has its limits, and this movie pushes them past the breaking point. It just looks lame. The fight scenes are pretty basic, too, lacking in grace and athleticism. Comic books are about movement. They’re pop art.
The Bat-Gadgets are few and far between, but when they appear they’re strangely arbitrary. He still has Bat-arangs and grapple hooks, but his gliding cape is replaced by something … well, you’ll have to see it, but from a visual perspective, it’s truly baffling. It is very strange that a movie so devoted to its grimy aesthetic is so utterly motionless. Who wants to see Batman standing around talking in circles for hours on end?
From a political standpoint, the Nolan films had their faults, particularly the surveillance state stuff in The Dark Knight and the aforementioned cop army in The Dark Knight Rises. I generally forgive the former but find the latter more problematic. But looking for perfect politics in a superhero story is generally a mixed bag. If one of these stories is working, the politics aren’t necessarily the point because these characters are built for a different purpose. Deconstructing them can only get a storyteller so far. The Batman proves why that is the case: As a “grounded” movie, Reeves tries to unpack the privilege of Bruce Wayne but ends up with a story that basically features him teaming up with cops who grow to trust him as one of their own. The Dark Knight Rises ended with the elite politicians of Gotham erecting a Batman statue in City Hall, and that’s more or less the same energy here.
Additionally, Reeves tries to teach Batman a lesson about blind vengeance — purposefully contrasting Batman with the Riddler and the way both of them are young, wayward men prone to violence as a means of expressing their respective anger at the world. It’s a standard “you’re just like me” moment, only burdened by the fact that this is an exceptionally tired approach to a character for whom the violence really isn’t the primary part of the fantasy. Little boys don’t want to be Batman because he’s sad and beats people up. They want to be Batman because he answers to no one, because he has a cool car, cool gadgets and a cool family around him with Robin and Alfred; because he can solve problems, save the world and be viewed as a hero. He’s wealthy enough to want nothing and he uses it to be amazing and to be empowered, which is the thing children want most.
Removing those elements from the character as a way of asking if the character himself is problematic in the face of current events is the kind of story an adult tries to tell other adults because they no longer accept the dream logic of children’s tales. That doesn’t mean Batman’s violent methods and obsessive drive aren’t worth exploring, but they’re the only aspect of the character Reeves seems interested in depicting here. The conclusion, of course, posits that his violence isn’t the right solution to a city’s problems, but we learned that same lesson eight seasons in a row on the CW’s Batman-lite show Arrow, so what are we really doing here?
I’m far from a Batman skeptic and I have a great appreciation for both the character and his history. I like all this goofy comic-book stuff, particularly when it’s earnest enough to embrace it. The Batman is leftovers of older Batman movies, served cold and wetter. Zack Snyder so marred the larger public’s interest in the character with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice a half-decade ago that it feels like Warner Bros panicked. Say what you will about the Snyderverse, but at least it was a ballsy – if kind of insane – approach to the character. The overriding question I have when contemplating this disappointing dirge of a movie: For whom, precisely, was it even made? It lacks grace, it lacks romance, it lacks the shiny sheen of novelty. Superheroes rule our world and cultural conversation. Audiences no longer need to rationalize their enjoyment of four-colored heroics by lifting aspects of ‘adult’ movies. There’s no reason our big IP films should be so afraid to break new ground, particularly one with so much going for it.