Ambitious Dark Knight Detective Story The Batman Loses Its Way in the Shadows

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The evolution of Batman’s dark screen presence has finally reached the place where he’s able to fade into the shadows completely. Tim Burton’s take on Batman was brooding, fetishistic and deeply weird. Christopher Nolan’s was brutal, techy and paranoid. Zack Snyder’s was weathered, faithless and cruel. And now Matt Reeves’ The Batman is dour and wounded, the newly cowled hero’s adolescent attempts at heroism undermined by sullen single-mindedness. He’s not yet an action figure, but not quite a human. He’s in over his head, stuck in a nearly three-hour detective story that overvalues both realism and style—a movie with plenty of good ideas about how it could tell a Batman story, but one that stitches them together in a way that leaves you wondering how it got those scars. Its Batman nearly dissolves into the night, overwhelmed by and acquiescent to his film’s own noirish ambitions.

The Batman’s crime story—of mob bosses like Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), crooked cops and serial killers—echolocates its tone somewhere between “Ave Maria” and “Something in the Way,” propelled by a Michael Giacchino theme as slow and percussive as the plodding, metallic footsteps of Robert Pattinson’s clunky, inevitable advance. His Bruce Wayne calls himself vengeance, a big title for a guy in his second year of fighting crime. But a corner of Gotham knows him already. When we’re introduced to the movie, in the film’s best sequence, Batman’s reputation lurks in every shadow. We’re made to understand what will eventually come to define the character: Batman is your own guilty fear, reflected back at you from the void. Cinematographer Greig Fraser injects this Nietzschean sentiment with plenty of mood, as flare gun reds and headlight oranges penetrate this Gotham’s endless night. It’s deadly serious and seriously goth. Like, “all-black motorcycles racing through a damp graveyard after an argument on a balcony” goth. It’s always night. It’s always raining.

Murders seem inevitable in this wet gloom. When The Riddler (Paul Dano) claims the life of one of the city’s major players, the police swarm and Batman—judged as more of a cosplaying nuisance than an asset by all but Jeffery Wright’s Jim Gordon, the cop above all other cops—tags along. That’s for the best, because The Riddler’s got his goggled eyes on the Bat, leaving tantalizing ciphers that Gotham City PD is either too dull or corrupt to crack. There would be a little Zodiac in here, if only for the similarities between the killers and the length of time over which it all unfolds, but the puzzles are too cutesy and comicky to inspire fear and any obsessiveness with solving things keeps getting uprooted by the film’s endless half-related detours.

While Batman and Gordon ostensibly race to stop the city’s top brass from getting their heads caved in by a little creep with overly clear motives (bloody words rail against the high-ranking liars he snuffs), the oddly paced structure of The Batman and its meandering noirish misdirections sap tension from the mystery without the colorful vices supplied by its inspirations’ alleyways and speakeasies. Rather, we find more of the same from this character’s world: Empty symbols, familiar scenes and stock roles. A long-suffering, grizzled Alfred Pennyworth (Andy Serkis) here and a slickly flirty Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz) there. A cigarless, ‘ey-tootsing Penguin is almost having fun, but then you realize Colin Farrell is only acting as big as he is because that’s what it takes to get through his ridiculous—in a “Why didn’t they just cast someone who looks like this?” way and not a “Danny DeVito, what did they do to you?” way—prosthetics. All are embroiled in Gotham’s rot, all doing what they always do. All with a dash more of that Gritty Realism everyone seems to want from their superhero movies.

Kravitz is easily the film’s best supporting element, as the talented performer nails the pouty-prickly cadence that trampolines off Batman’s gruff stoicism into flirty punchlines—supplemented by a lithe, tantalizing physicality possessed by both felines and the type of tip-dependent work that’s gotten her wrapped up in this case. If The Batman pared down some of its sequel setup and endless sidetracks rehashing—once again—the deaths of Bruce’s damned parents, there’d have been room for a deeply satisfying Bat-Cat dance. Like much of the film, the groundwork and ability is clearly there, but there’s so much to do and see as Reeves takes us on a trawling tour through his Gotham that there’s little chance to appreciate what feels right.

But some things do. While The Batman shot some of its Gotham in Chicago like The Dark Knight, its city isn’t focused on urban architecture, but anti-architecture. On streetlit emptiness, L stop negative spaces, isolated parking, disorienting scaffolding, liminal underground lairs. Reeves’ production has a satisfyingly scummy groundedness to its design: A scrap metal Bat-Signal, a Riddler in an army surplus mask and parka, a Batman in DIY leather and flimsy wingsuit. The latter’s car is a souped-up Charger; his villains wield nothing more fantastical than Uzis. Yet the character lurching through it all is never as grounded or physical as his surroundings.

The action—especially a mid-movie car chase—is often intentionally filmed in such choppy darkness that it becomes indecipherable. Batman’s fights, his chases, his superheroics, feel disconnected from the sad, slumped alter-ego with greasy bangs dangling in his eyes. The realism stops right when it matters. We should feel protective of this misguided yet well-intentioned weirdo, but his physical vulnerability is too deeply connected to the plot’s needs. He walks away from a ludicrous bout of violence and we wonder how. He’s seemingly injured and we wonder why. The answer to both is that, eventually and despite the film’s genre costume, Batman wins.

That concept feels a little strange for this version of the character in particular. Pattinson is asked to do very little on the surface, as taciturn and scabbed a Bruce Wayne as we’ve ever had. He’s brittle and dry as tinder, which can be novel at times and frustrating when he’s in detective mode. He’s not as frustrated as you might expect with The Riddler’s goofy brain teasers, which lead to equally goofy lines of dialogue, and he’s not especially insightful as a gumshoe. What he and Reeves do capture well is his youthful stubbornness. He churns ever onward, a freight train shoveling childhood trauma into the furnace.

What he faces is just as sticky. His foe carries the present fears of America, just as Nolan’s Batman operated in a world struck by high-level terrorism. The Batman engages at a distance with the violent, catastrophic connection between a hyper-militarized country and isolated, hateful members of the online alt-right—all wrapped up in an age of internet detectives, social media celebrity and an ever-increasing distance from reality that led to events like the insurrection. It can feel a little facile, but never truly dishonest; The Riddler’s got a silly name, but so do the Boogaloo Bois. These intriguing ideas take the “we’re not so different you and I” thing to the extreme, but the performances (especially from Dano, whose boyish and floaty lilt feels more sleepy than creepy) and character writing just doesn’t stack up. Grandiose speeches and ineffable concepts—the day of judgment, injustice, dishonesty—come with the comic book territory, but they just aren’t scary, interesting or the least bit original, which is what a story like this needs when working with such familiar instruments.

In his review of Batman Returns, Roger Ebert wrote, “No matter how hard you try, superheroes and film noir don’t go together; the very essence of noir is that there are no more heroes.” Reeves’ The Batman doesn’t quite prove him wrong. Drawing from The Long Halloween and Zero Year among other comic influences, this effort sets the stage for a grim world where low-level crooks develop colorful personae as they’re pushed to cockier extremes. It also gives us a Batman whose heroism is never in question. Other problems certainly persist—pacing and plotting—but therein lies its central friction. The Batman is ambitious and dedicated to its vision, but despite some rather obvious clues, it can’t crack how to make the World’s Greatest Detective seem like one at all. Rather, we just have another passable Batman, not different enough to outrun his legacy’s ever-growing shadow.

Director: Matt Reeves
Writers: Matt Reeves, Peter Craig
Stars: Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano, Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro, Peter Sarsgaard, Jayme Lawson, Andy Serkis, Colin Farrell
Release Date: March 4, 2022

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

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