‘The Batman’ is a Surprisingly Good, Albeit Darker Iteration of the Caped Crusader
Riddle me this: does “The Bat, The Cat, and The Rat” sound more like an opening line to a joke or the title of a Dr. Seuss book? In fact, those are three core elements of The Batman, the COVID-delayed, and highly anticipated film from writer-director Matt Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig.
I’ll confess to being a huge fan of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy (that concluded 10 years ago) and being a bit skeptical to a new version featuring Robert Pattinson in the titular role (I’m choosing to totally ignore the in-between portrayals in the “Justice League” movies).
Knowing full well how important it is for fans to watch these films with fresh eyes and a clear head, this review is purposefully vague on what will surely prove to be some of the more popular and contentious discussion points.
Let’s start with a general description and the setup. The film is dark and gloomy and gritty and grimy. Gotham is a cesspool of corruption and crime, and we get no glimpse into the other side, assuming there is one. Billionaire Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) is still in his second year as the Batman, often referred to as “Vengeance.” There is substantial backstory for Mr. Wayne, who lives in relative seclusion with his trusty manservant Alfred Pennyworth (Andy Serkis), while the Batman prowls at night in his efforts to clean up the city.
Of course, he is unable to keep pace with crime and corruption, even with the close alliance he has built with good cop, Police Lt. James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright). It takes Batman’s Poirot-like detective skills to solve a riddle left as a clue in a particularly high-profile murder case. Soon it’s obvious that a serial killer is at work and he has purposefully drawn the Batman into his game.
The caped crusader proceeds to cross paths with Selena Kyle/Catwoman (a terrific Zoë Kravitz), Oswald Cobblepot/Penguin (an unrecognizable Colin Farrell), District Attorney Gil Golson (Peter Sarsgaard), and crime lord Carmine Falcone (John Turturro). As city VIPs begin showing up dead, it’s a masked Edward Nashton/Riddler (Paul Dano) who always seems a step ahead. All of the above receive their chance to shine on screen, and while none let us down, it’s not until the mask is ripped from Riddler, and Dano really shines, that we are left wanting more. It should be noted that Farrell (with his facial prosthetics and fat suit) is kind of a second fiddle here, but it’s surely intentional and meant to set the stage for more Penguin antics down the road.
Pattinson will certainly receive the most scrutiny. I found him to be an excellent Batman, with black eye makeup smeared by sweat under his cowl, maintaining the grungy tone. His whispery voice differs from Christian Bale’s gravelly growl, but works for the character’s withdrawn nature and preference for detective work over fighting. Staying true to the premise that this is only his second year, there is a significant shortage of “wonderful toys,” and the batmobile is less rocket ship and more souped-up coupe. The contrast to these is a batsuit that seems quite advanced (and looks cool).
It’s Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne that didn’t work for me. I respect the reclusive billionaire aspect, but he mostly looks like someone on their way to a Nirvana gig, leaving us wondering how the heck could anyone not connect the dots between a creepy rich guy and a nearly identical creepy guy in a bat suit. It’s a minor complaint, but one that stuck with me.
Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino (Up, 2009) takes a more classical approach than the dramatics of predecessors Hans Zimmer and Danny Elfman. Giacchino has been a frequent Pixar contributor, and scored some well-known blockbusters in franchises like ‘Jurassic World,’ ‘Star Trek,’ ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘Mission Impossible,’ ‘Spider-man,’ and ‘Star Wars’. His work fits nicely here.
Adapting characters and stories originated by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, Matt Reeves and Peter Craig have found a way to put their own stamp on the work. Mr. Craig is Oscar-winner Sally Field’s son, and his previous scripts include The Town (2010), parts 1 and 2 of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, and upcoming high-profile projects in Top Gun: Maverick and Gladiator 2. Director Reeves has previously helmed the excellent horror film Let Me In (2010), as well as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) and War for the Planet of the Apes (2017).
This marks the first in a planned Batman trilogy, and a couple of the last scenes seemingly set the stage for what’s to come. Although this is an odd movie, here’s hoping the franchise maintains this tone and avoids the typical Marvel/DC overblown CGI approach. After all, Batman is but one man, not a God with superpowers. This film is an unusual blend of noir-horror-detective-action-psychological thriller wrapped in a gray box with a black bow, and though it will likely be divisive among fans (isn’t everything?), this 3-hour epic leaves us anticipating the next ‘bat time’ and ‘bat channel.’