*****SOME SPOILERS AHEAD!*****
The following column might put me in the doghouse with some readers, and, to be clear, I’m not trying to attack anyone’s personal favorite incarnation of Batman. I’m just seeking to give my honest, unfettered opinion of a movie that I waited a long time to see. That movie, of course, is director Matt Reeves’ “The Batman”, which I just saw last night, and have been scrambling since to find the words for my disappointment. I didn’t ‘hate’ the movie, per se, and I did note some very positive elements, in fact. But despite my appreciation of those elements that worked, those greater elements that didn’t work are what diluted my overall appreciation for “The Batman.”
Since the film is just now premiering on HBOMax here in the United States, I’m going to forgo my usual deep dive review, and offer a quick story synopsis, as well as lists of the movie’s pros and cons, followed by a brief summation.
Established without the usual origin story (thank goodness–we’ve seen Batman’s origins enough already), orphaned vigilante/billionaire Bruce Wayne, aka “The Batman” (Robert Pattinson), sees a string of corrupt Gotham public officials executed in increasingly bizarre, elaborate, “Se7en”-style killings from a mysterious psychopath known as “the Riddler” (Paul Dano).
Working clandestinely with police captain Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) to figure out the motives behind the crimes, Batman also employs the aid of a mysterious young woman named Selena Kyle (Zoe Kravitz) who is trying to learn the whereabouts of her missing (presumed dead) roommate/lover Annika (Hana Hrzic). Clues lead them to dangerous Gotham mob kingpin Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), who holds vital secrets to both Selena (aka “Catwoman”) and the Wayne family.
The climax sees the surrendered psychotic Riddler imprisoned in Arkham Asylum, yet still able to wreak his final, apocalyptic vengeance upon the corrupt, irredeemable city for which he blames his lifelong misery. After the Riddler’s final catastrophe, Selena and Batman realize they share common interests, but decide to go their separate ways…~The End.
Highlights of “The Batman.”
Despite my issues with the movie, I want to be upfront in giving praise to the film where it most certainly deserves it.
Some of these long-established DC universe characters, as presented in this version of Batman, are definitive; namely Jeffrey (“Westworld”) Wright as Gotham ‘good cop’ Jim Gordon, who gives an earthy, solid performance and is thoroughly believable as an honest cop trying to get to the bottom of his city’s corruption. Wright grounds just about every project he’s involved in, giving his Jim Gordon an honest resilience missing from prior incarnations, including the defeated Gary Oldman from the Dark Knight trilogy (2005-2012). Gordon even takes a punch for the cause when he aids Batman’s escape in full view of his fellow cops. I’ve been a fan of Jeffrey Wright ever since I first saw him as the scene-stealing, flamboyant drug-lord Peoples Hernandez in the 2000 reboot of “Shaft,” and he doesn’t disappoint.
Zoe Kravitz’s Selena Kyle, aka “Catwoman,” is, likewise, a definitive incarnation of this character. Kravitz is athletic and believably street-smart (despite being the daughter of TV star Lisa Bonet and musician husband Lenny Kravitz). Catwoman’s long-established bisexuality is also nonchalantly presented as the non-issue that it is. I also liked that her Catwoman smartly and correctly points out the hypocrisy of vigilante rich-boy Batman lecturing her on lawfulness. Kravitz’s take on Selena Kyle is a lot scrappier than Anne Hathaway’s too-glamorous version of the character as seen in “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012). This smarter, cooler incarnation of Selena Kyle achieved what Halle Berry arguably sought to accomplish with her ill-conceived, Pitof-directed 2004 “Catwoman” movie. I would love to see a solo spinoff movie of Zoe Kravitz’s Catwoman someday…
Paul Dano’s “Riddler” is a far cry from the over-the-top energy of Jim Carrey in 1995’s “Batman Forever” or even Frank Gorshin from the 1960s TV series. This Riddler is more attuned with Kevin Spacey’s anonymous psychopath from David Fincher’s “Se7en” (1995); which this film tries very hard to emulate. All the same, I appreciated a Riddler who seemed as if he could spring from our world, and not some glittered, spandex-wearing clown right out of a movie set’s hair & makeup trailer. If anything, Dano’s Riddler is so drab and mundane he could be taken straight from a news segment on serial killer profiling. Deeply disturbing.
