It says something remarkable about the character of Batman that, almost 100 years since his first appearance in the pages of Detective Comics #33, storytellers are still finding new things to do with him. Just in the years since I’ve been alive, we’ve gotten Tim Burton’s eerie 1930s-inflected cityscapes, Joel Schumacher’s colorful camp extravaganzas, Christopher Nolan’s brooding crime epics, and Zack Snyder’s brutal late-career Caped Crusader. Personally, my favorite iteration of the hero is the one featured in Rocksteady Studios’ Arkham game series—a saga that blends the techno-sophistication of the Nolanverse with the surreality and mysticism of the 1990s animated series.
And yet somehow, despite all these different takes, Matt Reeves’s long-anticipated “The Batman” still manages to offer something new: a living and breathing Gotham City, so viscerally realized you can practically smell the rain-slicked concrete, and a grim-jawed Batman who incarnates it.
As the film opens, we meet Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) just two years into his career as the Dark Knight. He’s unsteady, and less experienced than the versions of the character we’ve come to know, more comfortable marching out of the shadows like Darth Vader than delivering aerial stealth strikes. More notably, though, this version of Bruce has no qualms about working with Gotham City’s police department, especially Jim Gordon (a wonderfully cast Jeffrey Wright). And the police certainly need him: looming over Gotham is the shadow of the Riddler (Paul Dano, playing a mashup of Jigsaw and his character from “Prisoners”). The masked serial killer has been picking off a succession of Gotham’s highest-ranking officials, promising ultimately to expose their lies once and for all.
Seen in the theater, “The Batman” is an immersive, overpowering experience. Gothic architecture looms over dingy city streets, their corners lit by a mix of old incandescent bulbs and modern neon displays. The Riddler’s serpentine symbols spill over pages and computer screens, transmitting inscrutable messages of death and violence. In the depths of industrial facilities transformed into elite nightclubs, beautiful girls mingle with compromised politicians. And behind it all is Michael Giacchino’s haunting score—which, to my delight, relies heavily on character leitmotifs, and is a strong contender for the greatest superhero movie soundtrack of all time.
All of it, taken together, captures the Batman ethos in a way I’ve never seen before. Nolan did himself no favors by deploying radically inconsistent visions of Gotham across his trilogy: “The Dark Knight” is clearly set in Chicago, and “The Dark Knight Rises” in Pittsburgh. By contrast, Reeves’s story is rooted in a profound sense of space and place, one that feels both familiar and arrestingly alien at the same time. It’s the sort of movie that made me want to inhabit its world, to just sit in a lonely Gotham café and watch the raindrops trail down the windowpane as police sirens howl outside. I’d happily watch half a dozen spinoffs set in this storytelling universe.
And how does Pattinson—perhaps best known for his turn as the “Twilight” saga’s Edward Cullen—stack up as the Bat? Pretty well, for the most part. Pattinson spends most of his time masked up, but out of the cowl, his Bruce is a cipher. He’s pale and awkward, even antisocial—the polar opposite of Christian Bale’s suave übermensch, but without the world-weary melancholy of Michael Keaton’s version. And there’s a sense in which this odd affect works: Pattinson’s Bruce is the privileged scion of a wealthy family, without friends or love interests (or mentors—Andy Serkis’s Alfred Pennyworth doesn’t seem to have much influence) to keep him on the straight path. Without his foray through the criminal underworld and the Tibetan domain of the League of Shadows, mightn’t Bale’s Bruce have ended up in the same place?
To put it simply, the first hour of Reeves’s film is probably the best live-action Batman adaptation of all time, deftly weaving together themes and imagery from almost a century of storytelling. It’s great to see a Dark Knight who’s also still the World’s Greatest Detective, chasing down villains through an underworld rife with freaky figures.
But momentum like that is hard to sustain.
“The Batman” is a hair under three hours long, and it feels drawn out. Particularly egregious is the film’s messy and turgid second hour, which basically amounts to an extended detour through the intricacies of Gotham City political history, featuring the Penguin (an almost unrecognizable Colin Farrell) and organized-crime boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro). Frankly, most of this could’ve been cut from the film with next to no impact on the plot. (That being said, Zoë Kravitz makes a far better Catwoman than Anne Hathaway or Michelle Pfeiffer, and her appearances are some of the best parts of the movie…even if, strictly speaking, her involvement doesn’t move the storytelling ball forward much.)
