A film review by Craig J. Koban March 9, 2022

THE BATMAN jjj

2022, PG-13, 176 mins.

Robert Pattinson as Bruce Wayne / Batman  /  ZoŽ Kravitz as Selina Kyle  /  Paul Dano as The Riddler  /  Jeffrey Wright as Lt. James Gordon  /  John Turturro as Carmine Falcone  /  Peter Sarsgaard as District Attorney Gil Colson  /  Andy Serkis as Alfred Pennyworth  /  Colin Farrell as Oz / The Penguin

Directed by Matt Reeves  /  Written by Reeves and Peter Craig

I grew up with the Batman of the 1970s that was drawn by Neal Adams and written by Dennis O'Neil, which came after the  camp iteration of the 60s TV series in an effort to revitalize the character created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane and bring him back to his dark and somber roots.  I remember this iteration of the Caped Crusader to be largely stripped down, lean, mean, and spare: There was no child sidekick, no outlandish gadgets, a Batmobile that was basically an indiscrete muscle car, and no comically over the top villains.  Batman's prey was also mercilessly evil (at least to my child's eyes) and, most importantly, they tested the hero's wits to prove his mantel as the so-called "World's Greatest Detective." 

Very few live action Batman films have gotten that last part truly right.  

That's not so say that previous Batmen didn't utilize their keen Sherlock Holmes-esque smarts (Michael Keaton's Batman cracked The Joker's chemical code, Christian Bale's vigilante in THE DARK KNIGHT  used some sophisticated ballistics tricks, and, hell, even Adam West's pop art infused do-gooder frequently had to use his vast intellect to decipher his rogues gallery's nefarious plans in the 1966 feature film).  But no other silver screen iteration of this 83-year-old DC Comics creation has wholly placed him within a detective heavy narrative that focuses more on his mind than his might like writer/director Matt Reeves' THE BATMAN, which is the latest in a long standing series of cinematic do-overs for this property.  

Rebooting Batman certainly is a respectably daunting task, especially coming off of Christopher Nolan's critical acclaimed and self-contained DARK KNIGHT trilogy, but what Reeves has achieved here is noteworthy.  THE BATMAN is not so much a comic book film as it is a sprawling, unnerving, and psychologically gripping serial killer crime noir that just happens to have a super hero as its focal point.  Reeves' film does an admirable job of transcending what has comes before while mostly giving audiences what they want in these types of films.  THE BATMAN takes the costumed avenger back to his element by thrusting him knee deep into a brooding detective yarn, which makes this a successful shake-up, even though other crucial ingredients that make up the character's DNA are marginalized as a result. 

"They think I'm hiding in the shadows...but I am the shadows," whispers Bruce Wayne in one of the film's inconsistently used voiceover narration tracks.  Rather refreshingly and crucially, THE BATMAN is not an origin tale despite being a cinematic re-imagining (been there, done that), and instead uses its exhaustive three hour running time to portray a not completely wet behind the bat ears, but still learning as he goes Dark Knight Detective as he's dealing with his greatest challenge yet in the form of a vile sociopath that's been mass murdering Gotham City's white elites while leaving cryptic clues and, yes, riddles along the way.  The home town that Batman (Robert Pattinson) finds himself in is one of unending decay and rampant corruption.  Everyone seems dirty, from the crooks to the cops to the politicians that falsely pledge to keep their city safe.  The Gotham City in Reeves' THE BATMAN is a thoroughly unique and masterfully envisioned metropolis of pure dread here; it's like a twisted happy medium between Tim Burton's gothic surrealism and Nolan's more grounded and realistic urban sprawl.  Combing location shooting in England and Chicago and then marrying that together with seamless VFX, the rain and drudge covered Gotham in THE BATMAN comes nightmarishly alive.  

Batman has a few allies in his mostly one-man war on crime, like his trusted old butler in Alfred (Andy Serkis, who headlined the groundbreaking motion capture performances in Reeves' brilliant last two entries in the recent PLANET OF THE APES trilogy reboot) as well as a Lieutenant (not Commission yet) Gordon (a perfectly cast Jeffrey Wright), who has - against his boss' (and most of the Gotham PD officers') wishes - decides to allow this mysterious masked man into crime scenes.  In the film's hauntingly brutal opening sequence, the running for re-election mayor has been killed by a psycho dubbing himself as "The Riddler" (a deranged Paul Dano).  Not only does he bludgeon his victim to death with a home improvement tool, but he duck tapes the dead man's face from chin to forehead and leaves a card strapped to his chest addressed to "The Batman."  Right from the get-go Reeves is boldly proclaiming that his BATMAN ain't going to be your grandpa's Batman. 

