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" Looks like Spielberg’s work "
— Will Smith, Men in Black II

MRQE Top Critic

Ballroom

An exercise in atmosphere, with some really inspired surrealism —John Adams (DVD review...)

Trividic et al haunt the Ballroom

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The Batman slogs through a morass of franchise baggage and expectations; the effort is rewarded with a deft reset and a strong setup for future adventures.

Year Two

Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) with the Batman (Robert Pattinson)
Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) with the Batman (Robert Pattinson)

At least in terms of tone, this latest iteration of Batman would sit comfortably alongside Todd Phillips’ Joker; their styles and influences are similar, but they’re set in two totally incompatible time periods. While Joker was set in the 1980s, this Batman is contemporary, in a world with smartphones and other advanced technology.

Both Joker and The Batman begin with throwback treatments of the title cards, not the slick animation found at the start of the bulk of DC’s recent releases.

For The Batman, it’s also a quiet opening that toys with expectations. There’s no superhero fanfare; it’s set against Ave Maria and a boy dressed as a ninja plays with his father in a stately mansion. Ah, but it’s not the back story of young Bruce Wayne and his father, Thomas.

No.

The Batman begins during Year Two of Bruce’s adventures in vigilante justice. This Bruce keeps a handwritten journal and he likes to talk. Unlike other Batman movies, this one features a voiceover as Bruce shares some of his insights. It’s very noir and it’s a nice touch, largely because so very little else is given in terms of fleshing out Bruce this time around.

This is, in essence, a return to the roots of the DC star that started it all back in 1939. DC. Detective Comics. And this Batman portrayed by Robert Pattinson (with Twilight now well behind him, he’s repeatedly proven himself as an actor worth watching) is indeed a gumshoe with a taste for the theatrical. As he examines grisly crime scenes (involving lots of duct tape) alongside Lt. James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright, No Time to Die), Batman’s steps are heard with every threatening thud of his heavy boots and an oddly menacing jingle of his gear. His profile is a square- and broad-shouldered caricature intended to make him all the more imposing.

It’s different from all the Batman incarnations that have come before. That’s not to say it’s the best or necessarily any better, but it does require a resetting of expectations. This is grittier than the others — and a word of caution is warranted that this isn’t entirely kid-friendly material. The PG-13 rating pushes toward the edge of Joker’s R-rated border. That said, there most certainly have been bad Caped Crusader movies, thanks to filmmakers like Joel Schumacher and Zack Snyder.

The Bat, the Cat and the Penguin

The bulk of the story follows a fairly traditional crime syndicate path, embellished by colorful characters reimagined to pull back from their over-the-top comic book roots into something much more grounded. In that regard, writer/director Matt Reeves (Let Me In) follows Christopher Nolan’s lead. The Catwoman portrayed here by Zoe Kravitz (who also voiced the character in The Lego Batman Movie) is quite similar to the one memorably brought to life by Anne Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises. The Penguin, however, stands in stark contrast to Danny DeVito’s take in Batman Returns. This time it’s Colin Farrell’s turn and he is not the least bit recognizable as an Oswald Cobblepot who’s disgruntled by his second-in-command standing to mob boss Carmine Falcone.

Falcone was played by Tom Wilkinson in Batman Begins. Here, John Turturro (The Big Lebowski) has some tough shoes to fill and he’s one of the weaker links; intimidation isn’t his strong suit. Granted, Falcone is presented this time with some added layers as a loving father who also had some level of semi-friendly ties with Thomas Wayne.

As The Batman opens, the 20th anniversary of the infamous Wayne murders is being marked in the media. And, yeah, for better or worse, The Batman follows the rabbit hole storyline questioning if Thomas Wayne was truly a good guy or just another part of the bigger problems running Gotham into a state of ruin.

