The Batman — out Thursday in IMAX and Friday in all cinemas — is both a big-swing risk and the safest bet one could make in Hollywood. The latter because it’s a movie about one of the most popular comic book characters of all time. So popular in fact that even an irresponsible movie about his archenemy grossed over a billion dollars at the box office a few years ago. The former because The Batman director and co-writer Matt Reeves, driven by Robert Pattinson’s emo sulking Mr. Vengeance, has made a Batman movie grimmer than Zack Snyder’s visions, much stranger than Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, and so bleak that I was reminded more than once of the Batman: Arkham games and Frank Miller’s graphic novels, “Batman: Year One” and “The Dark Knight Returns”.
Just as Reeves promised, The Batman is a grimdark neo-noir detective-focused take on the Caped Crusader — more psychological thriller at times than action dramas that most other Batman films are. In fact, The Batman doesn’t feel like a comic book movie for a long while. For audiences trained on Marvel, Sony, and DC fare that trade on an established and accepted way of approaching superhero movies, this will be a jolt. I can imagine some going, “I didn’t sign up for this.” This is bold of both Reeves and Warner Bros. Depending on how word of mouth goes, The Batman could either tank and scare producers away from auteurs — or embolden studios to let filmmakers put their own spin on these decades-old characters, instead of forcing every director to fit a cookie cutter mould.
To be fair, Warner must have known what it was signing up for with The Batman. After all, Reeves is responsible for two parts of last decade’s greatest film trilogy — the Planet of the Apes reboot series — that ended with a chapter about vengeance and the weight of responsibility, depicted in a dark pessimistic biblical-like fashion. Though The Batman is navigating some of those very themes, it’s certainly more grounded. That said, it operates in a similar moody atmospheric manner — with a muted colour palette. By my recollection, The Batman is basically made up of a variety of blacks, plus white and yellow lights. And oh, it’s all drenched — it’s raining in Gotham in like 80 percent of the scenes. Cinematographer Greig Fraser (Dune, Zero Dark Thirty) lends his talents.
But unlike War for the Planet of the Apes, the direction and handling of the moody atmospheric stuff is a lot better than character drama where the writing — Reeves worked with Peter Craig (The Town, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2) — leaves a lot to be desired. The Batman loses steam late into its second act and is unable to fully recover for the third and final act. And with a punishing 176-minute runtime — this is the longest Batman movie of all time, and the third longest superhero ever after Zack Snyder’s Justice League and Avengers: Endgame, both of which were team-up adventures — I’m afraid audiences might feel cheesed off. The Batman starts off intriguingly, builds on it with great promise, only to ultimately squander its potential.
From the get-go, it’s clear that The Batman intends to move at its own deliberate pace. Scenes take their own sweet time — the DC movie covers just a week in Batman’s life, with the story starting on Halloween and ending a week later — as everything is done methodically and nothing is rushed through. This is the big reason why it runs for nearly three hours. Reeves is inviting you into his world, asking you to settle down, and to trust him to carry you along. This is Batman by way of Blade Runner 2049, though it’s never as ponderous. But like Denis Villeneuve there, Reeves is great is setting the tone — his Gotham isn’t full of grime, it has layers of it.
And The Batman director understands how to craft a sense of fear, dread, and something sinister. Take the use of sound. People pay so much attention to visuals in making movies that they forget sound is half of it. We first meet Pattinson’s Batman through the sound of his walk — the crunching sound of his heavy boots hitting concrete. (Technically, we hear him first via voiceover that I’m not entirely on board with.) That defines the movie, along with a liberal use of composer Michael Giacchino’s The Batman theme and soundtrack, which greatly helps Reeves in achieving what he sets out to do. Giacchino’s score leans into the psychological horror of a vigilante who operates in the shadows. And during action scenes, it feels elemental and primitive in the instruments it deploys.
Opening on Halloween night, The Batman introduces us to its chief villain the Riddler (Paul Dano) who is targeting Gotham’s elites in a self-proclaimed interest of uncovering the truth. Or as he puts it: “No more lies.” (There’s a voyeuristic element to the movie, as both Batman and Riddler study people from afar, and Reeves clearly wants us to draw those parallels.) With each new kill, the Riddler leaves behind an envelope addressed to Batman, with a card, a clue, and a cipher within — as if he’s toying with him.
