There are more than enough first-rate scenes and sequences in The Batman to make a classic movie, and like director Matt Reeves’ other pictures, it has a very deliberate, confidently realised sense of time, place and mood. Unfortunately, like his other pictures – in particular his Planet of the Apes reboot prequel sequels – it’s cumulatively exhausting through its lack of focus. This is a reboot that sprawls, absent of discernible highs and lows, desperately in need of a binding structure borne from internal momentum and delineated acts, and forfeit the imprimatur of the epic necessary to justify the three-hour running time. Seven – The Batman’s most obvious visual and thematic inspiration – was lean, punchy and to the point. And it left you reeling. By the time The Batman is over, you’re simply wearied. You’ve had more than enough, the promise of new/further Arkham residents unleashed be damned.
Part of this is Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig’s failure to insert a ticking clock. With Seven, there was the persistent tension of “What horror will he unleash next?” With Dirty Harry, it was the pressure cooker of random acts of violence, stopping Scorpio before he struck again. Despite its individual piques of interest and engagement, The Batman is curiously leisurely.
Part of the problem is also that The Batman pulls its punches. It’s in thrall to the tonal impact of Seven, yet it’s unwilling to leave you shocked or awed, either in terms of revelation – weak swill, when it comes – or our hero’s tortured arc. More still, revealing the (main) antagonist as a child throwing a tantrum when he can’t get what he wants is, on one level, quite funny. On another, it makes it quite clear he’s no match for formerly popular Hollywood pederast Kevin Spacey in terms of iconic villainy.
These issues are compounded by a movie that simply has too many elements to maintain a successful eye on the prize. What even is the prize? Selina, the Penguin, crime bosses and the Wayne family legacy all struggle for leg room; better surely, to have made a movie two-thirds of the length that kept a grip on its Seven by way of Prince of the City heart.
I’m all for the idea of Reeves’ movie, an “almost-noir driven, detective version of Batman” emphasizing the character’s heart and mind” (well, the last part is clearly a sop to pretensions of depth we’re never really expecting fulfilled). While aspects of this are serviced – Robert Pattison’s Batman pores over countless torchlit crime scenes with Jeffrey Wright’s faithful Commissioner Gordon, just like Detectives Mills and Somerset in Fincher’s movie – the actual promised sleuthing skills are in short supply. Deducing the solutions to the riddles devised by Paul Dano’s Riddler shows Batman’s smart, but also that he has considerably less flair than Adam West in his delivery. Added to which, the apprehension of the villain is straight lift from Seven, requiring no smarts on Bats’ part (more than that, I feel I’ve seen the hero assume the villain knows his secret identity, only to be relieved that he doesn’t somewhere before, but I can’t recall where offhand).
Reeves ups the overbearing atmosphere yet allows events to unfold repetitively and almost languorously; what should rise to a crescendo remains even and overly measured in the overall design (or lack thereof). The shame is, many of the details he includes in order to distinguish his Gotham world are appealing and even striking; Batman’s unwanted freak ushered into crime scenes by Gordon, to the disfavour of the latter’s fellow officers; sending Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz) into the Iceberg Lounge to do his surveillance for him as a recognition of the practical limits of his cowled credentials; the rough-and-readier style of altercations, where Batman’s opponents don’t merely stay down, unless he hits them with something other than his fists; the home-made tech (getting around on a motorbike; testing out his “ bat wings”). Essentially, Reeves has doubled down on the “realist” approach instituted by Nolan, albeit something closer to the track of Darren Aronofsky’s one-time in-the-offing Year One.
But many of the developments also lead to a shrug. I know it’s been foregrounded by the comics, but is tainting the hero’s family legacy all that much different to retconning Luke as the kind of Jedi who’d consider killing Ben (for both Thomas Wayne and Master Skywalker, there is one moment of weakness)? Is the only way to imbue protagonists with “character development” or “depth” giving them even grim-darker family history (see also Selina and daddy being John Turturro’s crime boss Carmine Falcone, again, comic book antecedents or otherwise)?
Furthermore, either go there, or don’t go there; thinking the worst (Thomas was in with Falcone) before pulling back (not really) is simply tiresome. Again, the greater issue with all this is that it serves to bog the movie down, encumbering it when it desperately needs streamlining. This happens every time, and no one ever seems to learn.
