'The Batman' Is at Its Best as an Emo Mystery
The movie loses steam when it goes for backstory and sweeping emotion.
Matt Reeves' The Batman wants to do away with Batman's baggage. Not his emotional baggage, of course. There's plenty of that. Instead, Reeves wants to shake off all the cultural baggage associated with Batman in the last couple of years, moving out of the shadow of the Christopher Nolan trilogy and the smug buffness of Batfleck. In three hours Reeves wants to reduce the character to his elemental origin, giving the World's Greatest Detective—what else?—a detective story. Except in an age of never-ending franchises, even The Batman can't resist the allure of bloated storytelling and Easter Eggs that make it clear Patz's Bats is going to be with us for a long time to come.
The Batman, which opens in theaters March 4, is both a stripped-down take on the superhero we can't quite shake and a lengthy epic—it works better as a former, highlighting Robert Pattinson's emo vigilante as a Gotham Philip Marlowe, surly but dedicated, trying to piece together the Riddler's string of murders. Over its sometimes tiresome three-hour runtime, however, Reeves gets distracted from the central case, taking detours into Gotham's mob world and pausing for long stretches of expository dialogue that slows the momentum down to a crawl. In that way, The Batman doesn't quite rise above its ubiquitous genre in the way that it maybe hopes to, but when it stays street level it's a tantalizingly creepy mystery, anchored by Robert Pattinson's eerie take on the Caped Crusader.
The Batman opens from the perception of its villain, Paul Dano's take on the Riddler, here a disaffected denizen of message boards. In the prelude, the Riddler stalks and murders Gotham's mayor, leaving a note for the Batman in his meticulously composed crime scene. This forces our hero to investigate a trail of corruption and deceit in the city, leading him to bigger targets than lowly bank robbers or gangs of subway harassers. Scoping out the Iceberg Lounge—the denizen of mobsters like Colin Farrell's prosthetics-heavy Penguin—the masked man runs into slinky Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), a waitress with a closet full of leather, who is out to protect her friend and colleague, an acquaintance of the mayor's spotted with him before his death.
The first half of the film leans heavily into its noir inspirations, giving a whiff of Zodiac. Kravitz's performance is less indebted to other Catwomen who came before her and more in the mode of femme fatales like Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep or Kim Basinger in L.A. Confidential. It bounces nicely off Pattinson's Batman, an interpretation that manages to feel refreshing despite all the Batmen that came before him. Pattinson at first seemed like an oddball choice for the role not because of his past as a Twilight pretty boy, but because he seems best playing the downright unheroic in indies like Good Time and The Lighthouse. But that works in his favor. Unlike so many actors who have donned the cowl, Pattinson actually seems most at ease when his face is covered. As Bruce Wayne, he's deeply uncomfortable in his own (still very built) skin, not one to swan around at galas in high society. He's a human Batman, who moves menacingly but awkwardly, and limps after jumping off a building. He doesn't alter his voice all that much when in and out of character, instead his Bruce is just withdrawn and mumbly.
For all the chemistry Pattinson has with Kravitz, which is not insignificant, it doesn't compare to his rapport with Jeffrey Wright's Commissioner Gordon. The film is at its best when it's the two of them traipsing into crime scenes, piecing together clues, trying to disarm the bad guys through their camaraderie and wit. And those crime scenes themselves are exquisite: The most thrilling set piece The Batman has to offer is not the big car chase or the seemingly obligatory large scale final action sequence, it's Batman's face off with one of the Riddler's victims, a sniveling Peter Sarsgaard as the Gotham DA.
The skill of those moments also echoes one of the ways Reeves and co-screenwriter Peter Craig back themselves into a corner. About midway through the movie they feel the need to turn the attention to everyone's backstories, forgetting about the Riddler, for some deep conversations that never have their intended weight. It's at this point in the narrative that John Turturro's Carmine Falcone takes over as the big bad, and while Turturro is turning on his best sleaze, it's an elusive performance that never has the bravado of Farrell's De Niro impression or Dano's unnerving creep. Everything kicks back into place once the Riddler reclaims his spot as the main terror, and Dano lets loose.
Reeves, best known for his Planet of the Apes franchise, is a talented artisan who makes films that can be serious to a fault. The dourness itself isn't the problem, it's that they can be aloof. When The Batman leans into the chilliness it can be spine-tingling; when it attempts to go for more sweeping emotion it falls flat. Though he doesn't show Batman's parents dying—thank goodness—the movie does eventually get hung upon Thomas and Martha's death, and while it has a new take on that sorrow, it never fully investigates what that might mean for its protagonist. Of course, it might eventually. Though The Batman wants to standalone, it's also slightly too caught up in its own universe-building, setting up an inevitable sequel with a familiar villain and an HBO Max series. Still, it's a promising enough start to this new wave of Bat-material, giving us a sad weirdo Batman who is less bravado and more angst.