A new Batman film is a cultural event like few others, and the Batman character is one that people connect with in a way they do few others. That means that any new Batman film is under a lot of pressure to get things right. For director Matt Reeves and star Robert Pattinson, the pressure is even higher. They’re following Chrises Nolan and Bale’s critically acclaimed take on the Dark Knight, as well as Zack Snyder and Ben Affleck’s movement-inspiring version. Does Pattinson feel like Batman? What about Bruce Wayne? Is Gotham a place of its own, or does it feel like any other modern American city? Most importantly, does The Batman tell an interesting story?
The answer to all of those is a resounding…yes and no. We’ve worked hard to avoid spoilers in this review, though what counts as a spoiler is highly subjective, so beware spoilers for The Batman all the same.
This is a really interesting Batman flick both intentionally and unintentionally, and so many of the bumpy parts are tied inherently into the parts that work that it’s hard to take them apart.
This is a different Batman than we’ve seen in previous movies, inspired primarily by beloved Batman stories like the Long Halloween and less by Frank Miler’s work on the character. This is hardly an adaptation of that story, but there are definitely both plot elements and tonal things that Reeves picked up on in that story.
Instead of thinking of The Batman as a superhero power fantasy, think of it more as a detective procedural. This Batman is young and inexperienced, and we’re watching him go through one of the bumpiest times in his career. He knows what he needs to do, but he hasn’t figured out some of the important elements of it.
This Batman is awkward. I really think that’s intentional, not bad writing. This is a character who grew up with everything and nothing–he has lots of money and anger, but only the questionable guidance of his butler and caretaker, Alfred. He’s been focused on his mission for years and sees no reason to engage with the real world. That means that when the accountants from Wayne Enterprises come calling for Bruce, or when Batman tries to have a conversation with a person he isn’t throwing against the wall, it comes across as a little stiff. He’s constantly isolating himself, but doing it in the least sustainable ways. It’s not a thought-out move to distract people from his true self, but rather just an emotional response from someone who is figuring out how to handle those feelings.
Pattinson is a great actor, and I really don’t think this is accidental. Over and over throughout The Batman, we get confirmation that this Batman is still figuring stuff out. In one scene, he deploys a new piece of gear and it goes horribly, humorously wrong.
This factors into the story, as well. It’s no spoiler to say that Batman is facing off against the Riddler this time around. While this is a detective story, though, Batman is not yet the World’s Greatest Detective. He’s well equipped but wildly inexperienced, and Riddler is a really tough lesson for the still-learning Dark Knight.
Pattinson’s performance is crucial to making this work. It would be easy for so many of these elements to make Bruce an insufferable character. Instead, it feels like we’re watching him in the process of learning.
A New Riddle
Similarly, Paul Dano’s Riddler is on a tough tightrope. This is a big difference from the Riddler we know and love. Instead of wearing a whimsical suit, we see him in a military-style rain jacket and full face mask, talking through a voice modulator. For much of the movie, Dano’s performance had to go through these heavy filters, carrying us along until we could meet him face-to-face.
Dano’s performance is so enjoyable that this really does work. I don’t super care for the Zodiac Killer-like take they took on the character, but Dano especially brings him to life once the mask is off. This Riddler sits somewhere between the classic comic book Riddler and some more honest takes on Watchmen‘s Rorschach, and Reeves and Dano bring him into the real world by giving him a cause to pursue, not unlike characters like Poison Ivy.
This Riddler isn’t a cruel sadist like Scarecrow or an agent of chaos like the Joker, he’s the hero of his own story, doing what no one else will do. The Riddler isn’t typically someone with a lot of pathos; he’s a weirdo who wants to prove that he’s smarter than Batman. This story takes that and gives him a reason to want to do that in the first place, making him a proper feature villain for the movie.
And really, all the main characters are enjoyable. Jeffrey Wright might be my favorite take on Jim Gordon, but that’s in part because he just has so much more to do. Gordon is deeply integrated into the plot, giving Wright plenty to do with the character. Even so, he’s an absolute blast to watch and feels like he lives in this city in a way other James Gordons haven’t gotten the chance to. Zoe Kravitz’ Catwoman is a blast, too. She makes Catwoman’s emotional arc with the Falcone crime family land really well, and plays with the romantic aspect of Catwoman’s relationship with Batman. Let’s not forget about John Turturro’s turn as Carmine Falcone–he feels so natural in this role that I wish desperately that we’d gotten more of him.
