There are two things you need to know going into my review of Matt Reeve’s The Batman. The first is that I’m a lifelong fan of the character who has room in his bat-heart for many different incarnations of the character, from Adam West to Michael Keaton to Kevin Conroy to Val Kilmer to Ben Affleck to Wil Arnett. Dark or light, campy or brooding, I can enjoy many different variations. Anyone who tells you one actor is the one true Batman is-in my opinion-inherently disrespecting a character who has existed in so many wildly different incarnations in the comic books over 80+ years that no version could encapsulate them all (which is not to say you can’t pick someone as your favorite or your choice for the best.).
The second thing you need to know is that Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale’s take on the character was life-changing for me in ways that I can’t even to convey in one short review. It’s way beyond being about it being cool, it was actually a catalyst to figuring myself out to a degree I probably never could have accomplished without it. As such, I went into the new film trying very hard to judge it seperately from Nolan’s work. On one level that was surprisingly easier than expected: Matt Reeves has made a film that stands on its own as a unique take on the material that certainly owes something to Nolan’s vision, but much in the same way that Nolan owed something to Tim Burton. But on an emotional level, I’m afraid it was harder to stop thinking about how much more stirred I was by the chronicles of Bale’s Dark Knight.
One of the best choices Reeves has made is an admirable commitment to not just showing us the same things we’ve seen before. He trusts that we know what happened to Thomas and Martha Wayne without needing to see yet another recreation of the moment (my first critical experience with angry Zack Snyder fans when I criticized Batman v. Superman‘s repetition of that scene. That did not change my opinion.). Reeves also figures that we can start with Batman and Jim Gordon already working together, and their buddy cop dynamic may have been my favorite aspect of the film. But the tone and story have the potential to be highly divisive among fans. This is what’s known as “grimdark” in fan circles, and there were several times when I felt like I was watching a David Fincher serial killer movie. And then there’s the massive runtime.
The story (as widely reported so this is not a spoiler) begins with Batman’s career already in progress, and concerns a mysterious killer who is leaving riddles with his victims. The Riddler has always been one of my favorite campy Batvillains, but the version played here by Paul Dano is the darkest, most horrifying villain we’ve seen the Caped Crusader go up against. Which is not to say I found the portrayal as brilliant or mesmerizing as I did with Heath Ledger’s Joker, though he is certainly interesting. The crimes committed by the Riddler are portrayed with enough visual restraint to squeak by with a PG-13, but conceptually they’re very gruesome and disturbing. While I considered that to be a valid and interesting take on the character, it doesn’t really fit my tastes. If you’re psyched for some creepy serial killer vibes, stay psyched. But I can tell you my superhero loving sons won’t be seeing this version of Daddy’s favorite hero until they’re at least 16.
Pattinson makes a strong Batman when he’s in the suit, and while his cold and reserved portrayal of Bruce Wayne didn’t connect with me emotionally as much as I may have liked, it’s clearly what he’s been directed to do. Zoe Kravitz’ Selina Kyle/Catwoman is the most fully and effectively developed character in the film, and she makes the most of it. And Colin Farrell steals the movie as a Penguin who feels like a mix of Danny DeVito, Robert De Niro’s Al Capone, and Al Pacino’s Big Boy Caprice. Farrell provides what little darkly comic relief in the film.
Matt Reeves is a very capable director (his two Planet of the Apes films were some of the best Hollywood movies of the last ten years), and there’s plenty he’s done here that I admire. But I feel he got a bit too caught up in trying to go as dark as possible to push boundaries, and while the intricate story intrigued me and held my attention, the movie is just plain far too long. And this is coming from someone who generally feels no film is too long if it really uses the length to its advantage and keeps you engaged. For me, what in the end makes it a take I will see again (though not 10 times in a theater like I did with Batman Begins) and add to my collector’s shelf is that I feel the soul of the character of Batman is preserved. The things that make him my hero and alter-ego are there even if not always easily visible, and there was a monologue near that end that genuinely moved me.
In the end, I think of The Batman as being like strongly interesting and compelling one-off graphic novel to showcase a unique take on the character. But this isn’t a direction I’d get excited about seeing for a whole run of the comic. There will absolutely be a contingent of fans that strongly disagrees with me and thinks the grimness makes it a masterpiece, and again, there’s room for everybody’s Batman. The fact that this one isn’t mine doesn’t invalidate the things it does well.