The Batman, the latest big-screen reboot for the caped crusader, is a very dark, fascinating, sometimes excellent attempt to give us a more thoughtful Batman, that is pretty different from previous movie incarnations of the character. However, at just under three hours (it clocks in at 167 minutes when the end credits are subtracted) it also drags something fierce, especially in the middle and again during the last stretch. There is so much going on and no point is made only once. It lingers on the darkness, in Gotham City, in America, inside the people who inhabit this world (a slightly exaggerated version of our own). It works overall, but it is so methodical in its approach that it is easy to see how a viewer’s attention could wane. The screenplay keeps throwing in more characters, more subplots, more intrigue, when it could be moving forward.
Still, that flaw, that sense of being overwhelmed by darkness, spectacle and too many usages of the word “vengeance,” may be why the payoffs are so impactful and the mood is so effective. We are forced to wallow with Bruce Wayne on his quest for answers. His frustration matches ours and, eventually, his arrival at the truth feels earned. Even so, that possibility doesn’t make this drag any less. It is clear director/co-screenwriter Matt Reeves is capable of making a great Batman movie. He just doesn’t have the pacing down quite yet.
The plot this time involves Bruce Wayne digging deep into Gotham City’s seedy underbelly as he searches for a terrorist targeting corrupt government officials. His journey includes such familiar faces as The Riddler, The Penguin, Catwoman, mob boss Carmine Falcone, Lt. James Gordon and Alfred the butler. Each of these characters are given plenty of room to establish themselves, as well as a significant role to play in the story.
This Batman is not really an action hero. Sure, there are fight scenes, car chases and explosions, this is a superhero movie after all. Yet, this Batman is more of a detective than a fighter. There is a lot of him interrogating suspects, piecing together clues and filling in gaps and less of him pummeling bad guys. It is a cerebral take on the character, one that hasn’t been tried on-screen up to this point. It truly sets this apart as having something different to say about Bruce Wayne and his alter ego. It has its share of action, but it is refreshing to see him flex his intelligence instead of his muscles. Might is not what is going to salvage Gotham City.
Tone is very important to The Batman. Its Gotham City is dark and hopeless. The music by Michael Giacchino is imposing and unrelenting. The cinematography by Greig Fraser (nominated for a Best Achievement in Cinematography Oscar this year for Dune) is bleak. The production design (by James Chinlund) and costume design (by Jacqueline Durran, a Best Costume Design Oscar nominee this year for Cyrano) focuses mostly on the grotesque. The combined result is that Batman looks like an avenger from hell and The Riddler is very disturbing. There is a lot of attention to detail in the production that makes up for its issues.
The cast is also strong, as it tends to be with blockbusters nowadays. Robert Pattinson is great as usual as a brooding, intense, Bruce Wayne. This is not some rich kid going to fancy parties with women hanging on his arms. He is a recluse, haunted by the deaths of his beloved parents two decades earlier. There is no pleasure in his life; everything is centered on his vigilante work. Pattinson plays it like Bruce is Batman because he needs to be, not because he chooses to.
Jeffrey Wright is a weary James Gordon. He and Batman are essentially partners in the investigation, which is pretty cool. Zoë Kravitz is a sleek Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman), who gets to flirt with Batman and has her own interesting arc.
Then there are the villains. Paul Dano, mainly working behind a creepy mask, is terrifying as The Riddler, a serial killer who feels he is bringing justice to a city that has been betrayed by its so-called leadership. John Turturro is charismatic, if a little cliché, as ultra-powerful crime boss Carmine Falcone. Finally, a completely unrecognizable Colin Farrell (seeming like he is impersonating Robert De Niro from The Untouchables) has some fun as Falcone’s right-hand man, the opportunistic Penguin. Everyone gets the chance to play their character, which is one benefit of the bloated runtime.
There have now been six actors to play Batman in a live-action movie over the last thirty years. People wondered whether or not there was anything more to do with him after Christopher Nolan’s highly acclaimed Dark Knight trilogy wrapped up a decade ago. DC then put Ben Affleck in the role and he is currently still playing the character in the DC Extended Universe.
The question is: does The Batman make a case for having a reason to exist, outside of the likelihood that it will make a lot of money? The answer is yes. It has its problems (mostly involving excess) but, when it is at its best, it is at least as good as any previous Batman movie. Though it doesn’t maintain that level all the way, it does more than enough to become a memorable entry in the franchise.
3¾ out of 5
Robert Pattinson as Bruce Wayne
Jeffrey Wright as Lt. James Gordon
Zoë Kravitz as Selina Kyle
Colin Farrell as Oz
John Turturro as Carmine Falcone
Andy Serkis as Alfred
Paul Dano as The Riddler
Directed by Matt Reeves
Written by Matt Reeves and Peter Craig