(The Batman premieres on March 4th with preview IMAX screenings starting March 2nd.)
I think I liked The Batman.
That’s hardly great praise, is it? But Matt Reeves’ massively overlong crime-thriller-turned-comic-book-franchise-starter doesn’t make it easy. This is a trio of films in one; none of which fit together neatly. It’s politically messy, tonally all over the place, and unable to deliver on any single message it sets itself up for.
This partially comes down to promise and delivery. After all, according to Reeves, Pattinson, and the marketing machine, The Batman is meant to be something new. But it really isn’t. This is yet another Batman movie. Sure, you could argue it’s darker and grittier than before, but it’s such a tired and moot point there’s no reason to.
At its worst, The Batman embraces every cliche it pretends to rise above. It’s a clear franchise-starter, right down to some truly terrible cameos and sequel baits.
Shame on me for believing the hype, which is always a mistake. But after forty years of Batman, you’d think we could get something new.
It didn’t bore me. But it didn’t engage me, either. It left me lukewarm. I kept waiting for it to surprise me. Then it did by not.
It’s certainly a better film than any of the Zack Snyder ones. But that’s not exactly a high bar to set.
Part of what makes The Batman so frustrating is its own uncertainty. It can’t decide which film it is, so it goes with all of them.
The setting – two years into Batman’s life as a vigilante – suggests we’d avoid origin tropes. But within the first twenty minutes, we’re back covering old ground. While we’re luckily spared from yet another recreation of the Wayne murders, their ghosts loom over every frame. For a brief minute, the idea of criticizing the establishment lingers. But it’s gone as quickly as it appears.
The Batman grounds itself in realism until it really doesn’t. The first half-hour, where Bruce wanders the streets of Gotham looking for a fight, promises a lot. He looks like a junkie out for a fix, which he is.
Batman can’t be everywhere, so he terrorizes people instead. If every shadow is potentially dangerous, maybe criminals will stay off the streets entirely. Robert Pattinson’s growly narration fills the frame. His take is that of an unhinged, volatile, and dangerous vigilante.
That’s the interesting part. If that’s where we’re going, I’m in. This is the performance I want to see.
It’s also the part you’d expect from anything that attempts to make Batman “realistic.” After all, Watchmen already beat them to it. The comic that is, not the film, which missed the point.
This insistence on “realism” in a movie about a man dressed as a bat brings about a whole host of problems. Even a grounded Batman story comes with implications that need addressing. To its credit, The Batman almost makes that leap. This Batman is like Rorschach. His mind is warped. We catch a glimpse of the villain’s detailed notes and ravings. They’re exactly the same as Batman’s.
Just when you think we’re on the verge of a great dissection, The Batman pulls its punches. Batman’s monologue is acceptable because he directs his violence downward. The status quo must remain victorious.
The kind of audience this film is for isn’t ready to subvert that just yet.
It’s not long until The Batman succumbs to its natural urges. That tired insistence of including fan favorites because they’re recognizable.
There’s yet another Batmobile. The suit turns bulletproof when convenient. Gravity stops being a thing. It’s like the film fears the notion that it could forgo action entirely. Instead, it inserts brutally violent setpieces into its low-key thrills. Then amps them up to comic book standards. Once again, Batman kills and maims. Once again, it goes unquestioned.
This tonal incoherence isn’t helped by the bloated runtime. At three hours, The Batman is both too long and too short at once. None of its disparate stories get enough room to breathe. At half the length, each could work as a standalone picture. Together, they move from crime drama to a pastiche of Se7en to comic book fanservice.
Batman hunts The Riddler, a serial killer out to wipe out Gotham’s powerful elite. Catwoman looks for her friend but also wants vengeance for her mother. Alfred desperately tries to raise Bruce right. Gordon fights to keep himself clean in a dirty precinct. The Penguin aims to become a new crimelord. Carmine Falcone pulls strings in the background.
There’s more, but that would go into spoiler territory. Needless to say, The Batman is a busy movie. But unlike its inspirations (most notably Heat), it doesn’t pull off the mosaic it weaves. Instead, we’re left with plot threads that go nowhere, pointless detours, and a climax that lands with a thud. It aims for a grand epic, complete with obligatory religious imagery, without a foundation to rest on.
The Riddler is probably the most interesting story of the bunch. But Paul Dano’s performance is broad in a way the film isn’t. He belts for the rafters when let loose. It’s fun, but out of place. Colin Farrell, likewise, puts on an odd Robert De Niro -inspired act as The Penguin. On its own, it’s tremendous. But it’s so out there compared to the humorless performances from Pattinson and Jeffrey Wright. Andy Serkis is always great, but Alfred feels like an afterthought inserted at the last minute.
Part of the problem is none of these stories feel like they belong together, and there’s no sense of time or place. Apparently, much of it takes place over a week, but that’s unclear until an info dump narration pipes in.
The Batman is also not as clever as it thinks. The riddles even border on the nonsense echoing the 60s TV show. But the film treats them with reverent seriousness. “Does a penguin have wings?” Batman growls in the rain. If the rest of the film wasn’t so dour, it could be easy to mistake this for a satire.
Part of that is the audience factor. The Batman has to appeal to a broad demographic. Even with graphic violence, it’s sold as a power fantasy. Batman gets the hero shots, even as the film tells us he’s beating poverty-ridden, mentally unstable orphans. By that point, any attempt to dissect the why is lost. A promise of a sequel implies the film learns all the wrong lessons.
Reeves is a smart filmmaker. His Planet of the Apes films are impeccable craftsmanship. The Batman has moments of greatness. Singular scenes suggest a better, more nuanced, and mature film at its core. Whatever compromise a hundred million dollars brings, they’re all visible on screen.
Yes, it’s still entertaining. As long as you don’t ask anything more from it.
After all, it’s just another Batman movie.