The Batman debuts in theaters this weekend, launching ten years after Christopher Nolan completed his legendary run on The Dark Knight trilogy. To call this a tough act to follow would be a tremendous understatement, and director/co-writer Matt Reeves incorporates tonal and structural differences into his new film which differentiate the two series. Featuring tremendous hand-to-hand combat sequences but light on character development despite its three-hour runtime, The Batman achieves the feel of a great Batman movie without capturing the soul of one.
Much like how Nolan made his Batman franchise feel timely, relevant, and gritty, Reeves is certainly interested in telling a dark story which feels like it could happen in real life. Robert Pattinson’s Batman is more angry and ferocious than any caped crusader we’ve ever seen on the silver screen. The best moments of the movie feature Pattinson plowing through groups of bad guys like a tank fueled by unregulated rage. This franchise is much more low-tech than the series which came before it, and there’s something refreshing about a vigilante achieving such vengeance with nothing but what essentially amounts to a suit of bulletproof armor and an old fashioned motorcycle and muscle car. This is a character who lacks the charisma, moral code, and dapper sophistication that Christian Bale brought to the role. This works well when Batman needs to take down a dangerous gang of killers. This doesn’t work so well when Bruce Wayne has to interact with any human being around him. Pattinson spends most of this lengthy film in costume and he rarely connects with the characters in his orbit. There are just two substantial scenes in the entire movie where we see Bruce Wayne out in society, and even then his social skills are as abrasive as when he takes to the streets as his alter ego. Even his relationship with Alfred Pennyworth (played by Andy Serkis) is icy cold from the start, and not even a literal explosion can prevent him from treating his trusted butler, confidant, and father figure with more than an accusatory statement immediately after Alfred emerges from his coma in the hospital. The Watchmen-esque opening dialogue about the corruption of the city and the rhetorical questions about if the city is worth saving works well in this neo-noir take on Gotham City… but it’s hard not to chuckle when a grown man tells the person who has cared for him since birth, “You’re not my father.” It’s no wonder that even the people Batman saves in this movie aren’t sure if he’s going to hurt them or not when he’s this careless with the human beings who are closest to him. The greatest Batman films have always been about the quest for Bruce Wayne’s soul, and this version of Bruce has a long way to go in that department.
The duality of Bruce Wayne and Batman has been what makes the character such an interesting and timeless protagonist for the silver screen, and Nolan and Tim Burton both showed how the character managed both roles in order to be successful in their respective runs. In this film, neither persona of the character connects with much around him. The shining exception to this problem is the relationship between Batman and Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) which is the strongest character pairing in the entire film. It’s a pleasure watching these two characters work a crime scene, conduct detective work together, and even face criminals as a team. Gordon’s power over Batman in this film is another interesting angle to this story, especially because the guy doesn’t seem to ever listen to anyone else.
Ever since Jack Nicholson appeared as The Joker in Burton’s 1989 film, the villains have always been who defined each new entry in a Batman movie. This became even more of the case when Nolan managed to conjure up two of the greatest, most menacing rogue’s gallery performances of all time in Heath Ledger’s Joker and Tom Hardy’s Bane. Sadly, none of the supporting characters in The Batman come close to achieving the same level of gravity as those who came before them. Award-winning actor Paul Dano just might be the greatest actor assigned to this film, but his go as The Ridler doesn’t come close to achieving the level of terror that the movie wants viewers to think he’s capable of. He only ever hits one note throughout the film, and there’s a level of silliness to his zany, over-the-top performance once he’s arrested which might make you wonder how he ever got a legion of internet commandoes to buy into whatever it is that he’s selling. This is especially unusual because some of the earlier scenes in the film are more violent and gorier than anything ever captured in a Batman movie before it, and this makes the tonal inconsistency even more jarring. Colin Farrell fares no better as The Penguin, and rarely is he ever portrayed as the character who we’re told is capable of the despicable acts attributed to him (especially when one moment in this ultra-dark take on the franchise features him literally waddle off at the end of a scene). While John Turturro manages to elevate his role a little higher than the other two through the nuance he brings to his delivery of his lines, no one will be walking out of this movie looking for Carmine Falcone action figures. These are all one-note villains, and the flaws of their characterization are emphasized due to the focus on action moments over nuanced, character-driven storytelling. Zoë Kravitz has some moments to shine as Selina Kyle/Catwoman, but the legendary chemistry between the cat and the bat fizzles out because her acting partner can only truly connect with Jim Gordon. Her character suffers due to the same goal-oriented checklist assigned to her like all of the other characters in the movie, and she spends the length of the film seeking vengeance for a friend of hers who we know nothing about or why Selina ever cared about her in the first place… and then this somehow turns into her also seeking revenge for her mother too. These plot threads are as thinly presented in this three-hour movie as what’s written in my previous sentence. That’s the main problem with this film: there’s so much going on but it never really advances the audience’s understanding of any of these characters.
The visual aesthetic of the film is certainly one of its strengths. Reeves’ Gotham City displays a healthy balance between Burton’s exaggerated dark carnival of a city and the slick modern metropolis Nolan achieves in his last two movies. The environments of The Batman feel dangerous and lived in, and they offer plenty of dark spaces for our hero to stalk bad guys and attack from the shadows. The same goes for all of the costuming and Batman’s vehicles and gadgets. Everything has a handmade element to it compared to Nolan’s work, and it helps emphasize the need for this Batman to be more scrappy and physical in his movements and interactions. Batman and Catwoman’s costumes are especially well-done and they communicate all we need to know about the characters. Michael Giacchino’s score for the film is fun during many of the opening scenes, but its repetition becomes grating over the extended runtime of the film. The same four notes plague most of the movie and the same Nirvana song plays at two different points. You might ask how it can be possible to criticize the repetition of just four notes in this film and also think that Hans Zimmer’s work on The Dark Knight trilogy (and its famous two-note siren) is one of the best in all of cinema, but it’s the notes you pick which matter.
If you aren’t expecting the same kind of character depth and nuance that Christopher Nolan brought to his trilogy, The Batman is a visually appealing movie with more than enough creative action sequences to get your blood pumping. There’s certainly enough here to like for the film to be worth a watch, and it’s far from being one of the poorer Batman movies. But, much like the caped crusader himself as presented in this film, The Batman is a little rough around the edges and it has some deep flaws which prevent it from being all that it wants to be.