Warner Bros and Matt Reeves take a big gamble with Batman: here’s our review of The Batman, starring Robert Pattinson looking for vengeance.
Be assured if you were one of the many calling for a Batman movie to treat the character as more of a detective than an all-action blockbuster hero: director Matt Reeves and his team were very much listening. From the off, The Batman has more in common with a (good) subdued Sin City movie than a more traditional superhero film. It also doesn’t give you what you might expect: there’s no on-screen slaying of Thomas Wayne, there’s very little slow motion, and there’s no huge transformation scenes that turn characters into villains.
Instead, we meet a Gotham City where a young Bruce Wayne is already established as Batman, growling about his quest for vengeance. The infamous signal lights the sky, as it constantly pisses down with rain and people talk in low, gravelly voices. We meet Robert Pattinson, skulking very much in the shadows, and given that Reeves is shooting this in full-on detective noir style, there are lots of shadows to hide in. Atmosphere and tone are established and maintained, and The Batman boldly goes against the trend for fast moving cinema by very deliberately taking its time.
This is a big, bold, risk-taking blockbuster movie.
It doesn’t take too long for things to take a turn, and Pattinson’s moody voiceover (“Robert, do it like that, just slower and angrier”) tells us of a city in constant crisis. Against the backdrop of a Gotham City mayoral election, officials start being bumped off by a mysterious figure who leaves notes and puzzles for The Batman.
And this is the path to our core foe, a very different take on The Riddler, a famous Bat-nemesis traditionally brought to the screen with what could be described as a bit of a colour palette. Not so here. If anything, Reeves and his team feel like they’ve binge-watched the Saw movies, as The Riddler sets up traps and puzzles, that Batman and his butler Alfred – Andy Serkis, very dapper, proper geezer – have to decipher. All with barely a lightbulb in sight to illuminate things.
There’s a real effort made here too to make this a full-on detective story. I’m no a student of the Batman comics (I’ve read a few, but an expert I’m not), but even my eyes can see that’s where they’re heading. Whereas previous Batman films have deductions and revelations sprung at us, here, we get to see pretty much all the working. If there’s a clue, it’s going to take time to get to the bottom of, with the constant threat of something bigger always bubbling in the background.
Of the recent films The Batman brought to my mind, it was Edward Norton’s little-seen detective thriller Motherless Brooklyn that I started thinking about. That was the last big studio film that played out a straight, humour-free detective story to my memory, and invited us to follow the clues. It was a movie criticised for being a little too long (144 minutes) but one I found hugely absorbing. Had it been a comic book movie, or its protagonist had at least had the courtesy to wear a cape, I do wonder if it’d got a second chance.
The elephant in the room where The Batman is concerned is also its running time. Reeves has had what previous directors of Warner Bros comic book movies haven’t: space to tell his story first time around, in as long as it takes to tell it. Infamously, the studio once upon a time mandated that Zack Snyder deliver a two hour cut of Justice League, which formed the original release of that particular movie.
There appears to have been no such oversight here, and – as a fan of long, absorbing movies, it absolutely pains me to write this – it really needed it. Everything in The Batman just seems to take a long time, and I couldn’t always understand why. A conversation between Jeffrey Wright’s Commissioner Gordon and Pattinson’s Batman feels played out every time to the slowest tempo they can get away with. Nobody in the film runs when there’s a nice, slow amble available. At one stage, a small cage is opened and I was just thinking: open the bloody thing. Some of the pacing feels natural, some of it to me just felt slow for the sake of it.
When we do get action sequences and brief injections of energy and pace, the framing works against the film. There’s a car chase sequence that’s shot with a collection of close-ups that plays against letting us into the geography of what’s actually going on. Look at how Christopher McQuarrie frames car chases in his Mission: Impossible films: they’re exciting, interesting, but mainly you know where you are. Reeves is, understandably, digging for emotion, but he’s also serving up a lot of close ups of mucky windows, and it does go on too long after the point is made. It also feels like in the pitch meeting, Reeves removed 80% of the lightbulbs in the room. There’s dark, and there’s ‘I can barely actually see what’s happening’. The Batman veers towards the latter.
There’s really something here, I can see that. An old detective noir, with shades of western, and a bold attempt to try something different with Batman on the big screen. But there’s just not enough meat to it. Style in abundance, certainly, but a few sizeable problems ultimately make it all a bit of a slog at times.
Firstly, the actual case, the cat and mouse with The Riddler, is, well, okay. There’s nothing particularly intriguing to it, outside of some early work with some ciphers. But if you’re going to have a three-hour mystery to solve, make it a really interesting mystery. The Batman doesn’t do that.
Secondly, there’s surprisingly little character here. We meet Batman full formed, and unlike, say, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, he’s pretty much always Batman in the film. There’s not an awful lot of Bruce Wayne, and when there is, there never feels like much of a dividing line. Without much of a character, it becomes very well acted cosplay crime solving. The duality of Wayne/Batman has been sacrificed, and instead we’re asked to root for a man in a constantly bad mood. Pattinson is on form, to be clear, it’s just there’s not much to work with.
Perhaps the one who fares the best is Zoe Kravitz, as Selina Kyle/Catwoman. There’s a bit more background to her, and she’s got real presence. To a degree, the same problem though. She’s left talking in plot points rather than conversations, and there’s not really the spark between characters that The Batman wants to build to either. John Turturro gets a decent run at Carmine Falcone, but that’s where, inevitably, the shadow of the previous Batman trilogy hangs over things: I remembered watching this part of the story when it was, well, a bit more interesting.
I’m a huge fan of the work of Matt Reeves, and very much an admirer of the approach he’s taken to The Batman. He’s taken a huge swing, tried something different, followed what many fans were asking for and genuinely delivered a film that’s unlike the previous big screen Bat adventures. I love that others love it. I don’t.
Because it’s still a swing and miss for me. I wish it wasn’t. But I couldn’t shake that, by the end, The Batman was a film that felt like every one of its 176 minutes, and I don’t think it earned it. In fact, by the time the credits rolled, I felt I was less watching The Batman, more watching The Pissed Off Man In A Bad Mood Solving A Pretty Ordinary Crime. Some absolute highlights, sure, just not too much of an olive branch to those outside core fandom.
Without question, the surface is brilliant. The look is brilliant. The drive to do something different is brilliant.
I just didn’t think the film was brilliant.
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