Movie Review – The Batman

The Batman logo, via DC Comics.

The Batman – Directed by Matt Reeves. Written by Matt Reeves and Peter Craig. Starring Robert Pattinson, Zoe Kravitz, Paul Dano, Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro, Andy Serkis, Colin Farrell, Peter Sarsgaard

**1/2 out of ****

I don’t know if any hero gets rebooted more often than Batman. Sure, there have been four different Spider-man movie franchises, but even more Batman actors have played the role in the same time – and he’s had two different animated movies! The most recent Ben Affleck version was met with mixed responses – even from the actor himself – so DC is moving on again. Michael Keaton will be returning in a supporting role, but we’re also getting a new stand-alone Batman played by indie favorite Robert Pattinson (he also appeared in some other movies, I hear).

The Batman is directed and co-written by Matt Reeves, the man who took the infamously silly Planet of the Apes franchise and turned it into one of the most compelling sci-fi trilogies in a generation. When he takes something over, he’ll bring a more serious touch to it – something he definitely does here. The problem is, Batman is already a pretty serious property and The Batman dials it up to eleven. While the Christopher Nolan movies had a distinct noir edge, they still had a pulpy vibe that seemed to take their energy from the craziest action movies of the 90s. This outing is a crime movie, through and through – much more LA Confidential than Heat.

That could presage a brilliant movie, but what works well on paper doesn’t always deliver in practice. The Batman clocks in at just under three hours, and unfortunately it feels it. This is a deliberately slow movie, often lingering on single shots and letting characters talk at length uninterrupted. It wants to immerse us in every sight and sound of its Gotham City – and its Gotham City is a deeply unpleasant place. So corrupt that it’s basically a way of life, it’s a world where suffering is a given, where the most powerful people are pawns of the actual masters, and where one man tries to make a difference – and really doesn’t do a great job of it.

The best thing The Batman has going for it is a great cast. Robert Pattinson got quite a bit of controversy when he was first cast, and some of his performance does feel overly similar to Christian Bale in Batman Begins. But that’s just a surface-level comparison. Pattinson gives us the first Batman who feels genuinely young and half-formed. He’s clumsily stumbling through a mission that he’s only half-thought out, and his pain and isolation come off him in waves. You can see the genesis of a Batman who will save Gotham, but he’s not there yet.

That makes his allies all the more important. Jeffrey Wright’s Commissioner Gordon is essentially a strong second lead, as Gotham’s one honest cop who is repeatedly blindsided by how corrupt his city actually is. He’s a more active participant in the story than Gary Oldman or JK Simmons was, and I think it’s a good sign that the character’s been racebent and the movie calls absolutely no attention to it. Andy Serkis as Alfred is a bit more of a mixed bag due to his limited screen-time. He’s maybe a bit too hulking to fit physically in the role, but there are scenes where some genuine warmth comes through.

Zoe Kravitz as Catwoman is a revelation, and probably the best thing The Batman has going for it. Pfeifer was too eccentric and given a bizarre supernatural origin, Hathaway never really had any sense of danger to her, and the less said about Berry the better. Kravitz perfectly captures the character’s chaotic energy, but also gives her a strong motivation – searching for a young woman (who may or may not be her girlfriend) who disappeared after getting a little too close to some of Gotham’s secrets. This is the first version of Catwoman who seems set up as a fellow Gotham hero, and it’s about time – the character’s mostly been on the side of the angels for thirty years now.

And speaking of devils, we come to The Batman‘s biggest problem – its villains. Gotham is known for its circus of freaks, and most of these movies are judged by how colorful and memorable their rogues are. Who could forget Nicholson or Ledger’s Jokers, De Vito’s Penguin, Murphy’s Scarecrow, or Hardy’s Bane? Unfortunately, this movie plays things way closer to Earth, splitting its villains into two groups. The first is the collection of rogues populating the Iceberg Lounge, Gotham’s mob hangout. John Turturro gives a strong performance as Carmine Falcone, probably the best of the villains. However, his story veers a little too far into soap opera territory at times.

Colin Farrel is completely unrecognizable as Oswald Cobblepot, here Falcone’s heavy and second-in-command. He’s wearing a fat suit and some scar makeup, but otherwise he seems to have more in common with the mooks from any Scorcese mob thriller than he does with the famous bat-villain. Don’t expect to see any birds or trick umbrellas here, and Farrel plays the role so broadly that it often feels like he came in from another movie. There’s some chaotic energy to these scenes, but they feel like a record-scratch.

And then there’s the movie’s biggest problem – an utterly bizarre take on The Riddler, played by Paul Dano. The story kicks off with the murder of Gotham’s Mayor, and soon afterwards other prominent citizens are killed in increasingly elaborate death traps. Soon, the city starts getting messages from a leather-clad maniac who seems to have a grudge against Gotham’s powerful. Unfortunately, this character falls into a common problem – starting a villain with some reasonable grievances, but making them more and more extreme as the film goes on until they become a monster. While it works with some characters, like Killmonger, here it just made Riddler increasingly annoying. He came across like an 8Chan-addicted version of Jigsaw in a gimp mask.

The pacing of The Batman also leaves a good deal to be desired. It’s so leisurely with how it parcels out the bits and pieces of its mystery that the last forty-five minutes are almost whiplash-inducing. Reveals are made, characters die, and then the movie takes an insane detour into a high-octane action/disaster movie after spending the previous two hours being a leisurely-paced noir with occasional car chases. The status quo changes it makes by the final reel are so extreme that I honestly struggle to figure out what they’re going to do next.

In all, The Batman is a fascinating experiment that maybe wants to be too many things for too many people. It’s the first Batman film that feels like it was designed to be an indie noir – something that some fans have been clamoring for. Response has been mixed, and while I find it to be a very flawed movie, it’s still one that’s worth seeing for yourself.

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