Over the past several years, Batman and adjacent characters have taken on an image of such importance that every film in which Gotham figures are featured is expected to serve as a grand statement on society. More than any other fictional character, there is a demand that Batman movies speak to the moment, address societal ills, or offer some sort of catharsis against an unjust system. Beginning with the Dark Knight Trilogy, filmmakers such as Christopher Nolan, Todd Phillips, and to a lesser extent Zack Snyder have used the Batman universe as a sort of shorthand to make films addressing serious topics, be they the senselessness of war, the dangers of the Patriot Act, the fragility of civilization, or, failing this, as a primal scream against the ills of modern society. For filmmakers and audiences alike, Batman has transcended the concept of mere superhero, and moved into the realm of social allegory. Where this expectation falters is when the narrative itself, combined with franchise demands, can’t withstand the weight of the filmmaker’s ambition.
With The Batman, director and co-writer Matt Reeves uses this familiar canvas to make a statement on corruption and power, while also establishing his own character mythos and upping the grit and darkness of a character often associated with grit and darkness. While it’s debatable whether the level of nihilism on screen reflects either an increase in artistic maturity or a decrease in moral character, what isn’t debatable is that Reeves and the franchise’s most ardent fanbase want The Batman to be an important film that captures the cultural zeitgeist the same way as Nolan’s The Dark Knight and Todd Phillips’s Joker. Everything from the film’s near-three hour runtime to the repeated use of “Ave Marie” to the grim settings and dialog about inherent corruption scream that The Batman is a serious film. Unfortunately this demand for thematic relevance clashes with a superhero narrative so harshly that they work as opposing forces of each other. Like the battling figures in the film itself, or filmmaker and filmgoer, narrative and theme want the same thing. They just have different ways of achieving it.
Beginning with an act of brutal violence, The Batman finds an uneasy place toward the beginning of Bruce Wayne’s career in vigilantism. In this opening we see the themes of societal decay and corruption which form the underpinning of The Batman‘s primary narrative. We’re also introduced to the idea of Bruce Wayne, played by Robert Pattinson, keeping a journal of his nocturnal activities, a part of which we receive in sporadic voiceovers. What we don’t see is the iconic scene of Thomas and Martha Wayne’s murder. In one way, it’s good that we don’t have to sit through yet another filmmaker attempting to recreate Frank Miller’s image of the pearls dropping to the ground as a child watches his parents die. In another, the lack of this scene proves that Matt Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig are using some of the pre-existing Batman mythos in this version of the character. They are rewinding Batman’s history, but only to a certain point, while fast forwarding to the present day. The result is that we as viewers aren’t always clear how much of the character’s story we should remember and how much we should discard. While this isn’t a new thing in the age of revamps and remakes, it is relevant when an integral third-act revelation appears to rely on knowledge that wasn’t previously included in the film.
The Batman‘s most obvious break from established canon comes in how Pattinson portrays the titular hero. Pattinson’s wiry shut-in captures Bruce as a broken, disaffected goth kid with nothing to lose. He’s less fueled by righteousness, anger, and will than by an idea that nothing else has worked to improve the city so why not beat up some bad guys? Misplaced as Pattinson’s Wayne can be, with the most emo superhero haircut since Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man 3, the actor is picture perfect in the figure of Batman. This is mostly due to his chin. The actor’s slender build also allows the suit to make him look like a completely different person, with the right amount of bulk to intimidate and the armor and mobility needed to carry out his crusade. But yeah, it’s mostly the chin. Conversely, Zoe Kravitz is more convincing as Selina Kyle than as Catwoman, primarily because there is very little separation between the two. Not only is Catwoman’s mask just a strip of cloth covering her nose, but she is never called Catwoman. Yet Kravitz provides the attitude, strength, and, frankly, the sex appeal we’ve come to expect from the character. However, as with most Batman films, the best performances are found in the supporting cast with Jeffrey Wright turning in yet another strong showing, John Turturro oozing with confidence and menace, and Colin Farrell vanishing into his part as the Penguin, altering not only his appearance but his voice, delivery, expression, and physical movement. Yet these performances pale in comparison to that of The Riddler.
With Riddler, The Batman unleashes the franchise’s best villain since Ledger’s Oscar winning Joker. Personally, despite the actor’s name being widely available, I didn’t know who portrayed the character while watching, which added to the mystery and terror, and thus I won’t mention the actor’s name here in hope that those who have managed to avoid this information can have the same experience I did. It’s a shame that the face behind the mask couldn’t have been kept as secretive as that of John Doe in Seven or Teddy Perkins in “Atlanta.” Although not new to the franchise as a whole, the interpretation of Riddler as a Jigsaw-esque puzzle killer, delivered through unhinged, unrestrained madness, is terrifying. While there are similarities to Ledger’s performance, highlighted by the way Riddler’s use of social media speaks to our current cultural landscape the same way Ledger’s chaos agent captured that of 2008, Riddler is differentiated enough to avoid comparison. Scenes between Batman and Riddler crackle with such energy, forming the thematic climax. The film withers without him.
Other than Riddler, The Batman‘s strongest feature is how it looks onscreen. Beyond being visually very dark, the film is beautiful to behold. As mentioned, Batman is a ferocious presence and a brutal combatant shown through strong camera and stunt work. Individual sequences, highlighted by a hallway fight lit exclusively by automatic gunfire, stand out as some of the best the franchise has ever had. Although the introduction of the Batmobile is so blatant it could have flashed a title card reading “now time for the obligatory chase sequence,” and an old supped-up Camaro isn’t very intimidating, it’s impossible to deny the end of the chase isn’t spectacular. In all, Reeves’s vision of Batman may not be revolutionary, but it is bold and thoroughly captures the spirit of the character as both detective and hero. The director’s care is particularly striking in Batman and Catwoman using objects which would be available to Bruce and Selina, the former being high-end equipment he can then modify while the latter is stuff she has laying around. It is frustrating, however, that the same care isn’t apparent in the overlong narrative. However, after over two hours of witnessing convoluted plot threads tie together, the aforementioned last-minute jump to an unknown element completely unravels everything which came before. Worse still is that instead of using other means which had been in the narrative, truly driving home the systemic injustice, the chosen action itself is nearly forgotten even as it unfolds. It’s almost too bad that this film, complete as it is, is the first in what we all know will be new a trilogy. Without knowing how far back to move in the character’s story, it’s hard for a film so firmly grounded to Gotham history to reach full impact without having a chance to establish its own history.
While The Batman‘s themes of societal corruption are plain throughout, they are never voiced more clearly than through Selina Kyle’s statement about taking down “rich, white men,” a sentiment that has been uttered thousands, if not millions of times in recent years, including in previous Batman movies. Like the majority of us in society, Batman, Selina, and Riddler all want the same thing: fairness in what they deem and unfair system. Where they differ is the way by which to achieve this fairness: legitimate means of bringing justice to the corrupt or brutal violence handed down by a single self-declared executioner.
The Batman is a very good film. It may improve with time but right now it’s too divided against itself to stand as a whole. It’s not a revolutionary take on the character or the culture of our time. It introduces social topics before brushing them aside for spectacle. It offers relevant points which we should debate and discuss while offering no answers. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t have to. In all honesty, no Batman film, not Dark Knight or Joker, has ever changed the course of our culture. There is nothing in these characters which demands they serve as avatars of society. They are just stories. For all its grandeur, artistry, and commentary, in the end, The Batman is just a movie with strengths and flaws that we, as moviegoers, should be able to debate and share opinions on. Filmmakers, filmgoers, fans: we all want the same thing.