A bit like Heath Ledger’s Joker did with Christian Bale’s Batman. In fact, The Batman hits many of The Dark Knight’s beats, with even some scenes reminiscent of what Nolan crafted. At times, it feels like Reeves is paying homage. Pattinson’s Batman voice sounds like Bale’s in places too, though he comes across as an emo depressed kid elsewhere. We never really see his other side — there is literally one scene with him as Bruce Wayne in public — and it’s made clear that Wayne doesn’t see get any sun or Vitamin D.
And while Dano’s Riddler reminded me of Ledger’s Joker — he’s a menace like him — the rise of fringe groups and white supremacy in the US since The Dark Knight came out paints it in another light. You can sense an element of that in Dano’s character, and in some ways, The Batman feels like a response to the current American political climate.
As Batman starts digging into Riddler’s victims, he comes across nightclub waitress and cat burglar Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz) — she’s never addressed as Catwoman in The Batman, though she calls herself the Cat at one point — who works for mid-level mobster guy Oz Cobblepot (an unrecognisable Colin Farrell), in turn working under crime lord Carmine Falcone (John Turturro). Selina is protective of her people like Batman, but she’s seen more life than he has and is hence willing to cross lines he isn’t. There’s a bit of a morality play between the two. Selina is also chiefly responsible for the very little humour there is here. Despite her own troubles in life, she isn’t above enjoying life as she creates trouble for others. But Kravitz comes and goes out of The Batman — even though she’s second billed.
Jeffrey Wright — he plays Gotham City Police Department lieutenant Jim Gordon — is billed fourth but he has more screen time on The Batman than Kravitz, I felt. Maybe that’s because he’s around Batman so much. Their relationship is already fully formed at the start of The Batman — the Batsignal already exists, and Jim brings Batman to crime scenes even though his underlings and his superiors aren’t pleased with it. (How does he not get suspended? He must be a really good cop, I suppose.) Though it’s never said in the film, the movie’s marketing material has revealed this is the second year of Wayne being Batman. Reeves doesn’t bother with an origin story here just like Spider-Man: Homecoming.
You can sense that in The Batman’s action sequences. Pattinson’s Batman is more raw and angrier in his fisticuffs scenes — he has yet to master to his emotions, though the movie reveals that he’s not always being driven by his emotions. There’s something more unsettling going on. Speaking of action though, there are not many big set pieces on The Batman given the emphasis on Wayne’s detective skills — save for a gripping highway car chase between Batman and Penguin that has been teased in trailers. (The introduction of Batman’s favoured transport choice is thrilling.)
The same — gripping — can be said of The Batman’s first 120 minutes or so, but Reeves and Co. fail to steer the movie to greater heights from thereon. There’s a lot of drama that doesn’t work, especially as Batman begins to dig into his family secrets. And as the movie wraps up, The Batman tries to impart messaging that it’s never really bothered with until that point. We are shown how the crooks feel about him (fear of him lurking in the shadows), how the cops feel about him (they don’t trust him), but we never get a portrait of how the common public feels (despite getting more than one news broadcast). That’s why when The Batman tries to show him progressing into a symbol of hope in its endgame, it rings a little hollow because a starting point was never established.
But The Batman even exists in its current form is thanks to DC’s flexible approach to its stories, unlike Marvel’s policy of having everything being part of its grand multiverse. (The Batman isn’t part of the DC Extended Universe that involves movies such as Justice League, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman.) Of course, just because it’s not connected to one universe doesn’t mean it’s standalone. This isn’t the Nolan era anymore. The Batman already has two spin-offs in play at HBO Max — the streaming service owned by Warner’s parent company — and though they might sound like contractual obligations in the age of IP, Reeves claims he’s actually excited about them.
The start of this Batman-verse is asking a lot of the regular audience — and maybe, that’s a good thing. Because The Batman both feels like a terrific achievement given the comic book saturated climate we live in, and a disappointment for it struggles to retain its identity and flex more than a few muscles. Pattinson’s Batman isn’t fully formed here, and it seems neither is Reeves’ vision.
The Batman is released Friday, March 4 in cinemas worldwide. IMAX previews began the morning of Thursday, March 3. In India, The Batman is available in English, Hindi, Tamil, and Telugu.