The Knight is Still Young — The Batman

If you were to tell me in a vacuum that Robert Pattinson, Colin Farrell, Jeffrey Wright, and Paul Dano would be starring in a new movie directed by Matt Reeves, I would imagine that you’d be describing a cerebral, artsy exploration of the human condition through a distinctly animalistic lens. After all, ever since he was freed from the Twilight franchise, Pattinson has given one masterful performance after another playing deeply troubled and/or quixotically hopeful characters, Dano’s never met an offbeat script he couldn’t get behind, Wright and Farrell are versatile in nearly any genre, and Reeves himself made his bones through films like Cloverfield and the rebooted Planet of the Apes trilogy by blurring the lines about what makes a man and what makes a monster.

That’s what I would assume was coming. And you know what, I’d have been right. I just would never have guessed it would be through a Batman movie!

The latest interpretation of the Dark Knight, simply titled, The Batman, gives us another spellbinding take on the hero Gotham City needs and deserves, providing a deep, smart look into the motivations of not just Bruce Wayne, but of his rogues gallery, devoting almost equal time to the Bat and the Baddies in a gripping and relevant display of fascination for both sides not seen since Heath Ledger’s take on the Joker 14 years ago. In doing so, Reeves gives us a somewhat flawed, but undeniably spectacular film that instantly earns a spot among the pantheon of Batman’s big screen adaptations.

Somewhat bridging the gap between Christian Bale’s take in Batman Begins and the more seasoned vigilantes played by Michael Keaton or Ben Affleck, Robert Pattinson plays a form of Batman still figuring out his place in the fight against Gotham’s criminal underbelly (including the fact that he largely eschews Bale’s Bat-grumble voice, though it does creep in from time to time). He’s been dealing with thugs and saving innocent bystanders for about two years according to this film’s timeline, and his arsenal of gadgets is very much still a work in progress, as evidenced by a wingsuit rather than bat wings on the costume and a Batmobile still under construction that’s little more than a retrofitted sports car. The only bit of advanced tech he has is a pair of contact lenses outfitted with tiny wireless cameras that he can remotely broadcast and record. Andy Serkis (always nice to see him outside of a motion-capture suit) plays a very parental Alfred Pennyworth, guiding Bruce on his journey while reminding him of his responsibilities to maintain the Wayne family legacy. And while he’s gone slightly to seed (evidenced by a cane and a scar along his eye), he looks like he could still hold his own in a fight, a testament to how he was able to train the young Bruce to become the hero he is.

It’s a very strong dynamic that isn’t dwelt upon too much, as it would crowd out the fairly dense and lengthy plot, but it is worth mentioning. A simplistic interpretation would focus on the meme-able shots of Bruce with heavy eyeshadow dripping down his sweaty face like a mixture of Gerard Way from My Chemical Romance and Emo Peter Parker from Spider-Man 3. But while Bruce is somewhat moody (aided by a soundtrack that includes Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” and an ambient theme for Batman that stays just on the right side of an homage to the Imperial March from Star Wars rather than ripping it off), it’s in service of a pure desire to do good, and in a welcome acknowledgement of reality (something every Batman film has trouble with at times, including this one), it’s made very clear that the makeup is just a means to darken the area of skin around his eyes that shows through the eyeholes in the mask. It’s not a statement of emotion, merely an honest depiction of the practical needs of Batman’s rudimentary uniform.

Anyway, on to the story. The film opens with a masked figure spying on the mayor of Gotham, Don Mitchell (played by Rupert Penry-Jones), from a neighboring rooftop. This is a fun bit of immediate misdirection, as we get this first-person shot through the mask immediately after the title card hits the screen, so this could literally be Batman. It isn’t though. Instead it’s the Riddler, played by Dano, who sneaks into the building and kills Mitchell, who before his end was in the final week of his reelection campaign, facing tough opposition from Bella Reál (Jayme Lawson), who has gained in the polls due to calling out perceived corruption on Mitchell’s part.

As Batman fights off a gang of muggers wearing clown makeup (the first of many teases to a possible Joker-based sequel, including an above-the-line cameo from Barry Keoghan in an “unnamed” role), he sees the Bat Signal shining in the sky, lit by Lt. Jim Gordon (Wright), currently at a stage where the pair are allies, but he’s not commissioner yet, so he gets flack from his superiors for involving the vigilante at all in police affairs. It’s noteworthy that Batman is still something of a crimefighting neophyte, as for most of the film he walks to the appropriate scene rather than swooping in (and disappearing just as quickly). Gordon is dressed down by the current commish, Pete Savage (Alex Ferns) for inviting Batman to an active crime scene, but in this case, Gordon is completely justified, as Riddler has left a greeting card clue personally addressed to Batman himself. Like it or not, Batman is now inextricably linked to the case, and as such, it only makes sense to keep him in the loop, even if it means monitoring him as a person of interest or potential suspect.

