The Batman is not the Batman movie we need. That’s because we didn’t need another Batman movie. Not yet, anyway. Maybe if Christian Bale’s climactic self-sacrifice at the end of The Dark Knight Rises had hit a little bit harder, without the winking, now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t resurrection engineered by Christopher Nolan (still prestige-ing after all these years); maybe if we hadn’t had Ben Affleck glowering through various Snyder cuts like the human embodiment of a contractual obligation.
The Batman is the Batman movie we deserve, though: overwrought and overlong, but also carefully crafted and exhilarating. It’s just good enough to wish it were better—a lavish piece of intellectual property that ultimately prices itself out of providing cheap thrills.
Directed by Matt Reeves, The Batman begins like an exploitation movie, with a voyeuristic, quasi-Hitchcockian point-of-view shot seen through high-powered telescopic goggles—heavy breathing on the soundtrack and a family in the crosshairs. Shades, definitely, of Dirty Harry and its all-seeing sociopathic sniper, or maybe The Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill. As the sequence goes on, stitching us in complicity into an act of surveillance and then cutting stealthily into the home of Gotham’s embattled mayor (Rupert Penry-Jones), there’s a sense of dread that feels new and strangely alien compared to other iterations of the franchise. Nolan’s Dark Knight movies were grim and melodramatic and full of brutal, sadistic acts of violence, but they were never scary. The actors were having too much fun, and the over-cranked psychological intensity was subordinate to spectacle. Reeves, though, uses the visual vocabulary of a slasher movie for all it’s worth. When the owner of the original POV shot suddenly materializes in the shadows behind the mayor and dispatches him with a blunt instrument to the head, the effect is genuinely unsettling. We don’t feel safe.
Paranoia is in Reeves’s wheelhouse; at his best, he’s a fluid, moody virtuoso. Think of the excellent first half of Cloverfield, with its anxious first-person perspective on an impending apocalypse. Or the terrifying car-crash scene in his remake of Let Me In, which unfolds with the camera as a hapless backseat passenger, looking on unblinkingly as the world turns upside down. Reeves isn’t above show-offy camerawork, but it’s less to impart his own sense of control than to keep the audience off balance.
The tension, then, is between a filmmaker who specializes in disequilibrium tackling material that’s almost ritualistically familiar.
For the first 45 minutes, The Batman does a beautiful job of giving us the beats that we expect, tricked up just enough to seem fresh. There’s a crime-riddled Gotham crisscrossed by low-level mobsters; the title character smacking down street-level hoods during his nightly rounds; and a police force resentful of the vigilante in their midst. We’ve seen it all before, but not usually with such a patient, arresting sense of confidence. When Robert Pattinson’s Batman stalks through the bloody crime scene at the mayor’s apartment, staring down the cops lining his path, the effect is pure pulp friction—a kind of vivid, scummy immediacy. And when Batman emerges from the shadows to pummel some face-painted gangbangers, the bleak imagery evokes vintage Frank Miller.
Miller’s 1987 DC comics arc Batman: Year One is an obvious inspiration for Reeves and Peter Craig’s screenplay, which makes it clear that Pattinson’s incarnation is still just experimenting with his nocturnal alter ego. In this version, Batman is less authentically world-weary than prematurely burned out—a nice Gen Z spin on the archetype. “Two years of nights,” he grumbles in voice-over sounding (purposefully) like Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle or the Rorschach of Alan Moore’s 1986 graphic novel Watchmen. Miller’s vision of a Gotham City buckling under Reagan-era anxieties—nuclear proliferation, inner-city crime, encroaching spiritual malaise—remains deeply influential, even after Tim Burton’s gothic, expressionist Gotham. While Reeves’s style and color palette are different from Nolan’s, he’s equally interested in the Miller-derived idea of the city as psychic protagonist, with lots of earnest monologuing about whether such a corroded urban landscape is worth saving, or if a self-styled crime fighter is just wasting his time.
Once it’s clear that we’re going to be spared yet another version of Batman’s origin story—no flashbacks to his parents getting shot outside the opera or close-ups of a moony, grieving little Bruce Wayne—the novelty of watching a relatively fledgling superhero earning his wings kicks in. There’s probably less of Bruce Wayne in The Batman than any other movie version, and so the usual trick of having the star play up the differences between the two personas doesn’t apply. Pattinson’s skill at playing awkward, antisocial characters works well for a vigilante who cloaks himself in solitude and isn’t interested in making friends (except for Jeffrey Wright’s nicely soulful James Gordon, imagined here as a principled wingman rather than a head honcho). That said, it’s not like there are any galas or fundraisers for Bruce to attend anyway. The only time he’s called on to appear in public is at the mayor’s funeral, which ends up turning into a murder scene as well at the whim of the masked killer whose sporadic appearances drive the story and punctuate it with a series of question marks.
