Review: Batman needs a renewal. ‘The Batman,’ starring Robert Pattinson, isn’t quite it
When the title character first sheds his cape and cowl in “The Batman,” a moody, methodical and, finally, disappointing return to Gotham City, your initial glimpse of Bruce Wayne might come as a mild shock. Not because of the fine actor playing him — it’s Robert Pattinson, as if you didn’t know — but because of the heavy bruises darkening his pale face, as if he’d been wearing a mask beneath his mask. Bloody beatings are to be expected for a vigilante trawling Gotham’s lower depths by night, but these particular wounds might well have been inflicted from within. This Bruce Wayne doesn’t look like a playboy or a billionaire, let alone a hero; with his unkempt sidelocks and air of morning-after debasement, he’s more like an addict about to crash, or a young rock star gone to seed.
The director, Matt Reeves, who wrote the movie’s dense screenplay with Peter Craig, plays up these associations with an early snippet of Kurt Cobain singing “Something in the Way,” a hit of acoustic anguish that supplies one of the movie’s two recurring pieces of music. The other one — variations of which will soon seep into Michael Giacchino’s death march of a score — is “Ave Maria,” setting a funereal tone even before it pops up at an actual Gotham funeral. Murder is in the air, thanks to the Riddler (Paul Dano), a cross between Ted Kaczynski and Will Shortz who clearly has a thing for David Fincher movies, given the techniques he’s borrowed from the Zodiac Killer and the detail-oriented John Doe from “Seven.”
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The deadly sins being punished here are all sins of betrayal, committed against the people of Gotham by their ostensible enforcers of law and order. The Riddler’s first victim is the city’s mayor (Rupert Penry-Jones), a high-stakes target for a story that soon strands us in a labyrinth of legal, financial and political corruption. We are in a hard-edged, rain-pelted Gotham City that, absent either Tim Burton’s gothic eccentricity or Joel Schumacher’s neon excess, suggests a Manhattan from which bright lights and warm colors have been banished. (The often oppressively murky images were shot by Greig Fraser, a current Oscar nominee for “Dune.”)
Here it may be worth noting that “The Batman” runs almost three hours, though “runs” may not be the word; forgoing pop buoyancy in favor of psychological realism, it rumbles forward with a grim seriousness of purpose that some might well mistake for pomp and pretension. Those who took issue, in other words, with Christopher Nolan’s grave and thrilling “Dark Knight” trilogy (itself inspired by some of Batman’s bleaker comic book adventures, including Frank Miller’s seminal “The Dark Knight Returns”), will find plenty to object to here.
Their complaints merit some sympathy, but also a little closer inspection. The dourness of Nolan’s “Dark Knight” films has often been overstated, often to the neglect of their hurtling narrative velocity, impish wit and gorgeously enveloping images. Really, the problem isn’t that there are too many serious superhero movies or too many frivolous ones. (And after the pseudo-epic exertions of Zack Snyder’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” who’s even to say where seriousness ends and silliness begins?) The problem is that there are too many of them, period, to the point where even a picture as artful and restrained as “The Batman” — by all appearances a meticulously crafted attempt to get a tarnished pop cultural phenomenon back on track — may struggle to justify its existence.
Reeves, to his credit, knows the pitfalls of franchise fatigue. As both his 2010 vampire-thriller remake “Let Me In” and his superb recent contributions to the “Planet of the Apes” series made clear, he has a gift for investing big-budget genre filmmaking with a human pulse, and for putting a fresh spin on well-worn material. And so “The Batman,” assuming our familiarity with Bruce Wayne’s inner and outer demons, tries hard to avoid reproducing the formulaic trappings of the origin story. As the movie begins, Batman has been on the vigilante beat for two years, and his low-growling voiceover approximates the wearily ambivalent tone of a ’70s noir: part hard-boiled sleuth, part Paul Schrader antihero.
This Batman calls himself “Vengeance,” though we are mercifully spared another ugly reenactment of the personal tragedy he’s avenging. But while the murders of Bruce’s billionaire parents are left offscreen, that tragedy reverberates insistently throughout a story that delights in turning individual trauma into collective malaise. To the degree that this expansive story coheres, it does so around a theme of lost kids: As Bruce confronts the truth about his late parents and their not uncomplicated legacy, Gotham itself takes on the quality of a scarred child, repeatedly betrayed and abandoned by those charged with its protection.