Colin Ferrell’s Penguin is only in this three-hour film for about 15 minutes, but he–like Gordon and Catwoman–are framed as being characters that the story can and probably will come back to in the case of one or more sequels. He’s little more than a thug here, but with a television show planned around the character and the likely sequel, it seems like we’re going to get to see his rise from a low-level mafia boss to the head of a crime family, complete with his penguin-y affectations. Ferrell doesn’t get much to do here, but he feels more like an anchor for world-building, a way to make Gotham start to feel like Gotham.
Speaking of Gotham, set design is definitely one of the elements Reeves’ work stands head and shoulders above Nolan’s. While I love the Dark Knight trilogy, those movies did not do much to make the cities they were set in feel like Gotham the same way that Burton (Batman 1989), Timm (Batman The Animated Series), and even Snyder (Batman v Superman) did.
For Nolan, Gotham was just another city. Reeves took the time to make Gotham look like a city that you live in because you’ve always lived there, and that new people aren’t moving into. It’s grimy, with neon light barely managing to penetrate through the dirt at times. Downtown is covered in electronic billboards in a way that not even Times Square can compete with. The Batcave, meanwhile, feels like a work in progress; it’s one part found, one part made, and definitely not done. I could see it becoming a true fortress as this Batman matures, but right now has exactly the “one man crusade” energy that Batman himself exudes.
A Good Batman Movie
As a Batman movie specifically, I think The Batman is pretty great. As a movie in general, though, it’s just pretty good. This is a really, really long film, clocking in at two hours and fifty-five minutes. It never really drags, but it takes a long time to get up to speed. We’re meant to watch Batman in the process of solving a mystery–his first mystery–and that takes some time. Once things are really roaring, there are some great action scenes, but even those feel a little bit hampered. One big setpiece is set amid a downpour, and we’re stuck trying to see things through the rain. It feels less like a style choice and more like a cover-up choice to make the action feel messy without having to show how messy it really is.
And despite liking all of the discrete parts of The Batman, I’m not so sure that they all work together. Yes, with a three-hour runtime, you have to fill that with something, but it feels like Reeves spent about an hour of the runtime preparing fodder for sequels. We learn, through the course of the story, about the state of the police in Gotham, the make-up of the Gotham underworld, and the city’s history.
For Batman fans, there are a lot of awesome nods in here. I don’t want to get heavily into spoilers, but one example of this is the way that Thomas Wayne removing a bullet from Carmine Falcone–a major plot point in The Long Halloween and something that shows up in other Batman stories–has a ripple effect on Bruce, the Gotham mafia, and Gotham City itself. There’s a lot of information to take in. If I didn’t already know so many of these details, it might’ve been tough to make sense of it all.
It also feels like Reeves wasn’t sure what to do with Batman’s ongoing identity crisis. I like this surly, bitter Bruce Wayne that hasn’t learned yet that Bruce is a useful tool for Batman, but it also means that he feels a bit one-note at times. Similarly, for everything The Batman gives us to show us how inexperienced Bruce is, it gives us another thing–some of his tech, for example–that could’ve used a throwaway line to explain.
What Comes Next?
If Pattinson is to return to Batman for a second or third film, this character will have to evolve. A lot of the groundwork is here. We have one of the best portrayals of Gotham, at least two villains–one great, one on the verge of greatness–to enjoy, and a Batman that could be interesting if he gets the chance to grow. That’s a lot of benefit of the doubt, though. Taken on the film’s own merits, Pattinson feels a bit limited as Batman. But I got the sense over and over that Reeves is building something. This is not a one-movie Batman, but one that’s meant to grow into the role.
If the phrase “three-hour Batman movie” makes you groan, you already know that you should stay away from The Batman. You know what you like, and this isn’t going to be the one that turns you into a Batman fan. What The Batman is, however, is a fresh take on the character of Batman that, while leaning a bit too heavily on Nolan’s established work, is enjoyable to watch, placed in a vivid Gotham and given a mystery the likes of which we’ve never seen Batman contend with on the big screen. With so many Batman movies, it’s hard to find something new for Batman to do, but Reeves is by and large successful with The Batman, and I’m eager to see more of Robert Pattinson’s take on the character and Matt Reeves’ vision of Gotham.