Also happening every time, regardless of congruence, is the big finale, this one complete with anonymous snipers, a flooding city, and Bats showing he doesn’t just hit people, but also leads them to safety (I thought we’d been through all this with Superman?) Sure, some of the hitting bits are fun (dealing with the anonymous snipers), but in almost every case these days, such climactic sequences are superfluous, and something much more satisfying would be achieved by a clever/dramatic exchange or confrontation (Reeves slavishly uses Seven as a bible, yet fails to summon its greatest weapon: a final scene/reveal that stunned its audience and ensured it became a must-see).
I’m not suggesting Reeves needed to copy that movie so precisely, but since The Batman is overtly littered with references to source material and cinematic influences, cited by Reeves himself, it’s fair game to call him out when he fails to deliver.
His cast and characters too represent a mix and match of approaches, shuffles of age, orientation and race. Only a few of these stand out as distinctive in and of themselves, instead relying mostly on whatever the performer can bring in order to enable them. Wright does his best with Gordon, perhaps the least interesting of the Bat gang, and there’s initial promise in his up-against-it, on-the-losing-team honest cop (particularly in the Batman-in-custody police station scene). As expected, however, he ends up nodding obligingly at whatever Batman tells him.
Turturro’s Carmine Falcone is undoubtedly preferable to Tom Wilkinson’s, but at no stage does he register as a formidable force. Kravitz has discernible chemistry with Pattison (unsurprising, given their reported offscreen shenanigans) but Selina herself isn’t much of character: an improvement on Anne Hathaway but in no danger of eclipsing Michelle Pfeiffer.
Farrell’s been getting all the praise for his fat-suit gusto as the Penguin. He’s good ’n’ all. It’s a perfectly serviceable performance. But the raves hardly reflect a merely adequate presence in terms characterisation and plot function. Much more noteworthy is Dano. Playing the essential beta-male is his stock in trade, so making Edward Nashton a queasy beta-male villain is no great stretch; he’s good at what he does (which is invariably very punchable; as is the knowledge “Dano also covered himself in plastic wrap since he felt the Riddler would take extreme precautions to avoid leaving DNA at crime scenes”). His kill-crazy Brian Wilson schtick works, even if the effect consciously invokes the spectre of MKUltra plied, mass-shooting patsies. He’s likely to be outdone for punchable-ness only by Barry Keoghan’s doubtless demon-spawn Joker, when we get to see him proper. Also of note: an underutilised, nervy, sweaty Peter Sarsgaard as a dodgy DA.
Andy Serkis essays the only outright clunker performance, bringing Alfred down in both age and acting chops; the “death bed” scene with Master Bruce it’s an outright stinker. Okay, the dialogue is pretty rotten, but that doesn’t excuse a tearful Alfred trying to explain he done everything he could, Master Wayne, not a day goes by, Master Wayne, to investigate his parents’ killers, Master Wayne, but there weren’t no evidence. Get back behind those motion-capture dots as soon as, Andy.
Which leaves Pattison. And fair dues, he’s really good. Even the Spider-Man 3, emo-Peter Parker fringe can’t bring him down. There are additional reasons for his moody goth faux-squalor, of course – beside the political ones whereby Reeves steered clear of showing Bruce enjoying his riches, regardless of it being a veneer – but the characterisation works, mostly through visual unity. This Batman is tangible in a way even Nolan’s was not – due to choppy editing and gadgetry – and the narration adds a degree of obsessive despair comparable to Watchmen’s Rorschach. Keeping Batman grounded, unable to take flight (mostly), adds a nuts-and-bolts approach that is surprisingly successful.
Occasionally, this flounders. The car chase at night, in the rain, is commendably verisimilitudinous, but… yeah, I drifted off for most of it. You need clarity in a chase, however well put together it may be. On the other hand, the score throughout is a string piece marvel, and even the hackneyed use of Nirvana didn’t feel overbearing or cheap in context. Michael Giacchino is a shoe-in for a Best Score nod at the next Oscars.
The last solo Batman movie was a veritable smorgasbord of interrogated political subtext. The Batman is much more genre-fixated, and thus less easy to construe in terms of express themes – as opposed to those that are simply part of the pervading zeitgeist. Inevitably, there’s a degree of wokeness, but the way it’s – laughably – overlaid suggests Reeves didn’t really consider it conceptually. If Batman’s villains are invariably fine examples of “toxic masculinity” and so don’t need announcing directly as such, Selina is given a clanger of a line about “white privileged assholes” (meaning white privileged male assholes). I dearly hope that was part of the reshoots, because it’s clumsy and inept. Almost as clumsy and inept as white privileged (male) asshole mayors being replaced by black female mayors in the final scene.
