Oh, sure, it manages to capture the quintessential darkness at the heart of Gotham’s most famous vigilante. Still, if you peel off its black leather mask and wipe away the eyeliner, you’ll find a surprisingly hopeful film that serves to remind us that Batman’s supposed to be here to save the day, not just beat up costumed maniacs.
The Batman begins two years into Bruce Wayne’s (Robert Pattinson) war on crime, and Reeves is keen to show the titular vigilante’s effect on the city in that time. As the film begins, we’re treated to some typical brooding narration from the Caped Crusader, but rather than seeing things from our narrator’s point of view, we see things from the perspective of his prey. Namely the criminals of Gotham who are utterly terrified of the Bat.
Shadows loom large in the city, each filled with terrifying promise that Batman lurks in the dark. Of course, as Bruce reminds us, he can’t be everywhere at once, but the fear that he might be hiding just out of sight is more than enough to cow most cowardly and superstitious criminals.
Naturally, though, there are some who need more of an incentive to stop breaking the law, which is when Bruce dispatches ferocious justice, pounding his enemies into the ground. The question at the heart of The Batman, though, is this justice? Or is it purely vengeance?
The Batman might not kill his enemies, but unlike his big-screen predecessors, there’s a brutality to this version of Bruce we’ve not seen before. As Bruce describes himself in the trailer, “he’s vengeance,” and there’s almost a casual cruelty to the way he dispatches his foes, and in the opening set-piece, the man he saves seems more afraid of Batman than he was of the thugs who attacked him.
When a serial killer going by the alias The Riddler (Paul Dano) emerges, though – on a quest to expose the rotten heart of Gotham City – Batman is forced to examine his own methods. As he digs deeper into the criminal underbelly of the city, our hero begins to question whether he actually has made a difference or if his actions have, in fact, emboldened a new type of super criminal.
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Despite the near-constant debate of their artistic value, there’s an operatic quality to good superhero films. I think comic fans know that ultimately these are melodramatic stories that share a certain amount of DNA with soap operas. We might not like to admit it, but Bruce Wayne wouldn’t be out of place propping up the bar in the Rover’s Return on Coronation Street or arguing with whoever running the pub these days in Eastenders.
Reeves clearly gets that, (the need for grandiosity, not the confusing TV soap joke) and as such, an admirable degree of epicness and sensationalism into The Batman. Everything about the film is big, from the set pieces ,to the story, to the world-building, it feels larger than life, and that’s great. It’s what I want from my blockbusters, it’s ambitious and stylish.
I loved all of the action, especially the simply staggering Batmobile chase sequence involving The Penguin (Colin Farrell). More than that, I liked how the film didn’t talk down to its audience. To me, it never doubts that the people watching can follow the labyrinthian twists and turns of Batman’s investigation without over the top exposition. It felt like I was reading a comicbook, a medium that’s never been afraid of the perils of a convoluted story.
This ambition and scale come with an inherent downside as well, unfortunately. The film is so big it’s almost monolithic, and at times like a klutzy superhero in a cape, its size begins to trip it up. The first and most notable problem is with the story, or should I say the two stories that The Batman tells.
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The first is the one advertised in the trailer, Batman’s battle of wits with The Riddler. The second is a thrilling neo-noir about Batman investigating a criminal conspiracy that’s seemingly corrupted the entire Gotham establishment. Tangentially the two stories are linked by The Riddler’s murders, but Reeves fails to find a coherent way to weave them together.
As such, there are vast swathes of the movie that feel removed from the story you’re supposed to be watching. It’s like two movies fused in a teleportation accident. The right pieces are there; they’re just not where they should be. It’s a shame because both stories are interesting enough to keep your attention; it’s just in tandem they distract from each other. It also inflates the run time to a bum numbing two hours and fifty-five minutes in length.
I wish the film had just focussed on one story, and if I had to choose, it would be The Riddler’s storyline because Dano is bewilderingly brilliant in this; we just don’t get enough of him. The Riddler is easily the most terrifying Batman villain we’ve had since Heath Ledger’s Joker slathered greasepaint on his face and pushed a pencil through a man’s eye.