Despite being deeply distrusted by the police (outside of Gordon) and feared by the general public, Batman engages in a clandestine operation with Gordon to follow this degenerate's riddle clues in hopes of stopping him before he hits his next target.  But this Riddler is fiendishly clever and manages to outfox both men when he targets and offs yet another high ranking official in both the government and police (and, most telling, they're all rotten to core in some form or another).  Because Batman doesn't have a badge and can do things a normal cop can't, Gordon uses him as a tool to infiltrate the mob empire of Carmine Falcone (a soft spoken and quietly intimidating Jon Turturro), whose right hand man is the portly and heavy New York accented loose cannon known as "The Penguin" (the utterly unrecognizable Colin Farrell).  Working at one of Falcone's nightclubs is Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz, rounding off this film's wonderful color blind casting of key roles), who becomes an unlikely and tense ally to Batman in bringing down Falcone and getting to The Riddler because of her deeply entrenched personal connections to the former.  And, like her comic book alter ego, she has a penchant for donning a skin tight cat burglar outfit and robbing anyone she sees fit. 

 

 

The influence of David Fincher's work on SEVEN and the deeply underrated ZODIAC can be felt throughout Reeves' THE BATMAN, right down to its chilling opening, the ominous atmosphere, and, of course, the main elusive killer that employs insanely coded messages, mazes, and puzzles for the authorities to decode.  But this allows for Batman here to arguably be the smartest of all of the movie versions.  Along the way, Batman has to come to grips with not only his own personal history as an orphan to gunned down parents, but also the very motives he has utilized in his sworn pursuit to punish criminals.  Reeves and his co-writer Peter Craig have found a manner (granted, influenced by key comic and video games) of challenging Batman in ways that he simply hasn't been in past films, especially for how he defines his whole nocturnal purpose in life to dress like a flying rodent.  If Batman here begins the film as troubled, then he becomes almost hopelessly tortured the more he deep dives into ending The Riddler's sadistic murder spree. 

The world building in THE BATMAN is impeccably assured, and it's clear that Reeves' has not only - as alluded to earlier - harnessed the no-nonsense aesthetic of the Batman comics of yesteryear, but has also been triggered by the dark crime noirs of cinema's past.  Cinematographer Greig Fraser (who previously shot DUNE and will most likely win an Oscar for it) paints Gotham as a city that looks like it erupted from the pits of hell; it's a place of neon lights, moody architecture, and environmental ruin.  Wayne's base of operations isn't under Wayne Manor this go-around, but rather is an abandoned section of the Wayne Terminus Subway (that conveniently has a bat infestation issue).  Gordon's bat signal (a staple of this hero's ecosystem) looks made up from spare parts on the fly.  Hell, even Batman's car is less a toyetic piece designed to sell toys and rather is a jet engine infused sports car that would make Dominic Toretto cream in his jeans.  Every BATMAN movie has its joygasmic and eye popping reveal of the Batmobile, and THE BATMAN is no exception during a sensationally visceral, but visually messy chase sequence through the storm ravaged streets featuring Batman mercilessly engaging a fleeing Penguin.  Three things dawned on me while watching this: (1) This Batmobile is cool AF, (2) this is the most aggressively road raged the titular character has ever been presented, and (3) the sequence packs a sizable exhilarating punch, but is sometimes shot with too many close ups and lacks the editorial flow and clear cut spatial choreography that made a similar sequence in BATMAN BEGINS one of the best modern chase sequences of the movies. 

There are a handful of other good action beats littered throughout THE BATMAN, like a sinisterly engineered first reveal of the character before he maliciously beats a street gang to a collective pulp (the sound design here alongside composer Michael Giachinno's brilliantly minimalist score really helps sell Batman as a scary menace that can come out of the shadows when criminals least expect it).  There's also a slick donnybrook set in a nightclub that showcases Batman battling his way through Penguin's thugs, or, even better, a latter scene done in darkness with the only source of light being sparks as bullets are being shot at and bouncing off of Batman's armor (Reeves has done this visual trick before in WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, but, hey, it's breathtakingly realized here).  The look and feel of THE BATMAN would be just window dressing if it weren't for the bravura performance ensemble here.  In terms of supporting roles, I really admired Wright's low key and understated work as his decent minded, but tough and street smart Gordon.  Colin Farrell is buried under pounds of facial and body appliances to pull off the look of his rotund gangster, and it's indeed an impressive piece of ingenious movie makeup.  But Farrell is also having a ball as his ultra sleazy crime lord (he has a great moment correcting Batman and Gordon on their Spanish skills, of all things, at one point).   

