Movie Review: The Batman
By Matthew Huntley
March 17, 2022
After 10 live action “Batman” movies, the question I had going into “The Batman” (which I’m sure many will share with me), was, “Oh, gee, what are they going to do this time?” In other words, what could the filmmakers possibly do with this pop culture icon that hasn’t already been done (at least to some degree)?
The answer, as it turns out, isn’t much in terms of plot and character development but surprisingly quite a bit as far as mood, atmosphere, performances, and credibility, with the latter assets being enough to sustain it. Where “The Batman” earns its keep is in the quality of what it delivers, as opposed to the freshness of what it delivers.
This version of the Caped Crusader, like so many superhero movies, was years in the making. Originally, Ben Affleck, who’s a gifted filmmaker (“Argo”), was supposed to write and direct the picture, as well as reprise his role as Batman (after first playing the character in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Justice League”), but circumstances changed, and eventually Matt Reeves assumed the role of director and co-writer, the latter credit of which he shares with Peter Craig.
The result is a standalone, original story of Batman’s early days as a masked vigilante and one that exists outside the recently revamped DC Extended Universe. Unlike the highly sensationalized, sillier, and, in many ways, more cartoonish aforementioned “Batman” movies, “Wonder Woman,” and “Aquaman,” “The Batman” takes place in a comparatively rawer, grittier, bleaker world, where’s it’s perpetually dark, rainy, and eerily somber. Presentation and tone-wise, Reeves’ film has more in common with Christopher Nolan’s highly lauded “Dark Knight” trilogy and Todd Phillips’ “Joker” (not to mention Tim Burton’s first two “Batman” movies, which started this modern era of multiple “Batman” series back in 1989), and it is, in my opinion, all the better for it, because these films made their comic book characters less mythical and more human, which consequently makes them more relatable and interesting. Whether Affleck’s version of “The Batman” would have been just as intriguing we’ll never know, but Reeves and company’s interpretation provides us a protagonist we can believe in and get behind, and that’s what counts.
What’s also appealing about “The Batman” is that it gives the audience enough credit to know who Batman is going in and sidesteps an unnecessary origin story. And even if one is unfamiliar with Batman, or how he came to be, the screenplay essentially amounts to a genre picture that is a mix of police procedural and mystery thriller, so no matter where one falls on the Batman knowledge spectrum, the plot is familiar and reliable enough that viewers can follow it without being privy to other “Batman” media.
The story begins on Halloween, just before the next mayoral election, and despite crime being at an all-time high, parades of people celebrate the holiday and walk Gotham City’s gloomy and dangerous streets. Inside a luxurious high-rise apartment, Gotham’s incumbent mayor (Rupert Penry-Jones), upset that his latest debate with his outspoken challenger (Jayme Lawson) could cost him the election, is brutally murdered by a masked killer.
Arriving on the scene to investigate is Batman (Robert Pattinson), who is vouched for by his close confidant Lt. James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright). Gordon insists to his commissioner and fellow GCPD officers that Batman is, indeed, on their side and can be trusted, even if he does wear a mask with pointed ears and a fully armored and weapon-equipped body suit, topped off with a bat symbol on his chest.
Credit should be given to costume designers David Crossman and Glyn Dillon for making Batman’s suit more plausible and human-made compared to previous “Batman” movies, in which it appeared impossibly bulky, heavy, and outfitted with too many toys. Pattinson should also be acknowledged, because he sells us on the idea he can see and move around in this seemingly clunky get-up with relative ease. It’s touches such as these that keep the movie grounded and believable.
The mayor’s murder is the first of many where the killer, who calls himself the Riddler (Paul Dano), leaves riddles and encrypted messages specifically for “the Batman,” which lead our hero down a dark and twisted path that reveals Gotham’s rampant corruption at the hands of elected officials, its worsening drug epidemic, and its disturbing deaths and cover-ups involving some of the city’s most elite and respected citizenry. The Riddler, who has his own sad and layered past, wants to peel back the ugly layers of Gotham City and expose its shameful truths, especially to Batman, because he believes the two of them share a common history and could potentially work together.
