The Pitch: No one could say that we currently suffer from a lack of stories about Batman right now. Certainly, since the character’s original debut in 1939, he’s been a frequent fixture on our screens, with a wide range of interpretations available to the media consumer going back decades.
Yet, there’s something about a guy who likes dressing up in a cape and Kevlar to pummel bad guys which keeps us watching, and perhaps that’s why it was inevitable that WarnerMedia would eventually get a new solo Batman adventure into theaters at some point (despite the ten-year gap between The Dark Knight Rises and this film being filled with Ben Affleck’s take on the role for Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League).
So, enter Robert Pattinson as a younger, mopier Bruce Wayne, with a penchant for eye black and lurking awkwardly in public when deprived of the safety of his mask. In the hands of Matt Reeves, who directs and co-wrote the script with Peter Craig, Bruce Wayne is emo but for a clear reason; a haunted young man focused on his quest to protect Gotham City, at the expense of literally everything else that might be considered important to the human experience.
Time to Solve Some Bat-Crimes: As The Batman is nearly three hours long, the plot does get pretty complex, but the inciting incident is a relatively simple one: Twenty years after the death of Bruce’s parents and two years after he started skulking around the city in a Batsuit, a series of violent high-profile murders in Gotham threatens to destabilize the already tenuous rules of order, with Batman teaming up with Lieutenant James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) to track down a killer whose crimes are always accompanied by riddles.
Reeves’s direction, especially when it comes to the action scenes, is clear and direct, never losing the geography of a scene, and favoring enough instances of magic hour to ensure that the entire film doesn’t take place in darkness. (There’s also some gorgeous production design on display, including an inspired take on the Wayne family home that’s gothic in a wholly unique way from Tim Burton’s iconic approach.)
It’s all in service to the concept of “getting back to basics” with Batman, who does have a cool car and nifty gadgets, but is very firmly in World’s Greatest Detective mode, albeit coming from a place of extreme emotional damage. Right from the beginning, Reeves seeks to center his Batman’s point-of-view as the primary one, with Bruce Wayne’s journal serving as voice-over narration for key parts of the film.
But even with this additional insight into Bruce Wayne’s psyche, he’s still a bit inscrutable; there are moments where Reeves engages with a classic Batman trope — the idea that this Batman might have an awful lot in common with the criminals he chases — with the ultimate answer being “yeah, for sure.”
Familiar Names, New Faces: Inherent to the film’s approach is an assumption that, despite basically being another reboot of the character, the audience for The Batman is already familiar with who the character is. It’s actually a smart choice, on balance, allowing the story to skim past details we really don’t need explained, yet again — as one example, the film barely bothers to establish Alfred’s (Andy Serkis) relationship to and history with Bruce Wayne, while still ensuring that their connection is an important touchstone for both characters.
But while the film doesn’t waste too much time on establishing the origin stories of any of its characters, perhaps the biggest mistake made by The Batman is a little too much ambition when it comes to its rogues’ gallery — as fun as it is to see fresh takes on the Riddler (Paul Dano), Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz), and the Penguin (Colin Farrell), it’s the key choice which leads to this film being nearly three hours long, which does end up feeling a little gratuitous.
That said, while of the three characters mentioned just now, the Penguin feels the most extraneous, cutting the Penguin would mean cutting Farrell’s remarkably funny and wry performance, and that’d be a damn shame. Actually, all three actors find new and intriguing ways into these quintessential characters, with Dano bringing baby-faced terror to the Riddler and Kravitz maintaining Catwoman’s edge even in her softer moments with Batman.
As Selina/Catwoman, Kravitz gives us probably the closest on-screen equivalent we’ve gotten yet to comics writer Ed Brubaker’s take on the character, though there’s also a lot of Batman: Year One in the mix as well. (Really, the whole film feels like it’s constantly tipping its hat to the well-regarded Frank Miller comics story — it certainly comes thematically and stylistically closer than Batman Begins did to being the adaptation that Darren Aronofsky tried to get off the ground in the 2000s.)
It truly is a great cast — another thousand words could be easily written about John Turturro as crime boss Carmine Falcone, as Turturro delivers just enough quirky menace to elevate his scenes, and Peter Sarsgaard‘s small role as the Gotham district attorney with a number of personal issues also stands out as memorable.
The Verdict: What The Batman does most effectively, almost to the point of dragging down the innate fun of the core premise, is make it clear that when Bruce Wayne lost his parents, all those years ago, it really fucked him up. (Yes, if you’re wondering, this film does explore the fate of the parental Waynes, albeit with a fresh curveball or two — and thankfully no pearls scattered across a dark alleyway.)
There are times when The Batman aims to hit a level as serious-minded as its protagonist, and doesn’t quite hit it, leading to what might be some unintentional moments of comedy; there was a fair bit of awkward giggling at this writer’s press screening. But even when Pattinson pushes his take on Bruce to Orin from Parks and Recreation-esque levels, there’s still a compelling edge to the story, with a strong climax that features exactly the sort of battle Batman does best.
You’re making a statement when you don’t call your movie Batman, but The Batman — it’s a declaration of intent, a promise that this is a definitive take on the character. Reeves and Pattinson don’t quite deliver that, but also that’s a pretty impossible goal at this point, given the simple fact that there are just too many other takes out there.
What this film does achieve, however, is telling a solid new Batman story, one with some pretty compelling twists and a strong point-of-view on who, exactly, the Caped Crusader is. By default, that makes it one of the better Batman movies ever made.
Where to Watch: The Bat-signal lights up in theaters on Friday, March 4th.