There are arguably three certainties in life: death, taxes, and a new take on Batman every five to seven years, usually accompanied by the promise that it will be the darkest or grittiest take on the character yet. This has been done to varying degrees of success; some succeed quite admirably (Keaton, Bale), some suffer under the weight of their ambitions (Affleck), and some just flat out fail (Kilmer, Clooney).
The latest effort, Matt Reeves’ The Batman, stars Robert Pattinson as the Caped Crusader; like all Batman films, it came riding on a wave of hype. Memes deemed Pattinson the ’emo Batman,” mostly due his gloomy disposition and a trailer accompanied by maybe the darkest and most depressing of all Nirvana songs (“Something in the Way”). Some even revived old Twilight jokes about ‘Batman finally being played by an actual bat,” because internet trolls are known for originality. Pattinson was gradually joined by Paul Dano, Zoe Kravitz, Colin Farrell, Andy Serkis, Geoffrey Wright, Peter Sarsgaard, and John Turtorro, a worthy selection of actors that created further buzz and speculation.
The Batman begins with the same basic plot as all Batman films: Gotham is being hopelessly ravaged by crime and poverty, most of the cops and politicians are corrupt, and the only hope for respite comes in the form of a masked vigilante who stalks criminals dressed as a giant bat. On Halloween night, the mayor of the city is brutally murdered while his family is out trick-or-treating, leading to a series of sadistic killings along with a series clues that lead to the victims exposure of their involvement in the seedy underbelly of the Gotham crime world. In addition to these brain teasing calling cards, the killer is obsessed with the Batman, leaving him clues in the form of greeting cards as to who his next victim is going to be and why.
In addition to the killer wreaking havoc in a city already consumed by it, the Dark Knight also has contend with a fellow vigilante who has adopted a cat as her avatar of choice, a police department with only one officer he can trust, and his alter ego Bruce Wayne’s own personal baggage.
With a sprawling runtime of three hours, The Batman tries to pack in quite a bit; while the film is often thrilling and intricate, it is almost as consistently bloated and plodding. The pacing often slows to a halt when Pattinson takes of the cape and cowl, with his voice overs presented as Wayne’s journal entry coming off as desperate attempt to modernize the characters. It throws in one too any double-crosses and plot twists for its own good, as if it’s trying way too hard to be clever and surprising.
The performances are mostly solid; as Batman, Pattinson is outstanding. Virtually flawless. Every time he is in costume, the film lives up to its potential. The voice, the look, the physicality, and the intense presence are all top notch. This is a Batman to be feared. One strength of the film is the focus on Batman as a detective, which plays out as he meticulously deciphers the Riddler’s sinister clues. His Bruce Wayne isn’t nearly as effective, but that’s a fault in the writing rather than Pattinson’s acting; overall, he knows it out of the park.
As a pre-Catwoman Selina Kyle, Kravitz oozes sensuality and charisma, while giving the character more depth and pathos than in previous incarnations; Michelle Pfeiffer is still the gold standard for onscreen Catwomen for me, but Kravitz is an easy second. Her chemistry with Pattinson is off the charts. Andy Serkis and Geoffrey Wright play Batman’s most trusted cohorts, butler / surrogate father Alfred and noble cop James Gordon, with a dignified subtlety that was missing in previous portrayals. Turtorro acquits himself well enough in what is essentially a standard mob boss role, but Colin Farrell really triumphs as The Penguin: he overcomes the novelty of being hidden under mounds of prosthetics and gives a truly affecting presence, turning the character into a mildly tragic figure who is ostracized for his demeanor and seen as a sort of bottom feeder in the Gotham crime syndicate.
The weak link is Paul Dano’s Riddler; while he is definitely the most brutal and intense villain to date, his actual performance leaves much to be desired. He spends most of the film wrapped in a gimp suit breathing heavily; while there are some interesting aspects to the characters (the ciphers he leaves at crime scenes are some of the best examples of Bats using the aforementioned detective skills), he ultimately comes across as a cliched of better fleshed out villains such as Hannibal Lecter, John Doe from Se7en, and Ledger’s Joker. His motive is barely evident, basically a carbon copy of Ledger in The Dark Knight in that he just wants to cause chaos in an already chaotic situation. There’s a loose connection to Bruce Wayne that is hinted at but never fully expounded upon, and Dano’s acting once he emerges from the costume is truly, painfully over the top and cringe-y.
Visually the film is stunning, probably the most realistic and accurate portrayal of Gotham City to date. The fight scenes are extremely well choreographed, and the score by Michael Giacchino is magnificently haunting and is as perfect for Pattinson as Danny Elfman’s was for Keaton.
The Batman is not perfect, but it ranks in the upper echelon of Batman films, anchored largely by a spectacular performance from Robert Pattinson. Its vision isn’t always fully realized, but it shows promise for future installments.