Does the Caped Crusader come back with a vengeance, or a whimper?
Once again, we reconvene to ask the great question of comic book movies: just how dark and gritty can we make a Batman movie? The latest effort is Matt Reeves’ The Batman, with Robert Pattinson donning the Batsuit, in a new canon featuring a young Batman only several years into his vigilantism.
Right off the bat (I couldn’t resist) this version of Batman owes a hell of a lot to Se7en: the constantly rain-slicked streets, the team up between a brash young white detective and his older more cautious black partner, the game-playing serial killer, and the grimdark setting. This is a detective film through and through, and about as far from Batfleck’s alien-fighting antics as it’s possible to be.
It’s not a terrible source to draw from – Se7en is one of the greatest pieces of detective fiction ever made, after all – but it does feel a little too derivative at times. The same complaint was levied at 2019’s Joker for essentially being an amalgamation of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, and I’m starting to long for the days when it was other properties that copied Batman’s style, rather than the other way around.
To be fair, elements of the visuals and plot are mostly derived from a mix of the Year One and The Long Halloween comic arcs, which themselves helped to define their eras depictions of Batman. Through some excellent costuming and set design, Gotham and its residents seem to exist in all time periods concurrently, creating one of the most transportive settings for a Batman film since Burton’s day. You’re fully immersed from the moment it starts to the moment it ends.
But at nearly 3 hours in length, my lord is it too long. Reeves hasn’t shied away from taking his time before (I’m thinking of the very deliberate pace of War for the Planet of the Apes). I can see the attempt to establish mood and create a mounting tension, but the effect is more often than not impatience. It doesn’t help that it has more endings than The Return of the King.
At times, it slows down to an almost glacial pace, and it was only the injection of some well-timed action sequences that kept boredom from creeping in. Counterparts like Avengers: Endgame can get by on such a runtime by packing every second with new, flashy content, but The Batman isn’t afraid to draw out even minor conversations to their absolute limits.
The soundtrack was glorious throughout, truly stellar work from Michael Giacchino as usual. I was sure I would get sick of the simple, booming Batman theme given how often it plays (and how similar it sounds to ‘The Imperial March’ – just me?) but it was always deployed at an appropriately dramatic moments or at the climax of action sequences.
Speaking of those action scenes, I’m of two minds about them. All the hand-to-hand combat was excellent, if barely visible half the time. Clear choreography is sacrificed, but it’s made up for in cinematography and sheer, bloody ferocity. This is the first Batman I could describe as truly scary. Anchored by Pattinson’s unsettling performance, he’s shot, scored and edited more like a horror villain than a superhero, and it fits the tone beautifully.
In contrast, the Batmobile sequence was fairly tedious, and I definitely felt the absence of Batman’s many iconic gadgets being used in creative ways. Perhaps we’re seeing diminishing returns in the endless pursuit of gritty realism Christopher Nolan set us on back in 2005.
The cast really shines here for the most part. Pattinson’s Batman is such an goth prince, and I love it. He plays the character less like Zorro and more like The Crow, self-consciously moping around and shirking his Bruce Wayne life in favour of brooding in the Batcave still wearing his messy eye makeup. His character steers incredibly close to Watchmen’s Rorschach, complete with a narration reading his grim diary entries.
Colin Farrell really disappears into his role as the Penguin, only partly thanks to the makeup. Zoe Kravitz and Jeffrey Wright are both solid depictions of Catwoman and Gordon respectively. Alfred may as well have not been in the film for all he got to do, which was a bit of a waste of Andy Serkis.
The real star of the show, though, is Paul Dano as the Riddler. He owns every scene he’s in with one of the creepiest, magnetic performances in recent memory. On the writing side, he’s brilliantly paralleled with Batman, highlighting the more fetishistic and voyeuristic aspects of the character. Riddler’s new costume being essentially a gimp suit really hammers this home.
If I could highlight one downside, it’s the lack of a couple of iconic scenes that truly blew me away a la the interrogation scene of The Dark Knight or Selina’s transformation in Batman Returns. One or two got close that I won’t mention to avoid spoilers, but the whole film feels strangely homogenous. No part of the film really stands out from the rest.
It looks like Warner Bros/DC/HBO want to go full hog into creating a shared universe for this Batman. Knowing full well that past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results, I would love to see more interpretations of Batman’s rogue gallery within this world; it’s just the setting where I could see villains like Scarecrow or Mr. Freeze excelling.
All in all, I was happy with The Batman, even if I wanted to be more than happy with it. To a certain extent, the franchise has been spoiled, impossible to avoid comparison to the as-yet unsurpassed The Dark Knight. But The Batman should be praised for refusing to imitate that masterpiece and going its own way. Even if the only way its creators could think of was ‘darker and grittier than ever before’.