How you like this iteration of Batman may depend upon how you like your serial murderers served and if you like your casting on a binary of Black and White. Directed and co-written (with Peter Craig) by Matt Reeves (“War for the Planet of the Apes”), “The Batman” is grim and grungy but not gory.
The 35-year-old Robert Pattinson plays a 30-something Bruce Wayne who is an exceedingly angry trust fund baby without any parental attachments. His relationship with his butler/mentor Alfred Pennyworth (Andy Serkis) is tersely hostile. One wonders where his guardians are and since he turned 21, what he’s been doing besides brooding in a bat cave and how he became a technological genius. No Edna Mode built his suit for him and one has no idea who does his dry cleaning. There is a housekeeper but that dark gothic Wayne mansion has so much cluttered lines that it would require an army of house cleaners unless you liked the lived in draped cobweb look favored by Morticia Addams.
Reeves doesn’t go for the Addams Family nor Adam West Batman camp humor. And for the almost three-hours (176 minutes), such moroseness might not be what you need during a pandemic or the beginning of a war in the Slavic countries.
The film begins with the music “Ave Maria” and nuns as we look into a building through a sniper gun sight. Inside the building we see a White man pretend to be killed by a costumed young boy. This is Halloween but no one is safe trick-or-treating in this city. That White man is assassinated. The young boy finds the body and a note will be left for “The Batman” with a riddle.
The Batman has a vigilante history. He’s been on the prowl for two years. He’s chums with a Black police officer, James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright). To call Batman, Gordon flashes that bat signal. Those who see it shrink in fear of the shadows because “it’s not just a call; it’s a warning” Batman intones in a VoiceOver. “Fear is a tool.”
In a sense, this Batman is a the lone gunslinger in the wilds of Gotham. This is a city so grungy that you’d worry that your lungs would fill with gray despair from an hour in its atmosphere and there’s nowhere clean to sit, walk or stand. The subways aren’t safe. A man, possibly East Asian American, is pummeled by a gang with their faces sloppily painted white with blackened eyes. Then, like somewhere out of the Wild West, as if we were in some dark and dusty saloon instead of a humid, dirty public subway platform, the clank of boots and the gravely voice warn us that the lone stranger, a guy in an armored bat head mask and body armor is approaching. In VoiceOver, Batman explains, “They think I’m hiding in the shadows, but I am the shadows.”
When Batman answers the bat signal, he comes on the scene–not exactly a welcome guest, but under the tenuous authority of Gordon. The sight of the traumatized young boy touches him. We all know that Batman/Bruce Wayne was once that boy. The murdered man was Mayor Don Mitchell Jr. (Rupert Penry-Jones) and he was corrupt according to the man who leaves riddles and ciphers. Inside a car, the Riddler asks: What does a liar do when he’s dead?*
Alfred and Batman workout some of the cipher. The clues lead to a nightclub, the Iceberg Lounge, where girls and drugs seem readily available. That’s where Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin (Colin Farrell) and Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Zoe Kravitz) prowl.
The riddles will continue, providing accusations of corruption that implicate Bruce Wayne’s father, and each riddle is wrapped in a murder, but the Riddler’s targets will be sleazy White men of privilege, powerbrokers with the Gotham that has been twenty years grinding toward renewal without any real progress. In his investigations and nighttime prowling, Batman connects with Selina who is searching for her girlfriend. Selina works at the Iceberg Lounge and knows there’s a secret club within the club. These two are wounded animals with raw wounds they hope to heal with vengeance.
Rising from the grime of Gotham, we know will be the Black James Gordon and the Black young mayoral candidate Bella Reál (Jayme Lawson). With the English actors Pattison and Serkis in the bat cave, that direct contrast might be diversity for Gotham, but not for the United States. Is this representation or over representation? If representation matters, then where are the Latinos and Asians?
I like my serial murder mysteries with intelligent but quirky characters (“Criminal Minds”) or comic-book color coordination for crazy crimes (“Pushing Daisies”), or with defective detectives (“Monk”) or with a charismatic kooky bromance (“Psych”) or with long-term romance (“Pushing Daisies” or “The Mentalist”). I like a dash of humor and hope in my murder mysteries and superhero arcs and “The Batman” provides none of these.
Those that love gadgets will get the briefest glimpses of them, and for car lovers, there’s not enough time and lingering looks at the bat mobile for my taste. This Batman also takes to a motorcycle, also not enough time spent looking at the machine.
Under Reeves we have an almost reverential trial by literal fire as Bruce Wayne decides how to channel his rage for justice in the corrupt world of Gotham. There were a few laughs, but this superhero story doesn’t have the kind of wit or whimsy of the MCU Ironman or the homey gosh-gee-willikers energy of the Spiderman films. This Gotham seems peopled with individuals I wouldn’t want to spend an evening with. I wouldn’t invite them to tea nor to any dance parties that I attended pre-pandemic.
At almost three hours in theaters, this isn’t a film for someone with a small bladder. A few people made hasty exits to hit the toilets mid-film. Those long Batman walks into a scene could have been trimmed down and there are other places Reeves could have tightened up the film. There are some mid-credits scene and a brief little you-can-miss-it ending animated title post-credits.
“The Batman” premiered in London on 23 February 2022 and will be released theatrically on 4 March 2022. It was originally scheduled to be released in the summer of 2021. There are two sequels planned and spin-off television series are in development for HBO Max.