The implication is that Bruce must brandish extra levels of guilt beyond his standard funk in order to atone for the hereditary sin of white privileged (male) assholeness. Which means looking extra moody and disturbed while letting Wayne Enterprises go to rack and ruin. Can’t you see he’d rather be anything else than a white privileged (male) asshole? He’s suffering for it, dammit: “The city’s angry, scarred like me”. That’s got to count for something.
This “angry” Gotham filters in various vaguely motivated receptors of real-world themes. Societal breakdown and a city on the verge of collapse as an apocalyptic touchstone is almost a prerequisite now, most recently seen in Joker. But it’s something that’s been present in all “darker” versions of the character from Burton onwards, to a greater or lesser extent. “Broke” is daubed on city buildings and litter is strewn across railways stations, yet that’s as much ’70s-retrofitting as it is reflective of the current state of play. So the question remains: is The Batman saying anything specific, beyond its cacophony of nihilistic tropes? I’m doubtful.
Most obviously, the Riddler is railing against Gotham’s ruling elite. Lies among those in politics and industry and organised crime – surely lies in organised crime would involve being honest, by a process of inversion? Okay, let that one go – are the Riddler’s focus. He isn’t out to steal, hold the city to an enormous ransom or spread unmotivated anarchy; he’s a vigilante, like Batman, intent on dealing justice (thus the inevitable, de rigueur, “We’re just alike” scene, as antagonist appeals to protagonist). This takes in the idea that those in elite families – Bruce Wayne – must by heredity be corrupt themselves (so much the same as white privileged male assholeness). There’s nothing especially original in the Riddler’s take, and his backstory is also less than compelling – a wronged orphan brought up in poverty; see how cleverly Reeves contrasts him with Bruce’s privileged one (albeit, since he’s a white unprivileged male orphan, he’s obviously bad overall, whatever nominal excuse he has).
Of course, one might draw in further semi-random influences. Such as parallels between the misappropriation of Wayne Foundation funds and allegations against the Clinton Foundation, particularly with regard to orphan victims out for revenge. Against that, The AV Club held that “giving the psychopath a QAnon-like internet following turns out to be little more than an easy explanation for how a lone-wolf killer amasses henchmen”. Such a reading didn’t immediately occur to me, probably for the reasons the reviewer alludes to – Anoners aren’t going on mass killing sprees, despite doubtless wishful thinking among the left – but it was quite possibly in Reeves’ mind. Again, though: following that take, the Q-ers aren’t misplaced in their highlighting of corruption and lies. Only that Donald Trump/the Batman will be their saviour. Never forget, the Batman is as pro-establishment as they come, an embodiment of the Hegelian dialectic bringing us back around to the need for government to take care of us all.
EDIT: There’s a more positive take on the movie’s subtext and symbolism here, leaning into the Halloween aspect – the antecedent influence of The Long Halloween is perhaps more obvious in that regard – and noting the Riddler uses “ANON”, calling attention to the numbers (The 44 Below Club – although the reviewer doesn’t note the Obama connection there) and the use of Ave Maria.
I can see how this iteration of The Batman will progress. I was quite keen on Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but while its two Reeves-helmed sequels were serviceable, technically proficient and impressively mounted, they offered no variation – or respite – in tone or content, determined as Reeves was on dour, dreary, humourless apocalyptic gloom. And dank forests too. The odd “Alfred, I don’t want your cuff links” isn’t enough to curtail the same sensibility here, and without a range of texture, you’d better be sure you’re telling a riveting tale so as to justify your running time. The Batmen is sure to be just as overstuffed as its predecessor, and so every bit as exhausting.
Addendum (March 2022): Your mileage may vary with unsupported sources for hot takes, but I tend to consider the “open-mind first’ position a productive one, particularly when it comes to the conspirasphere. Janine’s readings (edit: since de-platformed) are undoubtedly of variable merit in terms of accuracy/ interpretation, but she was on the same page as the interpretation linked to above. Albeit, she concludes it was a “dark hat” production taken over by the whites. Which, if so, might explain the decidedly mixed signals it gives out. We can but hope.
First published by Now in Full Color on 10/03/22.