Fortunately, things do get back on track once the Riddler reappears and takes center stage, pushing the film towards its inevitable big-budget climax. And it’s here that Reeves’s film almost, but not quite, becomes a great Batman movie.
(Spoiler discussion to follow. You’ve been forewarned.)
The thematic core of Reeves’s film, we eventually intuit, is the inherent ambiguity of Batman’s role as a symbol. In standing outside the authority of the city and the law, dispensing “vengeance” at will, Batman has given rise to unintended consequences: the Riddler (and, we eventually learn, his many followers) have been inspired to do likewise, understanding themselves as self-styled agents of vigilante justice working alongside the Dark Knight. This vigilantism, contrary to Batman’s own intentions, is ultimately destructive to the social fabric of Gotham City; it can only be offset by Batman himself, as Batman, being seen to support the existing apparatus of justice. But this, in turn, raises very uncomfortable questions about the corruption of that system, and Batman’s complicity if he chooses to reinforce it. (Reeves doesn’t frame things quite this explicitly, but the subtext is present nonetheless.)
In short, Reeves’s Batman confronts a diabolical catch-22: continue to operate outside the law, and in so doing legitimate those like the Riddler who would do likewise (to destructive ends), or instead choose to symbolically shore up the existing power structures of Gotham City—with all their observed susceptibility to decline.
That’s quite a compelling moral dilemma. But Reeves never seems comfortable teeing it up squarely, and instead decides to dodge: in the film’s closing moments, his Batman rescues reformist mayoral candidate Bella Réal, and we’re left with a vague hope that genuine change might be on the horizon for Gotham. One can’t help thinking that Nolan—responsible for the biting social commentary of “The Dark Knight Rises”— wouldn’t have let his audience off the hook so easily.
Additionally, if this is the story that Reeves is telling, it’s not clear why the Riddler is the right choice of villain. (Hush, for example, seems like a much more obvious choice.) The Riddler never really works as an icon of crypto-populist violence, given that his background is in forensic accounting and cryptography is his hobby. If the Riddler is going to take center stage, there should be some final narrative payoff associated with riddling or disclosure of the truth as such.
Here’s a move I’d endorse: make Thomas Wayne responsible for Gotham’s historic drug crisis, as the original developer and marketer of the ultra-addictive “drops” flooding Gotham’s streets. (How else does a doctor end up a billionaire?) The Riddler’s climactic revelation is that the Wayne fortune is Sackler-style blood money; Bruce’s life of privilege and vigilantism is directly funded by the pain and suffering of the people he seeks to protect. Batman’s final dilemma, then, is whether or not to let this secret reach the public. Both outcomes are defensible from a sequel-storytelling perspective: hide the truth, and Bruce becomes an even more troubled figure with a secret he must protect at all costs; reveal the truth, and Bruce becomes a pariah who must navigate his relationship with a public that despises him and a fortune he does not merit.
But alas, we don’t get anything quite this nuanced. And so I’m left with a fairly simple assessment of Reeves’s sprawling flick: atmosphere was amazing, plot was a mess.
That being said, I have a persistent tendency to change my views about Batman movies over time as I rewatch them (just to name a couple examples, I’ve come to think—against my initial impressions—that “The Dark Knight Rises” is a bit of a slog, and that “Batman v Superman” is a compelling interpretation of the character). So I reserve the right, down the line, to reconsider these thoughts. As it stands, though, it seems to me that to the extent “The Batman” succeeds, it succeeds as a matter of mood, not narrative.
I highly recommend spending some time in Reeves’s Gotham. And I’m guardedly optimistic that some of these storytelling kinks can be worked out eventually, hopefully by the time the inevitable sequel rolls around. But until then, I can’t honestly say that “The Batman” is the definitive Caped Crusader adaptation. It’s a story we might need right now—but not quite the one we deserve.