It’s telling that Reeves went with the Riddler as the main bad guy for his first crack at the Batman universe. For one thing, it’s not like Paul Dano has to compete with a universally acclaimed movie take on the role. (Almost 30 years later, we still cannot sanction Jim Carrey’s buffoonery in Batman Forever.) For another, the character’s enigmatic shtick is easily torqued into the kind of taunting, Zodiac-style cryptography that Reeves is using as a visual motif. (The Fincher comparisons also extend to Se7en, right down to the Riddler collecting his scribblings in a series of unmarked notebooks; the line between theft and homage remains razor-thin.) Dano, who’s usually cast as a punching bag, is impressively creepy in small doses, and disappears for long stretches that leave us wanting more.
The complexity of The Batman’s narrative is both a bug and a feature. Reeves is going for something sprawling, and there are subplots for Zoë Kravitz as a subtly feline, cat-burglarizing Selina Kyle and Colin Farrell as a mobbed-up, battle-scarred, humorously ineffectual Penguin. (As usual, Farrell is at his best when playing against his leading-man looks; his middle-aged transformation into a master character actor is something to behold.) They both work for suave crime boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), who’s got the cops in his pocket and a nebulous connection to the late Thomas Wayne, imagined here as a good-hearted but hardly flawless father and magnate with skeletons in his walk-in closet. The big through line is the idea that the Riddler’s victims are all connected to some dark, heartbreaking civic secret, one that also implicates the Wayne family, and the clues are parceled out judiciously, with enough mystery and flourish to suggest that the revelation will be worth the wait.
Sadly, it isn’t—not quite, and definitely not after more than two hours of portentous buildup involving loaded references to rats, moles, and other nocturnal animals. It’s bizarre how closely Reeves and Craig bump up against a potentially audacious twist without pulling the trigger; the way the story is shaped, it seems like Dano’s and Pattinson’s characters are supposed to be secret siblings as opposed to two different case studies in forlorn orphan psychology. The theme of duality between Batman and his foes—already stomped into the ground by Nolan, Burton, and pretty much everyone else who’s had a crack at the character—rears its head here, but not as disturbingly as the filmmakers seem to think. A big, late confrontation between Pattinson and Dano strives for the sociopathic chill of Se7en but feels lukewarm, as does the revelation that one of the film’s characters has been gradually amassing an army of similarly aggrieved, incel-style acolytes—the same idea that Todd Philips already (and more effectively) evoked in Joker.
The bigger problem is that having finally unraveled every tightly wound strand of its narrative, The Batman takes an exhausting swing at apocalyptic grandeur. For all the expectations that Reeves is trying to subvert or at least play with, he’s as susceptible to the lure of blockbuster-sized spectacle as Burton or Nolan. The carnage is well-staged on a technical level, but it’s weirdly desultory, even as it pushes topical hot buttons around the idea of armed, civic insurrection. Based on shooting dates, The Batman’s striking evocations of January 6 must be coincidental, but either way, it feels like Reeves and his collaborators are trying to capitalize on a melancholy, disenfranchised zeitgeist more than actually saying anything about it.
As for what they’re saying about Batman—that it’s a lousy, lonely job, but somebody’s gotta do it—suffice it to say that it’s all been said before. One reason that Michael Keaton’s interpretation of Bruce Wayne holds up is that he was able to retain a sense of ridiculousness; Pattinson’s a terrific actor and his gaunt jaw line and bruised, battered body language are striking, but he’s acting in such a narrow emotional range that, for the first time after a killer run of performances, he grows monotonous (especially when no-selling Kravitz’s come-ons). A Batman who listens to MTV Unplugged in New York on repeat is a perfectly OK idea in theory, but there’s Something in the Way that Reeves piles on signifiers of tragic alienation that just feels pretentious. It’s the same mock gravitas as when he used “The Weight” to score a moment of lyrical down time during Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, as if trying to channel the ghost of Easy Rider into a story about mutated chimpanzees firing guns on horseback.
“Vengeance won’t change the past,” Bruce Wayne observes late in The Batman. “People need hope.” There are worse thesis statements to base a movie around. But there’s also something disingenuous about a movie that drenches itself in unpleasantness before trying in the end to peddle uplift and recast the title character as a kind of humanitarian activist. Ultimately, this Batman accepts the thankless, death-defying role he’s stepped into, and the sacrifices that go with it. But that choice would be more compelling if it weren’t framed as a tacit acknowledgement of all the inevitable sequels to come—whether we need them or not.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.