I have seen several comments in social media over the past few months, which question the need for a new Batman movie. That is a little understandable since the character has been trotted out a dozen times or more in the last thirty years and the D.C. Extended Universe has not made the best use of the character possible. That last bit has been rendered obsolete by the latest film which does in fact make “The Batman” a relevant character and which manages to give him something a lot more interesting to do than battle interdimensional beings from outer space. Instead of trying to fit Batman into a super hero story modelled after the MCU Infinity war, director Matt Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig have set him in what may be the most realistic version of Gotham City we have seen in the movies and given him a task that doesn’t require technology from the future.
It seems that every iteration of the caped crusader in the last couple of decades has gotten grimmer and grimmer, and this is the current end point. The Batman is facing a job that makes him the equivalent of Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman in the movie “Se7en”, he must track down a serial killer who has a hidden motive and a set of elaborate clues that he leaves behind. This story goes to some bad places, and it might be appropriate to nickname our hero “The Darker Knight”. The killings are gruesome, the clues are also pretty forbidding. We are spared seeing some of the crimes, but we do see enough to be put off by the actions of the villain, even though some of the victims seem deserving of some kind of retribution. The killer is known as The Riddler because he leaves clues that are language puzzles, for the Batman to figure out. For two thirds of the film, the character is only seen in a get up designed to limit any forensic clues and to hide his face. There is a vocal performance but it may be enhanced through audio technology. When actor Paul Dano finally appears on screen as the character, he sparks up the movie considerably, having been built up so well in the first couple of acts, his mild mannered dementia is plenty creepy even though he is not a physical threat to the hero.
This story is set relatively early in the career of “The Batman”, and we don’t get the usual origin story, we are simply dropped into the set up as if these activities have been going on for a while. Lt. Gordon has a tentative working relationship with the masked vigilante, and that connection is resented by most of the cops but the authority of Gordon allows Batman into crime scenes where he is both forensic investigator and profiler. This film could aptly ne subtitled “C.S.I. Gotham”. The puzzles are sometimes answered quickly by our title character but just as often, he and Gordon struggle to come up with solutions and they follow a macabre path to the next clue to try and bring them closer to the killer. Gordon is played by Jeffery Wright, who is making a career out of playing second fiddle to the main characters in films (see James Bond and The Hunger Games). His low key persona and low modulated voice are good counterparts to the title character. “The Batman” is played by Robert Pattinson, who seems to have shed the “Twilight” baggage and is building a very credible resume of films, including “Tenet” from two years ago. Usually, the actor cast in this role gets his best moments as Bruce Wayne, but this is the least Bruce Wayne heavy Batman film I have seen. Wayne is a secondary character and The Batman is front and center for the key events in the movie. The Wayne Family plays a more prominent role in the film than Bruce himself does.
Gotham is a dark place with lots of evil around every corner, but much like the Nolan Trilogy of films, the city looks fairly normal, except for the fact that no one turns on a light and it rains almost continuously. The thing that is disturbing is how much the corruption, feckless law enforcement, and gang related violence shown in the movie, mirrors the cities like Chicago. It is taken as a given that the politicians are craven tools of special interests, in this case the mob. Two characters that are known to officials, including the police, but for which no one seems able to do anything about are Carmine Falcone and his underboss known as The Penguin. It is an open secret that they run the city and why The Batman and Gordon should be surprised at who all turns up as a victim of the Riddler is unclear. The targets are pretty well marked. The Riddler is starting at the top of the Official List and working his way down. What is a surprise is how easily one of the victims fall prey to the serial killer when he should know that his role in the crime world is connected to the first two victims. The part of the Penguin was secondary, but it was significant enough to draw Colin Farrell to it, even though he is unrecognizable in costume and make-up. As a lynchpin to the story he does have a very solid sequence that includes our introduction to the new version of the Batmobile.
The movie looks great when seen on a big screen, I am less confident that it will translate to home viewing, unless home audiences are willing to change the settings on their televisions in some dramatic ways to see what the hell is going on on screen. For a nearly three hour movie, there are not as many action set pieces as you might expect, although there are plenty of hand to hand fistfights where Batman punches the crap out of dozens of opponents. It’s not quite at John Wick levels of preposterousness. Pattinson’s Batman has a temper and he definitely takes it out on the bad guys. When he punches someone in the face, he is not doing so indifferently, he means to punish them, without necessarily killing them. There are no real light moments in the film, but the presence of “Catwoman” Zoë Kravitz, does give us some quiet moments with a hint of romance. Her character is like Farrell, a keystone for the story but not a main character. Wright and Pattinson are the dynamic duo in this film and Dano is the formidable opponent. There is a hidden villain who shines in the few scenes he gets and that is John Turturrow’s Falcone. Be aware that there is a surprise plot turn in the last half hour of the film, That storyline is only partially set up and it feels a little tacked on, although is is explained in a very effective way.
Some people have gone so far as to say this is the best Batman film ever, and have even called it a masterpiece. I can’t go quite that far but it is top tier and on a par with the Nolan trilogy, but be warned, the seriousness of the plot up until that final turn, will remind you more of “The Silence of the Lambs” than any previous Batman film. Not a lot of humor, but some good characters effectively realized and a main plot that is driven more by detective work than the action man with the marvelous toys.