Rather than following along with Tim Burton’s Batman, Batman Begins and Batman v Superman, this version assumes a little more audience savvy in terms of familiarity with the Batman legend and back story. Here, the murder scene isn’t rehashed and it’s mostly relegated to tangential conversations. The perpetrator remains a mystery, which is completely legitimate, since that lack of resolution and closure is in theory an ongoing driver for Bruce Wayne to don all that guyliner and that heavy cloak for his nights out.

Was it Joe Chill, a simple street bum in need of some quick cash? Or was something even more sinister afoot, a conspiracy going to the top of the Gotham mafia? The answer is out there somewhere.

The Long Halloween

Penguin (Colin Farrell)
Penguin (Colin Farrell)

The Batman pays a thematic nod to the well-regarded graphic novel The Long Halloween, which weaves in a whole host of characters from the Batman canon. Other influences clearly include Blade Runner, David Fincher and The Godfather. Maybe a little Ennio Morricone, to boot. What’s on Bruce’s playlist? Nirvana.

Put all of this in the blender and what comes out is a movie that has so much to admire and appreciate, while remaining a little standoffish. What’s missed is a sense of the heroic; the action is there, but it’s not accompanied by an adrenaline rush — or by a pulse-pounding score that heightens the emotion. In The Dark Knight trilogy, Christopher Nolan grounded Batman in reality, but also enveloped him with a layer of fantasy that generated a terrific balance.

What’s interesting, though, is to see some of that distance close as the movie (which runs nearly 3 hours) makes its way to a conclusion that sets things up nicely for a sequel.

The story takes place over the course of six days, bookended by two of the scariest days of the year: Halloween and Election Day. In the beginning, when The Batman makes his first appearance and batters some lowlife street thugs, he introduces himself as “vengeance.” It’s a good line. It works. And Pattinson delivers it with the same guttural intonation Christian Bale used when he said, “I’m Batman.”

But that catchphrase — “I’m vengeance” — is co-opted by Gotham’s fringe elements. And it’s used against the Batman by none other than the Riddler, this time so completely different from all the mayhem perpetrated by the likes of Frank Gorshin and Jim Carrey. Here, Paul Dano (Ruby Sparks) manages to do for the Riddler what Heath Ledger did for the Joker in The Dark Knight. Dano’s Riddler is no laughing matter as that duct tape is ripped and puzzling greeting cards are left at disturbing scenes of violence.

That all feeds into the best part of The Batman. There’s a very slow, subtle transition in Batman’s outlook as he starts to realize Gotham needs something more than vengeance, it needs hope. And that also serves as the hook that brings Batman back into today’s public discourse at a time when so much is wrong, not just in Gotham, but in the whole world. The real-world headlines have seemingly never been heavier with all manner of overly privileged politicians, corruption, crime and violence.

The Dark Detective

Catwoman (Zoe Kravitz)
Catwoman (Zoe Kravitz)

“Subtle” is a good word to describe The Batman. It’s subtleties lie in the dialogue and most certainly in the nuances of Bruce Wayne and his alter ego.

Pattinson’s impenetrably dark Bruce Wayne gets minimal screen time and his relationship with Alfred Pennyworth (Andy Serkis, Gollum in The Lord of the Rings) still needs some fleshing out. The pair work well together and, while not yet at the nicely realized level of Bale and Michael Caine, it’s much better than the dud of a relationship between Ben Affleck and Jeremy Irons.

Also, this Bruce Wayne doesn’t show off his playboy side as a public-facing ruse. Instead, Alfred admonishes him for bringing Wayne Enterprises to the verge of bankruptcy. In theory, that’s at least in part from hoarding resources to build his costume and his custom Batmobile, this time a pimped-out muscle car in which the chop shop is Wayne Terminal, an abandoned train station that offers cavernous space and bats. Lots of bats.

Even so, much like the character himself, this Batman has a way of creeping into the psyche long after the movie ends. Even Michael Giacchino’s understated score finds its way into the mental playlist, an ear worm that isn’t completely uninvited.