As I sit down to write this review, I feel I must begin with the words I least wanted, or expected, to write. Oh, what this could have been.
A stellar cast, unique storytelling approach and unbelievable design posed the promise of reinventing the caped crusader with as much depth, charisma, and charm to rival Nolan’s masterful Dark Knight trilogy. A darker, more psychoanalytical approach to the character excited fans across the board. Instead, what we got was an emo Bruce Wayne whose character depth extended about as far as wearing sunglasses indoors and looking like a hangover student. Rather than an analysis of trauma, Matt Reeves’ Batman delivers monotone ambivalence and a set of characters that audiences realistically don’t care about.
Batman (Robert Pattinson) is in his second year of activity, by now an urban legend and cult figure avoided, but not quite feared, by Gotham’s underworld. When high ranking officials suddenly start getting violently murdered, Batman along with the Gotham Police Department, are forced to unravel a shocking web of corruption, violence, and mystery deep within the state. Alongside serial killer Riddler (Paul Dano), Batman must contend with the sly renegade Catwoman (Zoe Kravitz), sleazy mobster Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) and enigmatic, if slightly pointless Penguin (Colin Farrell). And yet, dramatic revelations fall flat, the trail of murders is all too obvious, and audiences are sure to guess the lead villain the second they make their first appearance. Character depth seems to go out the window the second the writers realised they’d written too many of them into the plot. A final act that shifts from mystery to disaster movie does little to redeem this two dimensionality.
For a film that markets itself on the complex detective mysteries of the original comic books, very little actually happens to fill its three-hour run time. Batman charges around Gotham displaying his expert riddle knowledge and less than expert detective skills, whilst Catwoman struts about searching for a friend she and audiences alike have no genuine care for. A forced relationship between the two doesn’t make matters any better.
However, I can also really understand why people enjoyed this. The ideas were undeniably there. No Batman film has felt this true to the comic book source material. Many of the initial shots, smatterings of dialogue and a mystery premise that gives focus to the caped crusader’s detecting abilities, all feel like they could’ve been lifted from the panels of ‘The Long Halloween’ or ‘Batman Year One’. Pattinson is great in the titular role despite not having much to do outside of cowl scowling. Similarly, if nothing else, audiences will appreciate the really unusual cinematography that gives it this feel. The neo-noir aesthetic and portrayal of a chaotic and dirty Gotham is a brand-new take on a world that has all too often been engulfed in stylish glamour and an unquestioning lens of heroism.
Perhaps the best part of the whole film is Riddler. Genuinely creepy, a convincing if a little clichéd motivation and a uniquely unsettling appearance, Dano plays him like a serial killer from ‘Mind Hunter’. And it’s perfect. Rooting the insanity of political terrorism in a historical type means, in the face of Pattinson’s slightly dry performance, I found myself rooting for the more developed, enigmatic, and realistic character. And on the topic of villains, we mustn’t mention Barry Keoghan. And yet when an easter egg elicits the biggest gasp from audiences, you’ve got to recognise that something isn’t quite right.
Collin Farrell is equally brilliant. Expectedly over the top, a gangster of the highest calibre, his grotesque appearance, violently manic tendencies and balance of insecurity and macho confidence means he lightd up the screen whenever he features. However, why was he featured? Sure, he provided a fantastic chase sequence. He contributed the odd umbrella and a large chunk of charisma. But plot wise ‘The Penguin’ didn’t need to be in this at all. He didn’t do anything particularly Penguiny, he didn’t really have anything to do with the murders and only served as a brief and transparent decoy to the larger mystery. A welcome addition and a fantastic character to set up for later films but an example of where the writers seemed to think adding something that looks Batman like equated to depth.
Similarly, The Batman ignores one of the basic screenwriting principles ‘show don’t tell’. Dialogue heavy scenes often do the leg work for the plot whilst the coolest action moments were all featured in the trailers and offered very little that really got your heart racing. Perhaps though, this version’s biggest crime is the humour. There is absolutely none. Whether it’s struggling to dispose of a bomb because of some gossiping Nuns, the ‘Batnipples’ of the Clooney suit or the dry alter ego of Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne, Batman has always managed to offset its action and drama with moments of humour. The premise is a man running around dressed as a Bat. If you can’t find something funny or ironic in that you’re surely missing a trick.
Ultimately it’s a film that takes itself way too seriously. And it is a far worse film as a result. I get gritty, I get neo-noir and I even get moody Batman. But when it’s being layered on thick and fast and audiences are denied even one smile or laugh, it’s hard to see where people will find the important rise and fall in drama that gives weight to the serious moments. More important than its lack of character depth and obvious plot points, it’s this lack of humour that makes this film an aesthetic dream but a narrative challenge.
A Batman obsessive, Pattinson lover and comic book enthusiast I wanted to love this film so badly. Coming out of the cinema I did love it and gave it an initial 4-star rave review. Fans seem to agree, and the critics are being surprisingly generous. There really are some cool bits. However, time has set in. A brief gap and the realisation that for all my love of its comic book references, unusual stylistic approach and promising ideas, The Batman really does fail to capture anything other than the superficial aesthetic of these brilliantly written mysteries. Matt, Rob, I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed.