Bruce Wayne's second year on the job as Batman places him against a serial assassin who calls himself the Riddler.
Directed by Matt Reeves
Starring Robert Pattinson, Zoe Kravitz, and Paul Dano
Review by Jon Kissel
If Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig have to steal from something, they might as well steal from great movies. What Seven and Chinatown have in common is a shared interest in corruption, whether of the political or the moral kind, and how that corruption creates its own feedback loop. Batman and Riddler are both introduced in the middle of their nightly antics, but the former is beating up a bunch of street thugs while the latter is killing a corrupt mayor. Which of these two targets of retributive violence has done more damage to the city? The thugs are empowered by political corruption that drains resources from public services, and the mayor is empowered by street crime and the increase in police resources that follows, to be divvied out by the similarly corrupt police commissioner. The Riddler is Kevin Spacey’s John Doe, a murderer convinced of his righteousness thanks to all the ugliness that he’s seen and experienced. Falcone, meanwhile, is Chinatown’s Noah Cross, an incestuous land baron who squeezes every dollar out of Los Angeles. Batman finishes the film in the defeated-but-alive posture of Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes and Morgan Freeman’s Detective Somerset, bowed at the success of his antagonist’s plans but ready to face whatever comes next. Noir films like this and its predecessors don’t get to have happy endings. It’s bittersweet, at best.
Reeves differentiates himself from Nolan’s trilogy with the unseen character of Thomas Wayne, Bruce’s billionaire father/industrialist/philanthropist/mayoral candidate. The biggest twist in The Batman is that Papa Wayne was corrupt too, albeit in a won’t-someone-rid-me-of-this-meddlesome-priest kind of way. His public image was preserved, but only because he died before he could come clean. The Riddler finds out about this, but he holds grudges against the Waynes for other reasons. Riddler, aka Edward Nashton, was raised in a Wayne-sponsored orphanage, but it seems Wayne’s largesse only went so far as putting his name on the building. The actual experience was horrific and neglectful, made doubly so when the Gotham media makes a big show of young orphaned Bruce. What about all the other orphans that the city appears to be swimming in? Why is this rich kid’s pain and loneliness more valuable when he at least has the comfort of wealth? All this resentment and choking rage borne out of neoliberal abandonment turns the Riddler into a compelling villain, and the most coherent and fleshed-out antagonist in the franchise dating all the way back to Tim Burton’s Batman.
The swirling noir energy of The Batman sits alongside Reeves’ considerable action chops, honed from his work in the rebooted Planet of the Apes trilogy and the underrated Let Me In. Let Me In’s lessons are particularly apparent, as that film contained an incredible car crash sequence that gets built upon in The Batman. Reeves’ approach to action is visceral and impactful, and is far closer to contemporary films that take place in a real, albeit heightened, setting like Mission Impossible or John Wick. Punches land with authority, but they aren’t so powerful that thugs are immediately being incapacitated with them. Nolan often had a hard time with filming and choreographing fight scenes, and Reeves is simply more talented in this area. The centerpiece, as in the Dark Knight, is a midrun car chase of bravura filmmaking but marginal storytelling use. Where Nolan used his IMAX camera to emphasize the scale of what he was doing, Reeves goes intimate and claustrophobic with shots from inside cars as they flip over, or puts his camera at wheel level to communicate speed and danger.
The action is in service to Batman’s early outings, and inform how ill-thought-out his adventures are at this phase of his caped crusadering. These aren’t funny films, but the greatest laugh that’s ever been produced in the franchise is Batman eating it after a pseudo-successful escape attempt. This is such an important sequence, an example of his physical immaturity matching later examples of his emotional immaturity. Kyle makes fun of his pronouncements that ‘he’s vengeance,’ but the killer blow comes when one of Riddler’s goons says the same thing to him, and believes it just as earnestly. Vengeance is just as much a corrupting influence as a mayor accepting a bribe. It’s anarchic and uncontrollable, producing a feedback loop of never-ending retribution. The climax of the film is an overemphasized moment where Batman chooses to save bystanders instead of pursue criminals, and while the film hits it way too hard, the thematic loop is closed when he transitions away from a vicarious way to satisfy the city’s anger and towards the goal of inspiring them to better things.
Batman and Batman-adjacent films have been deemed the most appropriate place for respectable superhero performances, having produced two Oscar winners in the last 15 years. While there’s little chance a third winner is going to emerge from this, The Batman does provide its cast some meaty roles. The test for Pattinson is to get away from Christian Bale’s terrible Batman voice, and he does that with a growly whisper that, by contrast, is fine. His wiry physicality sells how hard this is for him. He might get bulkier for future outings, but he doesn’t seem like the kind of actor who’d be interested in that kind of beefcake transformation. As was the case with the Burton Batman movies, the lead gets overshadowed by the supporting cast. Dano is hamming it up as the Riddler, in ways that work like the high-pitched exhales he does when he’s beating this or that victim to death, and in way that don’t, like in his screechy, escalating monologues. He’s also saddled with the character’s central device. There’s no way to make his riddles sound like anything other than a dark day at the Laffy Taffy factory. Kravitz is well-cast in a film that takes her seriously, as opposed to a vehicle for cat puns, and Farrell, though memorable as a mob greaseball, is clearly being back-burnered for sequels. Old pros Turturro and Wright are the standouts. Turturro’s majestic as the unofficial king of the city, equally credible as a magnanimous ruler and a cruel tyrant, while Wright has great noir banter that, thanks to Batman’s block of marble portrayal, casts Gordon as both funny guy and straight man. Both actors are the most grounded in a film that wants to take place in a place that resembles the real world as much as possible, and they also happen to be the main characters without nicknames.
At three hours, The Batman is certainly at the long end for blockbuster filmmaking, even compared to big-budget outings that have gotten longer and longer. That’s the real-world inferiority complex creeping up again, where Reeves might realize this is the only way he’s going to be able to make a crime epic and wants to make the most of it. A cinematic landscape that only allows expensive genre fare to exist in the superhero world is depressing, but less so when filmmakers and actors of this caliber are allowed to go to work. All superhero movie types are becoming played out, including the gritty kind. The Batman has more than enough going for it to push off the sell-by date a little further into the future. B+