Through the use of clever brain-teasers, cryptic ciphers, and one truly grotesque but delicious sight gag, Batman and Gordon piece together why Mitchell was targeted, including photos of him at the Iceberg Lounge. Giving his erstwhile partner a bit of extrajudicial license, Gordon turns Batman loose to investigate the club and get some answers. This leads to an encounter with the Penguin (a completely unrecognizable Farrell due to an amazing makeup job), who serves as a right hand to mob boss Carmine Falcone (a wonderfully slimy John Turturro), and the first meeting with Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), who recognizes a young woman on Mitchell’s arm in some incriminating photographs. Bruce notices Selina’s momentary reaction, and so he follows her home, where it turns out Selina is in a relationship with the woman in the photo, a Russian immigrant named Annika (Hana Hrzic).

When Annika disappears, the nascent Catwoman also joins the fray, which includes a wide net of threats and secrets, from mafia wars to cops on the take to the possibility that Thomas Wayne himself might have been a crook. It all leads up to that wonderfully moral grey area where Bruce has to decide what it truly means to be a hero and a servant of Gotham, culminating with a surprisingly poignant and timely final battle involving radical extremists targeting the election.

There’s a lot to unpack here, and the vast majority of it is done at the highest levels of quality. For one thing, I love that this is a Batman movie that really focuses on Bruce Wayne’s detective skills (though of course I smirked at Penguin giving us a winking, sarcastic reference to Batman’s title as the “World’s Greatest Detective”) and having him and Gordon be basically equal partners in the investigation is a new and welcome change. Apart from Gary Oldman in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, Gordon’s most competent depiction was in The Animated Series, and even Oldman was somewhat underserved as something more akin to a conduit for honesty and credibility rather than a true aid in Batman’s process. Because this is a younger Batman without all of his gizmos and gadgets, he and Gordon have to use practical techniques to find the necessary clues. Sure, Bruce’s computer helps solve part of the first cipher, but only after he and Alfred already have all the pieces. The computer simply speeds things along through processing rather than acting as a deus ex machina to provide all the answers, leaving us with a genuinely compelling mystery.

It also helps that Paul Dano gives us a wonderfully brilliant Riddler, subdued and patient while still maintaining his textbook arrogance, insecurity, and susceptibility to manipulation through confirmation bias. Add in a relatively novel penchant for violence, and you’ve got a Batman villain we’ve never really seen before on film. As much as I enjoyed Jim Carrey’s more cartoonish interpretation in Batman Forever (I will ALWAYS sanction his buffoonery), this version of the Riddler presents a genuine threat and a legitimate challenge to Batman, something that’s been sorely missing for decades of media. Because of this, the unfolding mystery isn’t just engaging, it’s fun. You want to figure out where the clues will lead next. As Riddler matches wits with Batman remotely, so too does he invite you to play along with his deadly game. With each successive murder and every new clue, you feel a satisfaction in the hunt, and on those moments where you figure things out and can see the next plot beat coming, it feels like an accomplishment rather than bad storytelling, giving the audience its own set of stakes to go along with the characters.

It’s part of the larger goal that Reeves sets in treating the audience like adults with basic intellect rather than children with short attention spans. This movie never once talks down to you with plodding exposition or meaningless tangents. I mean, shocker of all shockers, Reeves recognizes that we DON’T have to rehash Thomas and Martha Wayne’s murders every time there’s a new Batman film, and thus we — for once — dispense with it entirely. A director taking Batman’s origin as read, knowing the audience understands the motivations of this nearly 90-year-old property? What welcome audacity!

Even the action sequences carry this air of giving the viewer a modicum of credit. Yes, there are scenes where Batman survives injuries that would make Black Widow look like a lecture on physics, but those are mostly moments played up for their absurdity rather than asserting them as crucial to the plot. For the most part, the fights are well-choreographed, with minimal cutting, and we know where the parties involved are supposed to be, pretty much at all times. That lends a sense of intellectual honesty to the bigger moments, like a truly epic chase scene that has Batsie almost taunting Penguin through a wall of fire. Even in the most unbelievable, effects-driven moments (mostly using practical effects, or a reasonable facsimile thereof), there’s a logic to it, as if Reeves knows that for us to buy Riddler as a genuine menace, he can’t be the only aspect of the film to give the impression of thought.

