Back in 2007, the underappreciated film Spider-Man 3 tackled a rather profound topic in its action hero narrative: What are our responsibilities to our fellow humans? In that context, it was about Spiderman, the wise-cracking costumed superhero, versus meek Peter Parker, snarky teen who wasn’t happy with the responsibility his new superhero role had dropped in his lap. In a similar vein, this newest Gotham caped crusader adventure The Batman explores a similar question of whether the tortured, violent Batman is the true identity, or whether rich playboy Bruce Wayne is still the person inside the cape. Having handsome young actor Robert Pattinson in the title role further reverberates: Is his beautiful on-camera persona the true Pattinson?
Director Matt Reeves explores all these nuances in this tough, gritty, and almost 3-hour long comic book film. But as with the original brooding, troubled, possibly mentally unstable 1940s Batman comics from Bob Kane and Bill Finger, to call this film a comic book movie suggests something fun, airy, and funny. It’s not. But just as Chris Nolan is obsessed with time in his cinematic outings, Reeve’s take on The Batman endlessly explores the world from inside the mask. Cinematographer Greig Fraser shoots scenes through distorting glass, again and again, emphasizing the point that this is a film about what The Batman sees and perceives about the world around him, not about us, the viewer, looking in on the central mystery. It’s quite compelling and at times fascinating as an endlessly altered world.
The story itself takes place in Gotham City, our favorite stand in for New York City. It’s twenty years since Bruce Wayne’s beloved parents have been gunned down in the alley behind the opera house, and Bruce has grown up a broken, almost goth figure. He shuns his wealth, ignores Gotham society, and is completely uninvolved with any of the family’s charity projects that are funded by his enormous inheritance. He’s still trying to come to terms with the loss of his parents in such a gut-wrenching way, and all of that hate, anger, and self-loathing pour out in his violent vigilante efforts to clean up the crime-ridden city.
Top Gotham officials are being murdered in gruesome ways, and each time the murderer, the Riddler (Paul Dano) leaves a cryptic card and clue for The Batman (Pattinson). Somehow he’s a part of the blood-soaked drama. Clue in hand, he heads to an underground nightclub run by The Penguin (Colin Farrell) and bumps into hostess Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz). When he meets up with her afterward, he learns that she’s Catwoman (though she doesn’t learn that he’s Bruce Wayne). Back at not-so-stately Wayne Manor, Alfred (Andy Serkis) tries to ensure Bruce is at least eating food while in his endless funk, with mixed results. Completing the team is police chief James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), who admits that Batman is the only person he trusts in all of Gotham with such a corrupt police force and local government.
Meanwhile, The Riddler is pretty clear: He believes that the elected officials of Gotham City are corrupt liars and he wants the lies to end. But how does that relate to Batman and why is the Riddler leaving cards for The Batman at each of his crime scenes? Ah, quite the riddle, really. Certainly, crime boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) is implicated somehow, but so are DA Gil Colson (Peter Sarsgaard) and Mayor Don Mitchell (Rupert Penry-Jones).
Just as Los Angeles was a major character in Blade Runner, so is Gotham City, endlessly dark, dirty, and ominous, a major character in The Batman too. Again, credit to cinematographer Fraser for his terrific portrayals and quite interesting use of camera location and height to help convey the mood of a scene. I was disappointed by the recent action film Uncharted [see my review of Uncharted to learn why] because it was boring exposition punctuated by a few action sequences. The Batman offers a far better rhythm with its narrative that’s almost relentlessly pushing forward, incident, action scene, and death by death. There are a few lulls that could probably have been trimmed to tame the excessive runtime, but this is a solid action film that pulls you in and just doesn’t stop until the closing fade-to-black.
Having said that, there are some problems with The Batman, most notably the miscast Paul Dano as The Riddler. We’ve been conditioned by the extraordinary performance of Heath Ledger as The Joker to expect crazy villains that are scary, not just silly or playing it for laughs. Dano just doesn’t have crazy inside him the way that Ledger does, and it really hurts the overall film: He’s just not the right guy to be The Riddler, particularly in such a dark and self-important movie. Kravitz is also just okay as Catwoman, with a character that never seems to be fully fleshed out. On the other hand, her character arc does have an internal logic, as the closing scenes make clear.
Prior to the film screening, my buddy and I grabbed a drink. The bartender, finding out we were heading to The Batman, asked us if we preferred Batman or Spider-Man. I kept thinking about that question as I watched the film, recognizing that there’s something very primal about the Bruce Wayne/Batman duality, a scion of society who has all the trappings of success but is tortured inside by the injustices of the world and determined to do something about it, even if he gets beat up in the process. If you like the dark world of Batman, then The Batman is a must-see with its excellent production and interesting storyline. Recommended.