People were quick to raise eyebrows at the casting of Robert Pattinson as the latest Batman, but among the film’s strongest positives is his ability to bring to life… well, some version of Batman anyway. On the other hand, The Batman is not only hard-pressed to really be a Batman film, but the fact seems to be by design. A grisly mix of Batman: Year One and a ’40s film noir, the effort seems more interested in reinventing the world than putting it on display. Moreover, like Nolan’s last two Batman films, there’s so much time given over to political discourse that even its own story is left fighting for air, and that despite the film’s nearly insane runtime.
Bruce narrates us into a Gotham that drips sludge in that popular comic sense of a city utterly seething with crime so rampant that it is all but a warzone, but curiously manages a host of citizens milling about eager to be the victims of said criminal elements. He’s only been doing this two years, which opens us up, for some reason, to almost erotically staring at car parts, because the Batmobile is still in the design phase. Bruce has a suit and a grappling hook, but he doesn’t quite have the gig down and isn’t yet comfortable in his fake skin. It’s an interesting pseudo-origin story that gives us pre-Catwoman, not-at-all-Penguin, and the genesis of Riddler, but much of the film that actually connects to its title feels accidental at best, forced at worst.
A Batman who is still finding his feet in the bigger picture is nevertheless called in to help solve a high-profile murder by Lt. Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), and the case spins into a string of murders. The murders are all people in power in the government, committed by a psychopath who claims to be exposing corruption at the highest levels, or at least imposing his own justice for it. Batman is a bit out of his element as the entire affair quickly turns into a roller coaster ride that leads from a thief to a mob-owned club within a club to his own family.
The Riddler (Paul Dano) makes it difficult to see what’s coming, despite his trail of clues, and every next lead seems to lead everywhere. With the mob, the police, and nearly everyone else a suspect or potentially in on… whatever Riddler is exposing, Batman has only Alfred (Andy Serkis), Catwoman (Zoe Kravitz), and Gordon to work with and the walls are closing in.
Director Matt Reeves’ take on the world here is both brilliantly in line with updating the franchise’s origins, and seemingly irritated by them. Bruce Wayne is wonderfully troubled, and perhaps an updated version of how troubled he might understandably be, but he is also, in terms of the franchise’s efforts in comic and film, not delivered as Bruce Wayne at all. He also actually investigates, and to a degree that is almost jarring in certain moments. He wanders through crime scenes and crashes into bars, which delivers the audience elements of not only a kind of throwback to Batman’s earliest days, but the film noir this might easily have been with a protagonist who was simply some private eye who finds himself snagged in an unbelievable web of criminal connections. The effort goes so far in fact that there are huge runs of time where it becomes difficult to avoid wondering why this is a Batman movie and if it wouldn’t ultimately be better otherwise. This is especially true the more we seem to be trying to incorporate speakeasies, old school “powerless” mobsters, a Penguin who has nothing in common with the character but the name, and the absolute minimalization of Batman’s “wonderful toys.”
Ultimately the film becomes a battle between the positives and negatives and every audience is going to find the analysis a tricky one. It thrills with solid action, but the Riddler is a lazy brand of completely insane that isn’t true to the franchise. Pattinson is a surprisingly charismatic, “broody” Batman, but his best moments are countered by some rather goofy demands of progressing the plot. The cinematography delivers a dark world worthy of losing yourself in, to the extent that despite the runtime it never feels slow, but the film is most committed not to Batman, but to cashing in on its theory of “villainy” audiences will connect with, which is apparently insane incels coordinating on the dark web.
It’s a miss gone right and has a lot going for it with its biggest detriment being how it should have been better.