Dano's Riddler is perhaps the most genuinely terrifying Batman villain since Heath Ledger's Oscar winning turn as the Clown Prince of Crime.  Gone are the Jim Carrey inspired question mark adored spandex suit and fanatically chipper disposition.  Dano's Riddler is a full on lunatic outfitted in military surplus gear from head to toe that - when not tormenting and killing his targets - live streams his ramblings to his zealot-like social media followers.  Once the film does unmask him, though, for a particularly tense exchange with Batman the character almost becomes more menacing because he looks so...meek and ordinary.  Catwoman can't really be labeled here as a villain, but is more of an anti-hero that engages in criminal activity to settle a long standing score and old wounds caused by the Falcone family.  Selina Kyle has always radiated raw sex appeal in comics and the movies, and Kravitz's take is no exception here, but she also seems more fully formed that previous versions of the character as a ruthlessly headstrong survivor that's sifting through - like Batman - a traumatized past.  Kravitz is crazy good here playing opposite of Pattinson's hulking and brooding hero and stands her grown to make this classic role her own.  The chemistry between these two doomed souls is as illicitly pronounced as ever; they know that they're no good together, but they partner up out of mutual need...and maybe shared loneliness.

Of course, we need to talk about the man behind Batman's cowl himself in Pattinson, whom like so many previous actors (Keaton and Ben Affleck before him) courted controversy when his casting was announced and well before a single frame of him as Batman was released to the public.  Pattinson's take on Batman follows the obligatory personality trajectory established by other films (broken, tormented, driven by an unendingly obsession to right wrongs, etc.), but he also manages to infuse a world weary thoughtfulness and intelligence to the character (he's smart and vulnerable in equal measures here, and prone to mistakes).  Pattinson also fills out this Batman's more grungy,  homemade, and stitched together outfit remarkably well and has great screen presence.  One of my big problems, though, with THE BATMAN is with Reeves' and Pattinson's portrayal of the hero's alter ego in Bruce Wayne.  Instead of playing the false facade part of playboy socialite (a required social charade to  help sell the illusion that Wayne would never been believed as Batman), Pattinson's Batman is all gloomy, emo-posturing.  He parades through his very few (actually, too few) scenes like a sullen, sun hating recluse that's almost hopelessly withdrawn.  Bruce Wayne should never been a happy-go-lucky character, to be clear, but there's very little here in THE BATMAN that separates the hero from his public persona, and that's something that this film fumbles the ball on.  Pattinson is a great Batman, but a miserably one-note Bruce Wayne.  Just look back and watch the layers that Bale brought to his duel role and you'll see what I mean. 

The one area where THE BATMAN truly fails audiences is in its integral surrogate father/son relationship between Alfred and Bruce, which Nolan understood as one of the most important foundations to this dense mythology.  Regretably (and for such a long film), Reeves never affords Serkis much runtime as his more grizzled and antagonistic servant/confidant to Bruce (in an interesting twist, we learn that he combat trained him).  Overall, the whole dynamic between this Alfred and Bruce is paradoxically underutilized and lacking in clear definition (which shouldn't have been an issue for a 176 minute film).  When the pair do have a tearful and tender moment late in the film as they confront one another on the Wayne family legacy you're left wondering why they simply didn't share more scenes together beforehand.  It's a real shame.  I don't think that THE BATMAN's length is as much as a red herring as many think it is, but what Reeves does with some of that running time leaves a lot to be desired.  And like far too many super hero films as of late, Reeves concocts a staggeringly well oiled slow burn to the central murder mystery plot, only to be somewhat done in by a desire to go bigger in its climatic third act with its set pieces, action, and visual effects.  To be fair, it's all done with rousing confidence and slick polish.  However, THE BATMAN is so intimately grounded and emotionally resonate throughout its build-up that it's a tad disappointing when it culminates in more city destruction porn.  Cities in comic book movies never seem to stand a chance.  

There are a few other things that don't work as well as they should, like a hastily added on subtext about how The Riddler's dark web podcasts lead to the radicalization of angry white males (absolutely topical, yes, but they seem like an afterthought addition here).  Nolan's BATMAN films did a finer and more nuanced job of placing the character in a post-911 milieu and worked far better as sobering commentary pieces about societal unease and uncertainty in an era of terrorism and economic depression.  I think Reeves wants to go there with THE BATMAN, but seems a bit reticent to commit to the task, leaving his approach coming off as thematically half-hearted.  Still, Batman here - thank the comic book movie gods! - is at least - and finally! - afforded to go full-on detective beast mode in a feature length film, and as an intoxicatingly scary crime thriller procedural THE BATMAN absolutely crushes it.  Alas, Reeves and company only nail half of the Batman equation, and giving this winged caped menace more screentime than any of his previous versions has left Bruce Wayne this go-around (and his key relationships) feeling tossed to the sidelines.  THE BATMAN, like the hero, is a film of ferocious drive, and it's a most welcoming reprieve from the sort of safe and secure committee-led creative sameness that has dogged many of the recent MCU films (if anything, the DC films as of late deserve high marks for nervy ambition).  It also achieves the Herculean task of segregating itself well apart from the Nolanverse take on the hero and is undeniably visionary, despite its missteps.  THE BATMAN gives us the detective centric hero that fans of the comics deserve, but it falls short of attaining true greatness for the larger comic book movie genre. 

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