There’s a grim and gritty realness to him that I found so horrifying. He’s not an unsanctioned buffoon like Jim Carrey’s take on the iconic villain. He’s a very real threat. I think the best way I can describe it is to compare it to the villains of Nolan’s Batman. It’s been said that Nolan’s series was a reaction to 9/11. The Dark Knight Trilogy is about escalation and confronting threats from the outside. Instead, this Riddler feels like a reaction to the changing threats we face in the new not so roaring ’20s.
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This villain isn’t a foreigner invader like Ras Al Ghul or a nihilist chasing cars like Ledger’s Joker. No, he’s a puzzle to be solved, a homegrown threat with a real calling. It’s just that his calling involves wrapping people’s heads in sticky tape. I know The Batman was in development before the attack on the US Capitol but watching the film, I couldn’t help but be reminded of that shocking January day; he feels like a danger pulled from the papers, not the comicbooks.
Now that’s not to say that the film’s other story, the criminal conspiracy involving Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz) and the criminals of Gotham isn’t enjoyable, it is. Especially Kravitz who’s probably (if I take off my nostalgia goggles) the best Catwoman we’ve had in a movie yet.
She feels like the Selina Kyle of the comics walked off the page. Confident, kind, and a bit of a rogue, she lights up every scene she’s in. The only issue is the crime story she’s part of feels pedestrian compared to the dark and weird Riddler stuff.
Speaking of which, a villain is nothing without a foil, and it’s time to talk about Battinson. There’s an argument to be made that Pattinson’s take on Batman is the darkest Dark Knight we’ve ever seen on the big screen.
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There’s no buffoonish Bruce Wayne persona, no playdates with playmates. This Batman is all business in and out of his Batsuit. That’s not to say the film is humourless, it defintiely relishes the absurdity of a grown man in a bat suit intimidating people, but this Bruce Wayne is a no-nonsense vigilante who’s completely dedicated to his mission.
Or at least that’s what the film wants you to think about this version of Bruce. But the thing that makes The Batman such a superb Batman movie, and one that’s grown on me the more I think about it, is it understands something fundamental about the character that all the other directors who’ve brought the caped crusader to the silver screen before have missed.
Batman is a dour and dark character for sure, but he’s not a cynical character trapped in a pit of despair, like a teenager after a can of Dark Fruits. I believe he’s fundamentally an optimist. That may sound ridiculous, but what would you call a man who puts on bat ears and a cape then heads off into the night to fight crime. It sounds like a good way to lose some teeth to me, so you’d have to be an optimist to believe it’ll lower crime rates.
Yes, ultimately, Batman is a character who believes that things get better and that one person can make a difference. We see that in this film, sure, The Riddler may push him to the brink, but ultimately he triumphs because Bruce knows as long as we keep fighting the good fight, evil can never truly win. Watching The Batman, this is the first time I’ve ever felt the Batman actor truly understood this about the character.
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Pattinson feels like a man putting up a fierce front, but underneath he’s just someone who wants to ensure no child ever finds themselves crying over the bodies of their dead parents. In the film, we see several times how he cares for children, how sensitive his version of Bruce is, and ultimately how he’s willing to sacrifice his own happiness to make sure the traumatic event that turned him into Batman never happens to anyone else. Pattinson manages to give Bruce a tangible vulnerability beneath his brooding exterior. I loved it.
I also admire the film’s attempt to tackle the dullest meta argument made about the character of Batman: that he’d do more good if he dedicated his resources not to bat-shaped boomerangs and poured himself into charity work. We see in this film Bruce come to his own conclusions about the systemic failings of the system, and it acknowledges his need to do more, but it does so without saying he’s wasting his time prancing about in a batsuit.
Quite the opposite, Bruce saves lives and addresses corruption in a way others simply can’t. Is it realistic? Not at all, but this is a superhero film. I don’t come for realism. The film keeps telling Bruce his vigilante career isn’t a healthy response to the trauma he suffered, and yet, in the end, he’s seen as a symbol of hope that things can get better if we step out of the dark and into the light.
The Batman review
Ambitious to a fault, The Batman is an epic and stylish reinterpretation of the Dark Knight that isn’t afraid to show a softer side to Gotham’s most famous vigilante.