Few have been betrayed more cruelly than the Riddler, who, in keeping with this movie’s downbeat tenor, represents a far less flamboyant take on the character than, say, Jim Carrey’s. A more sadistic one, too: Clad in a military green mask and jacket that bring certain gun-loving anarchist groups to mind, this Riddler steps out of the shadows to maul faces, sever thumbs and set “Saw”-style traps for the city’s self-appointed elites. He wants to name, shame, game and maim. At every crime scene he leaves behind a cryptic note that basically reads “Mr. Batman, I gave you all the clues,” initiating a Bat-and-mouse dynamic that forces the Caped Crusader to collaborate with not just his ally Lt. James Gordon (a fine Jeffrey Wright), but the rest of the Gotham police force.
The recurring image of Batman lingering in rooms with outwardly hostile cops — rather than vanishing into thin air, as is his wont — creates an intriguing tension even as it pushes the movie in the direction of an old-school detective procedural. Batman’s investigation plunges him headlong into the twisty, sometimes tedious gangland shenanigans of Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) and Oz, aka the Penguin, who’s played under layers of makeup by an unrecognizable Colin Farrell. Enough has been made of Farrell’s attention-grabbing transformation into an iconic Batman villain to make you wish that he’d been given something more interesting to do than just sneer, scowl and drive like a maniac. As villains go, he’s a nonstarter, though Farrell is nimble enough to hint at untapped possibilities; cast this Penguin in a buddy comedy with “House of Gucci’s” Jared Leto and I’d watch a few minutes.
There’s much more to the story — a missing girl, a couple of bombs, a ho-hum car chase, a big-bang climax — and a few impressive performances, especially from Reeves’ brilliant “Planet of the Apes” collaborator Andy Serkis, here playing Bruce’s loyal butler, Alfred, with a refreshing absence of motion-capture assistance. And things get livelier when Batman tentatively joins forces with a nightclub waitress, Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), who juggles her own mysterious agendas as she slinks her way around Falcone’s inner circle. This latest Batman-Catwoman flirtation has its expected pleasures, though it’s disappointing that actors as sexy as Pattinson and Kravitz aren’t allowed to do more than steal a few smooches on a Gotham rooftop. Like models in an unusually tame leather catalog, they’re all suited up with nowhere to go.
Kravitz has been given the outlines, if not quite the substance, of a compelling personal history. Her Catwoman is another of Gotham’s betrayed children, motivated by a desire for justice that sometimes bleeds into a lust for revenge; she exists to remind Batman of his own resolution never to take a human life, but also to stoke his own impulses toward violence. Purr-sonally, I’m #TeamCatwoman here; having recently seen “Kimi,” I can’t think of a movie that wouldn’t be improved by having Kravitz show up with a nail gun.
Batman’s pacifist high road is noble enough, but like so much in “The Batman,” it feels like a finger-wagging callback to an overly familiar moral quandary. What separates Batman from all the masked freaks he’s trying to bring down? How potent a symbol is he, and what exactly does he symbolize? These are questions that have to be made freshly compelling with every relaunch, and “The Batman” ponders them with a sincerity that soon bogs down in obviousness.
It’s a movie of alternately promising and frustrating half-measures, in which Reeves’ shrewd storytelling instincts and the usual franchise-filmmaking imperatives repeatedly fight to a draw. The tone of “The Batman” is often unpleasant in ways you’d expect from a serial killer yarn, but too often Reeves teases violence, only to cut abruptly and confusingly away from it; minus the shackles of a PG-13 rating, this movie might peer more persuasively — and courageously — into the darkness that it so insists upon. Here and there, too, the movie gestures toward real-world politics, especially as concerns race: Notably if somewhat half-heartedly, the supporting cast includes a Black female mayoral candidate (Jayme Lawson); a man of Asian descent (Akie Kotabe) who gets beat up on the subway; and a Latino cop (Gil Perez-Abraham) who helps Batman figure out a key piece of the Riddler’s latest puzzle.
In these and other moments, “The Batman” seems on the verge of critiquing its hero and the compromises of his own inestimable privilege, to expose some of this Bat’s figurative blind spots. But it stops far too short, and Pattinson, who played a supremely smug billionaire sociopath in David Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis,” isn’t given the chance to go similarly deep with this most iconic of one-percenters. Batman is used to getting upstaged, usually by his more colorful nemeses, but here he feels upstaged by the inertia of the filmmaking and an attempted renewal — a word that is pointedly repeated here — that lapses too often into retread. In Pattinson’s touching but underrealized performance, this Bruce Wayne is a little boy lost, a rage junkie and ultimately a chaotic force for good, trying to discover things about himself that the audience has long since figured out.
Rating: PG-13, for strong violent and disturbing content, drug content, strong language, and some suggestive material
Running time: 2 hours, 56 minutes
Playing: In general release March 4
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