Using a mix of studios at Warner Bros. Leavesdon Studio in southeast England, as well as locations in Glasgow, Scotland and Chicago, Illinois, director Matt Reeves assembles a Gotham City that is both tantalizingly familiar and yet not-quite-real. Much like the hellishly surreal urban landscape from the aforementioned “Se7en,” this Gotham is a place that feels as if it should exist somewhere in the United States, yet doesn’t quite fit. Making generous use of burnt orange skylines, as well as monolithic grays reflecting Gotham’s murky morality, cinematographer Greig Fraser nicely builds upon the groundwork established in Christopher Nolan’s definitive “Dark Knight” trilogy. From the dangerous spaces of Falcone’s lair to the sweeping aerial shots over the city’s night lights, the movie’s Gotham is given impressive scope. The scene of Batman leaping off of a tower and quick-converting his costume into a birdman (or bat) suit is dazzling and breathtaking–reminding me of the aerial shots of Batman flying over the skyscrapers of Hong Kong in “The Dark Knight” (2008).
Yes, as important as any other element in Batman lore is the ever-popular Batmobile; the hero’s main ride. Although, in keeping with this more po-faced Batman’s anonymity, he rarely uses it in this film, choosing instead to grab a backpack and hop on a stylish, though not-too outlandish street motorcycle. However, when the Batmobile finally does make its hero entrance over an hour into the movie (this is a very long movie), it’s effective enough–especially the chase sequence, where we see the car fly out from the flames of an explosion. The body of the new Batmobile looks like a stylish, if somewhat recognizable modern muscle car, but the rear of the vehicle looks like something from a Star Wars spaceship, with the signature rocket engine exhaust–a design element established as far back as the 1966 Batman TV series. A slightly more stylish, if not dramatic, improvement over the Dark Knight trilogy’s more utilitarian-looking “Tumbler” (which, to be fair, was in keeping with that trilogy’s backstory of the Tumbler being an unused Wayne Enterprise military project). At my age, I’m afraid I don’t get too car-crazy these days, but my inner 25 year old-self definitely appreciated it.
Cons of “The Batman.”
While the above attributes certainly make for compelling reasons to see the film at least once, the shortcomings of the movie are what hurt my ultimate appreciation for it.
-An Ineffective Hero.
Perhaps my biggest problem with the movie is its depiction of Bruce Wayne/Batman, as played by Robert (“Twilight”) Pattinson; a fine actor forced to play a clever character (on paper), who does very little to prevent the pileup of tragedies that relentlessly plague his home city of Gotham. Working in tandem with butler Alfred (Andy Serkis), Catwoman, Gordon, and even (unwittingly) with the Riddler, the corruption of Gotham is ultimately exposed for the world to see, but it’s now a Gotham left in ruins. The characters’ ‘victory’ over the city’s corruption is an empty one at best, since Batman figures out the Riddler’s much plot too late to actively prevent it. Just as he’s unable to prevent the murders of Gotham’s public officials–all of whom are in mobster Falcone’s pocket (Falcone himself is yet another casualty, despite Batman’s ‘best’ efforts).
Note: I hate to nitpick an actor’s look for a role, but Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne in the movie looks like a brooding emo college kid–completely lacking that devil-may-care playboy persona that actors like Michael Keaton and Christian Bale so smartly cultivated in their respective Batman films. I don’t see Pattinson’s wide-eyed, messy-haired, sad-faced Bruce Wayne as a devil-may-care playboy, let alone as the public face of a multi-billion dollar corporation.
We see Batman arrive on the scene of the Mayor’s funeral as yet another corrupt public official is forced to plow a car into the service with a live bomb around his neck. Despite Batman’s ‘assistance,’ the helpless official is still blown to hell. Batman diligently deciphers these various plots, yet he fails to prevent any of them. The death and destruction continue, almost as if he didn’t exist. In the movie’s final moments, we see our ‘hero’ doing what any good Red Cross volunteer would do in his place; aiding the evacuation of Gotham’s displaced masses into emergency shelters. That’s only a step or two above tossing rolls of paper towels at them. While I appreciate that “The Batman” chose to skip over the character’s origin story, the movie still left me feeling that our ‘hero’ hadn’t found his true calling. Sure, he’s great at solving riddles and executing some kick-ass martial arts, but preventing mass death and destruction within his city? Not so much.
This is a hero who is more reactive than proactive, and that’s not a terribly ‘super’ quality for an alleged superhero. Maybe a sequel will fix this? Who knows…
-Po-Faced and Unremittingly Bleak.
