Riddle me this, movie buffs! What has a beginning but too many ends? Time to once again don the cape and cowl! To the bat poles to see Matthew Reeves’ The Batman!
Batman. Who he is? And how did he come to be? Since 1986, a primary goal of DC Comics, and by extension, Warner Media, has been to create new stories of Batman’s early years, and then capitalize on them. Director Matt Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig have crafted a tale that sets out to do exactly that. Effectively serving as “Year Two,” The Batman depicts the title character (Robert Pattinson) waging a war on crime in the bleakest of terms. Halloween approaches and foul play is afoot. Something is most definitely rotten, even per Gotham City standards. A “truth” seeker and self-ordained righter of wrongs calling himself The Riddler lays out his intentions to unearth the city’s darkest secrets and eliminate all who are connected. His latest victim is Mayor Don Mitchell, Jr. (Rupert Penry-Jones). Armed with a cipher, a sophomoric understanding of crime fighting, a bullet-proof costume and a fast car, Gotham’s self-appointed right hand of vengeance, Batman, embarks on a crime odyssey the likes of which do not typically transcend the pages of detective comics annuals. It isn’t long before more rogues come out of the woodwork. These nefarious characters include crime boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) and his right-hand man, or rather Penguin (Colin Farrell), along with various Gotham notables. Revelations of various truths pose a threat to even the likes of Bruce Wayne. A trusted ally, Commissioner Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), and a faithful butler, Alfred (Andy Serkis), press on to keep Bruce from blinking into the abyss of self-doubt and inner turmoil. Batman’s bravery, determination and prowess are matched by Selina Kyle aka Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz), whose family and friends are intertwined in the Gotham vice.
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Over the last two years, Reeves and WarnerMedia have been selling the world on the following elevator pitch which the filmmaker delivered during DC FanDome 2020. “I wanted to get into the mindset of the character, and I wanted to think of the psychology. For me, I think, one of the cool deep dive (comics) was Darwyn Cooke’s Ego. He’s confronting the beast that is Batman, and there’s a kind of duality.” Reeves delivers upon this promise in The Batman. This is a tale in which an inexperienced Bruce Wayne strives to harness his vengeful energy and adopt more tactical methodology that is quiet/precise. Batman evolves from merely inducing fear to engendering hope in the wretched city of Gotham. Reeves didn’t need three hours, however, to accomplish this.
The three hours of The Batman are close to tolerable and occasionally thrilling, due to the ensemble casting decisions of Lucy Bevan and Cindy Tolan. Pattinson, despite scripting and character arc issues, does right by the Bat Legacy. He is a slightly more vengeful Batman, yes, but when the script permits him to drop the “edgy” pretenses and just act the part of sleuth–hound, his character aligns with the world’s greatest comic detectives. Catwoman is a bit more complicated. Kravitz nails the physicality of the character and exhibits great strength and courage in a reactive mode. Reeves falls somewhat short in laying sufficient groundwork to connect Catwoman to her future self as DC Comics’ cat burglar, even within the span of three hours. The relationship of Pattinson’s Batman and Kravitz’s Catwoman adds a new angle to the Bat/Cat dance. Rather than just repeating the doomed lovers’ symmetry of Batman Returns (1992) or turning Selina into a trophy à la the Christoper Nolan films, Pattinson and Kravitz are equally matched with subtle sexual tension. They never reach the steamy star crossed lovers’ quarrels as depicted in Jeph Loeb’s Batman: The Long Halloween (1997) or Tom King’s 100-issue Batman comics run.
While Dano might be called The Riddler in The Batman, no would ever suspect him of being the same infernal prince of puzzlers that attempts to outwit Adam West in January 1966. That said, his mannerisms, at times, do resemble that of late Frank Gorshin, just with a modern day twist. That twist is a Riddler devoid of youthful bank robber energy; he’s more like a Ted Kaczynski wannabe. The performance requirements aren’t radically different from Dano’s previous character roles, unlike the challenge faced by Heath Ledger when he starred as the Joker in Nolan’sThe Dark Knight (2008). Dano acts well in The Batman but not astoundingly so. In some ways, his mannerisms even mirror those of Ledger, which sort of defeats the purpose of trying to differentiate the two villains.
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It’s often been said that Gotham City itself is an extended character of Batman mythology. David Lapham’s Batman: City of Crime (2005-06) proves that the city itself might be The Caped Crusader’s most deadly adversary of all. Anton Furst, Tim Burton’s chief Gotham set designer for Batman (1989), felt his primary obligation was to find a way to augment reality and distort it. The depiction of Gotham City in The Batman is less impressive in spite of the expert technology of the ILM’s StageCraft LED wall aka The Volume. After taking virtual production techniques and attempting to create a copy of everyday reality, the results, like the rest of The Batman, prove to be uneven. The limitations of The Volume are most evident when Pattinson performs his Bat glider trick from the GC PD rooftop. The camera keeps focusing on him rather than showing any sense of speed or progression. The sleek aerodynamics of the Nolan-era Batman films are nowhere to be found — even the bat gliding in Batman Returns (1992) feels more genuine. The Gotham of The Batman appears bland and cluttered in a way that is distracting, neither grounded in any particular reality nor in the noir fantastique. This version of Gotham City is no more than a comics’ splash page. It’s big, yes, but unlike a series’ “cinematic” staccato panels, it never achieves comparable immersive detail.
When making The Batman, Reeves revealed inspiration from Taxi Driver, The French Connection, Chinatown, and David Fincher thrillers. Bruce does exhibit violent tendencies like Travis Bickle but never to the point of losing a friend or his sanity. Chase sequences loosely allude to Batman being unhinged in similar fashion to The French Connection’s Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, but Greg Frasier’s cinematography — with abundant closes ups of the drivers faces — is deficient in showing the people who might be endangered by Bruce’s reckless actions. Similar to Chinatown, Reeves tries to upend the Batman mythos and create a sense of “there’s no going back” disillusionment, but Bruce’s crusade is ultimately explained away with a neat nice bow. Not only does this feel cheap, but it raises questions about The Batman’s runtime.
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Overall, Reeves attempts to bring in some fresh ideas and really goes out of its way to paint the bat cave with a new coat of black. The ultimate question is whether he brings enough to the table and presents his work in a cohesive manner, one that justifies seeing yet another prequel Batman film on the big screen. In a lot of ways, the disjointed editing in The Batman leaves much for the viewer to process; not enough time exists for key character moments. One may assume that certain characters and tangling plot threads will be further explained or picked back up in future HBO Max adventures, but this cheapens the experience. The end results of The Batman, while acceptable, are insufficiently satisfying, largely because the gritty realism overtakes the story itself. If all of Batman’s villains are now going to be domestic terrorists, DC Comics might as well have Marvel’s Punisher hunt them all down. As wisely stated by David Mazzucchelli in Batman: Year One’s afterword, “The more ‘realistic’ superheroes become, the less believable they are. It’s a delicate balance.” Reeves’ Riddler topples over that balance.
Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture.
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