There are a couple of flaws, though all but one of them are minor. First off, the movie is too long. Clocking in at nearly three hours (after viewers at the AMC where I watched it had to sit through 23 minutes of trailers, two AMC promos — including the masturbatory Nicole Kidman spot — AND a minute-long commercial for the entire DCEU theatrical slate this year), the movie comes close to dragging at several points, particularly in the third act, which gets into Lord of the Rings territory when trying to find an ending point.

For the most part it’s okay, it’s just that a few sequences could have been cut short to save time. For instance, there are a couple of nice bits where Batman and Catwoman ride side-by-side on motorcycles, an almost bittersweet attempt at flirting. They last for what feels like a combined 7–10 minutes but could easily have been cut down to 30 seconds. The editing of the sequences, which cut between multiple locations, makes it clear that we’re not watching the entire scene in real time, so you could remove the majority of the shots and still get the point across, especially the ones that illogically take place in the rain. It’s just downright dangerous to be riding motorcycles so recklessly in that kind of weather. In another example, while there’s a great running gag about twin doormen at the Iceberg Lounge (played by Charlie and Max Carver), we don’t need drawn-out tracking shots following Batman walking through the club every time he or Catwoman goes inside. Just give us the joke, establish the space of the club once, then literally cut to the chase.

Second, there are some odd inconsistencies in the script that don’t always add up. There are two big examples. One is a news report that shows Batman on screen, describing him as a “mysterious masked figure.” Um, how is he mysterious when Gordon’s shining the Bat Signal nightly? Or when the rest of the GCPD knows about him? Or when Riddler himself is aware enough to engage him in his game? Or when Mitchell’s mayoral challenger even brings up “a masked vigilante” in a televised debate as a failure of his leadership? Clearly Batman has established himself, even if he’s not the full-on badass we’ve come to know and love. The other involves Catwoman, who is shown to be dating Annika and using pet names like “Baby” to address her. Clearly they’re in a relationship. Yet as soon as she’s kidnapped, all that is instantly transferred to Batman. They’re literally making out one day later. It kind of gives lie to Selina’s concern for Annika’s safety if she’s macking on the next guy in latex she meets.

And that leads us to the third issue, the only one that truly affects the film’s overall grade. I just don’t buy Kravitz as Catwoman. It’s not that she gives a bad performance, it’s just that there’s no dimension to her character other than her sexuality. There’s almost no motivation to anything she does throughout the film, and nearly every scene is tinged with unmerited horniness. The press junket for the film stressed that this version of Catwoman would be openly bisexual (as if Michelle Pfeiffer’s version didn’t give off a TON of vibes), but it doesn’t aid the character or plot in any way. Sexual orientation doesn’t substitute for personality. It just comes off as cheap fan service to see her in skimpy clothing throwing herself at Batman (while complaining about privileged rich boys like Bruce Wayne, cue sad trombone), especially when she was literally shacked up with her girlfriend mere scenes before. The closest she gets to any real development is in her hatred of Carmine Falcone, which gets somewhat fleshed out late, but even that just boils down to “daddy issues,” which only adds to the idea that she’s just there as a sex object. Again, it’s not that Kravitz does a bad job, it’s just that her character is woefully underserved, especially when all the other heroes and villains get a TON of development. They might as well have not had Selina in the film if they weren’t going to do her justice, and it might have saved a good half hour on the runtime.

Still, even that one genuine complaint isn’t enough to prevent this from being the best Batman movie since The Dark Knight. Robert Pattinson delivers a legitimately compelling version of Bruce Wayne caught at a crossroads in his life that’s worth exploring in even greater detail in future movies. Paul Dano is the brilliant but cruel intellectual puppet master that Riddler fans like me (seriously, he’s always been my favorite) have been waiting to see on the big screen forever. Seeing Jim Gordon as a true partner and collaborator in solving a crime spree gives the character more agency than he’s ever had in a movie. The makeup, effects, and fight choreography are all on point in highly entertaining fashion. No, the film isn’t perfect, but no Batman film is. That’s kind of the point. The beauty of the character, and why he’s always so ripe for new stories, interpretations, and incarnations, is because of his complexity and human flaws. His darkness is the reason he can never be pigeonholed, and why there will never be a truly ideal way to depict him.

But damn is it ever fun to see what different artists come up with. Consider this the first great movie of 2022.

Grade: A-

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite version of Batman? What villains would you like to see in future movies? Let me know!

Originally published at http://actuallypaid.com on March 10, 2022.

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William J Hammon

All content is from the blog, “I Actually Paid to See This,” available at actuallypaid.com