It’s rare that a three-hour movie doesn’t feel complete, but Matt Reeves‘ dark (knight) crime noir The Batman manages to accomplish the feat. It’s a movie that exists for several reasons, one of which, undeniably and understandably, is to set up a larger universe on HBO Max, which has already been busy developing spinoff shows about the Gotham City Police Department and Colin Farrell‘s Penguin. The Batman is also supposed to kickstart a new trilogy. As such, this movie is not really able to simply exist as a movie, and that’s where it stumbles. Well, that and its problematic three-hour running time.
Don’t get me wrong, The Batman, as currently constituted, is a good movie. It doesn’t quite live up to the hype but the cast is pretty good, the score is excellent, and the grim tone is like catnip to this David Fincher fan. That said, the internet has mixed up its references. Yes, the Riddler looks like something out of Zodiac and uses ciphers to communicate with the police, but the Fincher movie that The Batman most closely resembles is Se7en, without question. It’s a fascinating approach, and one that kept me fully engaged, even if it results in a Batman movie that’s a tad too self-serious and even a bit dour at times. As such, it isn’t terribly commercial, which is a wild thing to say about a Batman movie, and personally, I can’t imagine a 10-year-old 12-year-old enjoying this movie, which is just far too dark for kids. It feels like a movie for 15-year-olds on up, and I’m not even speaking in terms of sex, violence, or language, but in terms of the general tone of the film. Again, that’s what I liked about it, but generally speaking, this is a risky movie for Warner Bros., especially if this is what the next 10 years of this character are going to look like.
Plot-wise, what really needs to be said? There’s a killer — the Riddler (Paul Dano) — taunting Batman, who is kind of viewed by the Gotham cops as Jim Gordon’s (Jeffrey Wright) freaky friend. They don’t know what to make of him and he certainly doesn’t trust them. That “you can’t trust anyone” vibe is something of a hallmark of both noir films and conspiracy thrillers, and The Batman does have a Chinatown streak running through it. This story features lots of Gotham corruption, but it’s like, what else is new? The entire GCPD is either corrupt or inept. Pick your poison. That’s why the city needs Batman.
Robert Pattinson actually does a solid job here, but he’s in the Batsuit most of the time, so I found his emo Bruce Wayne fairly lacking. He certainly can’t compete with Michael Keaton or Christian Bale on that front, but in the suit, I must say, he looks pretty damn good. Others would say that’s all that really matters anyway. Either way, it’s clear that the boy who played Edward Cullen in the Twilight movies is all grown up now, and I’m fully on board with him as the Caped Crusader.
On the villain side of the ledger, Dano is a dangerous delight here, making a meal of the Riddler and his various quirks, including the character’s quick temper. He’s just so weird and his casting is so perfect, I can’t really imagine anyone having a problem with his performance. It’s legitimately gripping.
As the Penguin, Farrell basically plays the muscle for Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) and he’s good as well, but there’s simply not enough of him to make anyone forget about Danny DeVito in Batman Returns, which is such a singular comic book villain performance. To be honest, the Penguin comes off a little pathetic in this movie, though there’s still plenty of time left for Farrell to leave his mark on this trilogy, and I’m down to watch his spinoff series on HBO Max.
Wright makes for a solid Gordon, but the script doesn’t give him much to do, and likewise, Turturro is good as Falcone but similarly stranded. The character is simply an underwhelming antagonist who feels almost awkwardly grafted onto Penguin’s thread, providing almost one too many villains in this picture, and though the actor does his best to make Falcone interesting, he ultimately comes up short.
And then there’s the cat burglar, Catwoman, if you will. Like Anne Hathaway before her in The Dark Knight Rises, Zoe Kravitz is given something of a thankless task playing Catwoman, if only because she’s contending with Michelle Pfeiffer‘s formidable legacy, which seems to have a stronghold on that character within the public consciousness. Warner Bros. should really consider giving Catwoman a rest because no one will ever do it better than Pfeiffer. As it stands, Kravitz didn’t do much for me as Catwoman. She’s a decent actress but she’s not a great one — not yet, anyway — and she never really put her stamp on this character for me. It’s a fairly anonymous performance.
As for Andy Serkis‘ Alfred, I just don’t need Bruce Wayne’s manservant to look like he could beat the crap out of his boss, so, nothing against Serkis or his performance, but I miss the kindly old British guy who served tea. There’s also a development with Serkis’ character that felt like Reeves (or the studio) pulling his punches, and for a movie that seems like a clear homage to Se7en, it doesn’t fully have it in itself to “go there” because at the end of the day, it’s a Batman movie, no matter how hard it tries to feel different.
One thing that is different, and perhaps to its detriment, is that there’s zero humor in this movie, which can be a bit of a problem, though it’s an easy enough adjustment to make in future installments. Meanwhile, the monotone voiceover won’t work for some, but I personally enjoyed it, particularly in its closing moments. And though there’s no mid-credits or post-credits tag, there is a penultimate scene that sets up the villain in the next Batman movie, and if not that film, then surely the one after that.
I’ve mentioned Se7en and Chinatown as visual and tonal reference points for The Batman, but there are actually two comic book movies that seem to have rubbed off on it a tad — The Crow and Sin City. So if you’re a fan of those films, you should dig this one, even if its extended running time means the story is a little all over the place. It also drags in the middle, and there’s no question that Reeves and his editors William Hoy and Tyler Nelson could’ve snipped 20 minutes from this one pretty easily, as I think it really would’ve benefited from a more streamlined narrative.
At least composer Michael Giacchino held up his end of the bargain, delivering a fantastic score that keeps you on the edge of your seat, even if its familiar cues are perhaps used once too often in the film. Still, he’s the real MVP of this movie, which also features some daring, red-soaked cinematography courtesy of Greig Fraser, who aces several action sequences. The sound in this picture is also tremendous, and kudos to Reeves for embracing practical stunts in favor of unnecessary CGI. You can really feel the difference on the screen. I also enjoyed the costume design from Jacqueline Durran, who nails the Batsuit with help from David Crossman and Glyn Dillon, and while I loved her Zodiac-inspired look for the Riddler, I’d love to see the Penguin have a little bit more pizzazz, fashion-wise, in his spinoff.
Which brings me back to the real problem at the heart of this movie, and the real reason I thought it should’ve been a bit better — it lacks genuine emotion. Reeves tries to manufacture it with Catwoman and a reveal involving her father and, of course, her romance of sorts with Batman, but the fact is that there’s nothing in this film that even comes close to the emotion conjured by the death of Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in The Dark Knight. There is a major character who is targeted by the Riddler, but The Dark Knight commits to the bit, whereas this movie seems overly concerned with those aforementioned sequels and spinoffs. And that capital-F Future hovers over and somewhat hampers The Batman, which feels both overstuffed and undercooked, even though I liked it.
I’m one of the few who doesn’t really think Christopher Nolan hit it out of the park with Batman Begins. It was his second Batmovie that was — and remains — his masterpiece. Reeves actually delivered two great sequels once before — Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and War for the Planet of the Apes — so the man knows how to close out a trilogy and deserves the benefit of the doubt going forward. But the Apes sequels he directed brought me to tears, and while I’m not looking for a Batman movie to make me cry or anything, I did want to be swept up a bit more emotionally in this noir story, and I hope his next film addresses that.
The Batman opens exclusively in theaters on March 4.