With its dismal look and feel, heavy subject matter, and explicit, modern-day parallels, such as the Riddler livestreaming his killings on social media, it’s evident Reeves’ agenda was to work realistic, contemporary social issues into this larger-than-life story, and he succeeds for the most part, because as far-fetched as “The Batman” is by nature of it being a superhero movie, many aspects of the plot ring of truth, which make the movie more hard-hitting and resonant than we expect, even if its film noir/whodunnit plot feels somewhat traditional. William Hoy and Tyler Nelson’s measured editing during the one-on-one character scenes, combined with Michael Giacchino’s slow, brooding score, allow us to look beyond the machinations and coincidences of the plot and really absorb and digest the atmosphere, and to reflect upon the characters’ behavior in such dire circumstances.
This isn’t to say the film is completely grave or cemented in reality. After all, this is a “Batman” movie, and it’s inevitable the hero’s investigation brings him in contact with a host of other colorful characters. Among them is Oswald “Oz” Cobblepot, derisively known as The Penguin (a heavily made up yet convincing and, dare I say, charming Colin Farrell). Cobblepot owns the sleazy Iceberg Lounge and reports to Gotham’s highest-ranking drug lord, Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), who has a long and complicated history with the family of Batman’s tortured alter ego, the reclusive Bruce Wayne. Despite being an adult, Bruce is very much a lost kid at heart. Pale, stoic, and never smiling, Bruce has mostly steered clear of the public eye and, as in most iterations of “Batman,” his only friend and quasi-family member is his longtime butler, Alfred Pennyworth (Andy Serkis).
As Batman/Bruce Wayne, Pattinson is not, as many might assume, surprisingly capable of playing the title character. On the contrary, he already proved himself a talented actor from his noteworthy work in “Remember Me,” “Good Time,” and “Tenet,” and he’s all but shed his early threat of being a mere teen idol or typecast after bursting onto the scene in the “Twilight” series. Here, he convinces us he’s a man who struggles to reconcile his life as a privileged billionaire and guarded crime fighter, and who’s worked up the physical strength and emotional hardness to act as Batman, a role he must convince himself is doing more good than harm.
The same goes for the film’s other well-known anti-hero, Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), whom Batman first marks at the Iceberg Lounge. On paper, Selina works as a waitress but masquerades at night as Catwoman (although I don’t recall the name “Catwoman” ever being spoken in the film). Like Batman, Catwoman has a troubled past and, without giving away too many details, has reasons for breaking into rich white men’s homes besides stealing expensive jewelry. Batman and Catwoman spar at first, and there’s a constant an erotic tension between them, but they team up, and Kravitz brings a slinky freshness and humility her character. I liked that Reeves and Craig write Selina as a voice of reason, a person who has dimension and pragmatism. She’s more than a pretty face and Kravitz gets us to see a real depth beneath her eyes.
For everything that’s impressive and solid in “The Batman,” the movie does run too long. At just under three hours, there are several scenes that linger. In general, the characters think and assess their situations too much, or move painstakingly slow throughout the frame, or speak obvious dialogue that’s meant to merely propel the plot. We can’t help but think the editors, as patient as they are, could have trimmed down the number of establishing shots or gradual movements of characters around a room, and/or left out some of the extended action sequences.
An instance of the latter takes place during the inevitable Batmobile chase scene, which features an even more revved up beast car with a supercharged engine than the famous one in “Batman Begins.” It’s kinetic and fun to a degree, but it goes on to the point that we yearn for a cut to something more interesting. Luckily, the filmmakers do that—eventually—because right after is an amusing back-and-forth, question and answer session between Batman, Gordon, and Oz.
Despite the lackluster Batmobile chase, the movie has better, more superb action scenes that hold our attention. One of these involves a bomb being strapped to the chest of Gotham City’s district attorney (Peter Sarsgaard), and during one of the movie’s best sequences, Batman breaks out his wingsuit and descends through the city, the stunts and special effects for which are surprisingly convincing. Even though it’s implausible overall, we believe Pattinson’s Batman could pull it off and that he’s really hurt afterward.
Is “The Batman” good enough to start a new “Batman” movie series? Yes, and it probably will. Is a new series necessary? Probably not. As much as I admired many parts of “The Batman,” it’d be nice if the cast and filmmakers poured their energy and resources into an original franchise. Clearly, they have the talent. And even though I liked this movie, and recommend it for its earnest tone, strong performances, and credible, albeit uninspired, plot, to say I’m eager for a sequel would be an overstatement. Nevertheless, I’m fairly certain one is coming, and if the same cast and crew come back to make it, I’m at least confident they’ll make a good one.