Jonathan Olley/Warner Bros.
Let’s eliminate that at the top.
No, you don’t see Thomas and Martha Wayne dying.
You heard it right: thankfully, in Hollywood’s latest effort to reboot Batman, director and co-writer Matt Reeves skips the venerable and all-too-oft-told origin story.
No pearls. No popcorn. No alley. No attacker. I come before you today to let you know: our long rational nightmare is over.
Be honest: if I hadn’t told you, you would have spent all of The BatmanThe two-hour, fifty-five-minute (!) running time hunkered down defensively in your theater seat, hovering in a constant state of low-level dread, waiting for those damn pearls to start hitting the pavement again. Well, I’m here to tell you: they don’t.
(There’s a part of me that’s convinced we wouldn’t have reached this welcome, long-awaited cultural milestone if it hadn’t been for one very dumb, very dark, very good joke in the underworld gem. estimated of the film called The Teen Titans Go! At the movie theater in 2018. The part of me in question is my inflated ego, because I predicted the joke would have that effect, at the time.)
Staging (in Gotham)
Cleverly, The Batman start in the media-res property, so to speak, establishing that wealthy scion-of-the-city Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) has been wearing a bulky bulletproof suit for two years, spending his nights huddled on rooftops and delivering beatings to the street gangs and thieves and their ilk. (The film’s Foley artists really make a living; every footstep of the Caped Crusader rings out like thunder, and every time it turns its head, we hear the creak of worn leather.) He’s already found an ally in the footsteps yet. commissioner Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), and his butler Alfred (Andy Serkis) have more or less become accustomed to the bats– on the theme of the war on crime.
Still, he carries a lot on his shoulders, on top of all that Kevlar. There’s a serial killer (Paul Dano’s Riddler) targeting some of Gotham’s most prominent citizens and leaving clues for Batman at his crime scenes. A cocktail waitress has gone missing, and her friend Selina (Zoe Kravitz) is ready to don a cat-eared beanie and deal with the mobsters who kidnapped her. Selina’s boss, the Penguin (Colin Farrell, buried under mounds of prosthetics) may or may not have a hand in all of this, and is definitely mixed up with Gotham’s crime boss, Carmine Falcone (John Turturro).
Reeves and his co-author Peter Craig went for a back-to-basics approach to Batman and his world. Where Tim Burton went gothic, Joel Schumacher went over the top, and Christopher Nolan strove for a kind of stoic, masc, metallic gray realism that Reeves has. The Batman seems less clinging to stylistic flourishes that speak to his particular directorial perspective and more concerned with combining disparate and pre-existing elements of Batman lore in new ways.
It sure is the job, compared to a franchise like Batman. It’s been around for 83 years and has spent most of its time browsing the same rogue gallery. Over the years, some creators have managed to occasionally add a new villain to the mix, but that’s still a rare occurrence.
It might have something to do with how simply and effectively Batman’s OG haters manage to bring out the different sides of his character. Historically, the villain of a given story draws Batman into a distinct and recognizable genre. A Joker story? Psychological thriller. Catwoman? Black. Penguin? Crowd story. Scarecrow? Horror. Riddler? Mystery.
Nerds like me, who appreciate the semiotic cleanliness of it all, can quibble with the film’s Riddler, whose methods and motives Reeves seems determined to simultaneously Jokerize, and Baneify, and Ra’s al Ghulicate.
Let’s be clear: most moviegoers won’t care about keeping Batman’s villains true to their historical essences — to them, it’ll sound like I’m complaining about having my peas touching my mashed potatoes. But the fact remains that it’s hard to get a pearl on Dano’s portrayal of the character, even after his mask comes off. It may be intentional, but it’s not particularly satisfying.
This Batman is back to basics
Reeves doesn’t seem interested in giving us a singular, low-key, distinctly Reevesian cinematic Batman. Instead, what it accomplished is something that looks and feels closer to the kind of Batman story you might pick up at a comic book store today than any previous Batman movie has. managed to accomplish.
Or, more specifically, a multi-issue Batman story arc, because that nearly three-hour runtime gives the film a distinctly deconstructed, unhurried sense of storytelling. So many characters are introduced in the first hour that when the film’s various storylines start to tangle, they don’t intersect so skillfully that they collide headlong. Big story reveals aren’t allowed to hang around for very long before they’re summarily reversed or downplayed, so they tend to land without much impact. The connections between the characters get more confusing just when they’re supposed to become clear.
Along the way, fans are duly served: Wright’s Jim Gordon does his narrative duty as Officer Exposition, reading aloud Riddler’s clues to Batman like a kindergarten teacher to Story Time. Kravitz’s Catwoman flirts and fights and must be dissuaded from choosing violence. Farrell’s Penguin is…is basically Robert De Niro’s Al Capone, really.
Production designer James Chinlund’s Gotham is filled with capital G Gothic elements, but although the city’s architecture sends many buttresses flying here and there, it feels lived in and functional, unlike the Gothams of Burton and Schumacher, that have never ceased to look like the elaborately designed movie sets that they were.
Robert Pattinson’s Batman puts the emo in emote
But it’s Pattinson who makes the movie what it is. It’s no wonder he can ruminate – he’s made his bones in the dusk franchise, where he spent much of his screen time flashing and sulking. But since then, he’s made a series of bold choices in idiosyncratic movies; on paper, his cover of the Bat-cowl may seem like a step backwards.
But Pattinson’s Bruce/Batman is a soul-searching, wounded, haunted soul with a My Chemical Romance haircut. The black makeup he slathers on his eyelids before donning the mask feels less like a costume choice and more like an extension of his truest, most emo self. Pattinson’s jaw is sharp enough to slice Manchego, and this iteration of the Batman costume was designed to emphasize that fact – up close, it looks like a lovingly rendered illustration.
As the tenth actor to wear the Batman costume in the movies (yes, I’m counting the two dudes who did the 1940s movie series), he tackles the role’s signature limitation – the way he deprives his performer of access to facial expressions – with aplomb. There’s a scene later in the movie that asks Batman to seem deadpan to whoever he’s talking to, but it’s necessary for all of us in the audience to register that in truth he’s panic the hell. In close-up, Pattinson’s eyes shine, his taciturn mouth tightens slightly. It sells this moment, and others love it.
Because of this expressive vulnerability, Pattinson’s Batman is unique in following a clear narrative and emotional arc over the course of the film. As Christian Bale’s Batman, for example, yelled “SWEAR TO ME” from the jump, Pattinson begins the film whispering his every word: The ASMR Crusader. But as he’s faced with a series of revelations about Gotham and his family’s ties to it, his anger rises and falls. he begins to question himself and his methods. By the time the credits roll, he’s no longer the same Batman he was at the start of the film – his motivation has changed, and Pattinson makes sure we can see that change, in every frame. He behaves differently. He is more centered, more assured. He grew up.
Could everything have happened in less time? Does each of the 175 minutes of the film justify its existence? If there were only 20 minutes less, could some of those unnecessarily convoluted plot stacks have been avoided? These are legitimate questions that I started grappling with the moment the lights came on.
But while Matt Reeves The Batman unfolded in front of me, I didn’t look at my phone, I didn’t think about the time passing. No, the movie isn’t a Nolanesque game-changer, nor does it manage to step out of the shadows of previous Bat movies to do something as big as define Batman for a new generation. And it’s good; he doesn’t seem very interested in doing so.
What it does, quite effectively, is tell a solid Batman story, with the most moving and vulnerable Batman to ever grace the silver screen. And this much, at least, is new.