Matt Reeves did some amazing work with the two rebooted “Planet of the Apes” sequels (2014’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and 2017’s “War of the Planet of the Apes”) as well as the American remake of 2006’s “Let the Right One In” (2010’s “Let Me In”), but like JJ Abrams, his greatest talent seems to be in following others’ patterns, either through sequels or remakes. In this case, he turns to David Fincher’s bleak crime-borderline-horror movie “Se7en” (1995) for inspiration, and essentially remakes it into a Batman story, using elements of the graphic novels “Batman: Year One” and “The Long Halloween” for occasional seasoning. “The Batman” is Reeves’ love letter to “Se7en,” and it tries much too hard to emulate that film’s dour po-facedness. If the “Dark Knight” trilogy was Christopher Nolan’s ode to Michael Mann’s crime-sagas (“Manhunter,” “Heat”), then “The Batman” wears its clear infatuation with “Se7en” on its dirty, gritty sleeve.
Director Reeves and screenwriter Peter Craig seem to lose sight of the fact that their story is also based a comic book fantasy about a billionaire playboy who dresses like a bat to kick some ass. So… where’s the fun?
Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy offered more moments of adventure, self-sacrifice, and yes, even glimmers of genuine hope, as when the evacuees from Gotham choose not to blow up each others’ evacuation ferries–calling the Joker’s bluff–in “The Dark Knight” (still my personal gold standard for live-action Batman movies). The Dark Knight trilogy was the first to go full-dark for live-action “Batman” (the comics began doing so in the late 1980s), but the trilogy also offered some rays of hope; Gotham City (for all its faults) is saved, and the tormented Bruce Wayne is finally able to let go of his bat-persona burden (the coda with Selena in Italy). “The Batman” offers no such silver linings, with Selena admitting that even if their city recovers from the Riddler’s resultant apocalypse, the crime bosses will most likely fill the resulting power void. Matt Reeves’ “The Batman” ends with everything in the crapper. The Riddler wins.
Bleak, sad, dreary and with surprisingly less action than I imagined to fill its bloated running time, which brings me to my next point…
I saw the movie comfortably at home, in my darkened, ad-hoc home office theater, and my middle-aged bladder is very grateful, because seeing this film theatrically would’ve been a sadistic endurance test of my kidneys. At least I was able to pause the movie once for a quick bathroom break. If I’d seen this theatrically (as I’d originally hoped), I might’ve done serious damage to my urinary tract. Even in my comfy chair, it’s an unnecessarily long movie. There were whole sections of the film where I was silently playing ‘imaginary-editor’; lopping off bits and scenes that added very little to the final story.
Right up front, there are simply too many characters populating the movie’s crowded landscape; Catwoman, the Riddler, the Penguin, Falcone, a slew of corrupt city officials, and yes, even the Joker makes a cameo near the very end (as the Riddler’s Arkham Asylum next-cell neighbor). These various subplots, each compelling in their own way, tend to gum up what could’ve been a much sharper and more focused tale of Batman and Gordon teaming up to prevent the Riddler from destroying Gotham City (a task at which they fail, I might add). Selena’s story, which ties in with Bruce’s learning some horrible family secrets, was certainly worth telling, but it would’ve arguably made for a more compelling standalone Catwoman movie, instead of being shoehorned into this already fully-loaded film.
I chalk this one up to my own impatience, perhaps; the older I get, the less patient I’m becoming with stories that fail to tell their tales more efficiently. My clock’s ticking, folks; just get on with it, already.
Summing It Up.
Despite some very strong supporting performances, Greig Fraser’s gorgeous magic hour cinematography, and some very effective action scenes (the Batmobile’s rollout, Batman’s night flight over Gotham City, etc), this otherwise impressive Batman film is hampered by nagging issues such as its over-length, it’s dour, po-faced lack of adventurousness, and its most fatal aspect; a ‘superhero’ who does tragically little to effectively alter the outcome of the story.
This incarnation of Batman is quick to solve riddles, beat up armies of bad guys, and offer first aid to Gotham’s displaced citizens, but by the movie’s end, he fails to stop the Riddler from murdering public officials, let alone prevent the city’s catastrophic fate in the final act. After the movie’s near-three hour running time was up, I realized that the story’s outcome would’ve been largely the same with or without the titular character, which ends up following the bad guy’s program. This makes an already overlong superhero movie seem somewhat pointless as well.
A genuine shame.
Where to Watch/Be Safe.
“The Batman” can be streamed at home right now on HBOMax, and purchased/rented on YouTube as well. With the recent invasion of Ukraine, here’s hoping the courageous Ukrainian people will someday see daylight from this nightmare. Wishing the people of Ukraine perseverence, and that this hideous invasion ends sooner than later. Meanwhile, the current number of COVID-19 related deaths in the United States is over 1 million (and over six million worldwide) as of this writing. Please use caution and good judgment when it comes to masking and safe distancing, as many states are now easing prior COVID restrictions due to decreasing numbers of infections. In these challenging times, be safe and stay strong.