It’s abundantly clear from the very first frame of The Batman that DC Films’ latest outing is the work of a singular creative force, not a studio think tank. Co-writer/director Matt Reeves fought to keep his Dark Knight separate from the interconnected web of DC Extended Universe franchise flicks, and the purity of Reeves’ vision ends up being the film’s greatest strength and, ironically, its greatest weakness.
The Batman is a beautiful, dark, twisted fantasy that’s more artistically accomplished than pretty much any other cinematic superhero fare in recent memory – but one which also very nearly collapses under the weight of its own narrative ambitions and storytelling shortcomings. In that sense, it’s a stunning near-miss; a deeply flawed, often brilliant glimpse at what auteur-driven popcorn cinema is capable of.
A reboot in all but name, The Batman charts the second year of its titular masked crimefighter’s career. Almost fully submerged in his new Batman persona, Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) wages a one-man war on Gotham City’s criminal element, including crime boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) and his right-hand man, Oswald “The Penguin” Cobblepot (Colin Farrell). Bruce has a few allies in his corner – his butler Alfred (Andy Serkis) and police lieutenant James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) – but despite their help, his solitary quest for vengeance threatens to consume him.
Enter: “The Riddler” (Paul Dano) – a new serial killer who begins targeting Gotham’s rich and powerful as part of a sinister scheme to expose the corruption at the heart of the city. Taunting Batman and Gordon with fiendish riddles and ciphers left on the bodies of his victims, The Riddler pushes the Dark Knight’s detective skills to their limits – and forces him to consider whether his hometown’s major institutions are more rotten than even he suspected.
Desperate to uncover the truth and stop the Riddler’s killing spree, Batman enters an uneasy alliance with enigmatic master thief Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz), and together, they race to unravel a mystery that might implicate the Wayne family itself in Gotham City’s decades-long history of injustice…
This is an arresting set-up and one that allows The Batman to tell the type of detective story that comic book fans have always dreamed of seeing on the screen. And when the movie works, boy, does it work – particularly the first hour and a half stretch, which is nothing short of dazzling.
Reeves stages and shoots the action scenes in increasingly inventive ways. Cinematographer Greig Fraser links up with production designer James Chinlund to deliver more texture and compositional flair in a single frame than most popcorn flicks muster in an entire reel. Michael Giacchino’s haunting yet heroic score establishes itself as an instant classic. Toss in the uniformly excellent cast (more on them later) and, during this opening hour or so, the overwhelming impression is that we’re watching greatness unfold.
After that, though, Reeves gets bogged down in the same sort of shared universe-building shenanigans he set out to avoid. The movie quickly loses focus as a result and remains only fitfully engaging from then on. In short, The Batman is at its best when it functions as the standalone movie Reeves set out to make and at its worst whenever it shifts gears into tentpole blockbuster mode.
This narrative dissonance essentially results in two very different Batman movies being mashed together, which explains The Batman’s mammoth runtime. As the film’s mid-section meanders on, you get the sense that there’s a terrific two-hour version of The Batman buried somewhere inside the overstuffed, almost three-hour version we got. If only Reeves and editors William Hoy and Tyler Nelson had pruned a few of the movie’s more extraneous plot threads and unearthed that leaner, meaner cut.
It’s not just The Batman‘s bloated plot that weighs the movie down, either. Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig occasionally struggle with the weight of the film’s oppressively dark tone and not-so-nuanced social commentary.
In fairness, The Batman is far more grown-up in how it handles both these elements than DC’s other standalone Bat-flick, Todd Phillips’ Joker. Even so, your mileage will vary when it comes to how deftly you think Reeves and Craig tackle The Batman’s self-serious tone, which verges on self-parody at times, and the film’s almost obligatory exploration of its protagonist’s wealth and privilege. The Batman’s screenplay has other, more fundamental problems, too – particularly with its dialogue, which varies wildly in quality. For every killer line, there’s at least one other that’ll make you cringe.
The script also neglects to properly establish the overall stakes of Batman’s crusade until late in the game. Reeves and Craig spend so much time telling us what’s wrong with Gotham that we spend much of the movie wondering what our hero is even fighting for. We lose sight of what stopping the Riddler would actually achieve in any tangible way. So, when the human cost of what Batman’s failure would mean finally floods in at the end (literally), the rousing finale that follows feels a shade unearned, even forced.
Fortunately, even when The Batman’s storytelling falters, the stellar cast keeps the whole endeavour from derailing.
Hollywood’s most punchable character actor Paul Dano is predictably chilling as The Riddler, while Turturro makes the most of his relatively brief screentime with a restrained performance that radiates quiet menace. Then there’s Wright and Farrell, who inject some much-needed humour into proceedings, despite being lumbered with extensive expository dialogue and even more extensive prosthetics, respectively.
By contrast, Kravitz and Serkis both feel a bit underused (especially Serkis). Kravitz at least makes a strong impression as Catwoman, however, her smouldering chemistry with Pattinson isn’t best served by a romantic subplot that feels rushed – yet another drawback of The Batman’s crowded story.
Inevitably, though, The Batman belongs to Pattinson, who silences any remaining doubters with a masterful portrayal of the Dark Knight that’s equal parts ferocity and unspoken fragility. Pattinson has cited Kurt Cobain as an influence on his performance (and it shows), but his Batman also has a vaguely gunslinger-like quality – from his raspy Clint Eastwood-lite vocals to his foreboding swagger – and this proves an inspired choice.
Better still, the English actor maps out a believable character arc for Bruce Wayne and his pointy-eared alter-ego, and his journey from a self-absorbed vigilante to a selfless symbol of hope is undeniably affecting. Pattinson’s Batman is the soul of the film, and the powerful unspoken connection he forges between a young orphan surely rates among the most heartfelt moments in the character’s cinematic history.
The concept of a “definitive” screen Batman is a dubious one – but when such spurious designations are bandied about in the future, Pattinson is arguably the new front runner. The star seems eager to cement this status, having already expressed interest in returning for the sequel The Batman bluntly signposts during its extended denouement.
So, let’s keep our fingers crossed that Reeves brings less narrative ambition and more storytelling polish to Pattinson’s next go-round – because as this stunning near-miss shows, the perfect Batman movie is clearly within the pair’s reach.