Gotham City looks broken. The streets are littered with trash, the buildings tagged with graffiti. Crime is rampant, and what used to be temporary tent cities now look like established shantytowns. Drugs are ubiquitous—Drops, which are enjoyed by the very low and the very high classes alike—as is corruption on every level and in every department. Two candidates are running for mayor: one entrenched in the Gotham machine, the other not yet compromised by the city’s lesser qualities. Or maybe wounded is a better word? It’s a dreary affair, one that looks like director Matt Reeves and cinematographer Greig Fraser smuggled an Edward Hopper painting into a 21st century comic book movie.
Directed by Reeves and written by Reeves and Peter Craig, The Batman feels like a comic book movie smitten with Blade Runner, Seven, and the like. It’s a mystery starring the World’s Greatest Detective, Bruce Wayne/The Batman (Robert Pattinson), complete with moody voiceover, dark shadows, and pouring rain. Not that the rain gives life to anything or even washes the city clean. Gotham is beyond such hope.
There is one citizen who hopes that someday a real rain will come and wash away the scum of the city. But, unlike God’s Forgotten Man, this one has a very elaborate plan. He is The Riddler (Paul Dano), a masked vigilante with a penchant for puzzles and violent retribution. His murder of a Gotham City official sets the story of The Batman in motion, begging the city’s other masked vigilante to solve these riddles three while working his way up the corruption food chain.
That part of The Batman is the most enjoyable. There are many components to this 175-minute affair, but watching Batman work through the clues brings to mind the joy of watching the 1960s Batman TV show. Not that there’s anything in this Batman as bright and campy as that series or movie from 1966. But considering the many iterations who have cowled up to deal with their daddy issues in the past four decades, it’s nice to see the World’s Greatest Detective do some detecting.
The Riddler’s plan is to unmask the original sin at the heart of Gotham, which is the Wayne family’s sin as well. With sunken eyes, stringy black hair, and a thrumming Kurt Cobain on the soundtrack (“Something in the Way”), Pattinson embodies the role of the emo orphan playing dress-up quite well. It’s kind of like a sincere spin on the darkness-no-parents gag of The Lego Batman. But it also fits. I remember a Q&A when Eddie Muller—the founder of the Film Noir Foundation, host of TCM’s Noir Alley, and author of Dark City, among other things—was asked the difference between a hard-boiled detective and a noir movie. His answer: A hard-boiled detective story is about the mystery; a noir is about the detective. Using Muller’s line of thought, The Batman is both. It’s one of the movie’s strengths. It’s also one of the movie’s weaknesses.
No Batman works alone, and this caped crusader is aided by his boy in blue, Lt. James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright, excellent), his faithful butler with a history of service, Alfred (Andy Serkis), and cat burglar with a cause, Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz). Gordon and Kyle both have their objectives, and they mirror the story’s dual narratives nicely. It does, however, cause the movie to sideline some key players for large stretches of time. The Riddler practically disappears from the proceedings for the middle third, only to return a viral sensation popular with the fringe right. I guess you could say it connects The Batman in some spiritual sense to 2019’s Joker, but it does mean that one of the movie’s action set pieces devolves into Batman versus the boogaloo boys.
There’s an awful lot going on in The Batman, maybe three movies worth. But Reeves is a capable storyteller, and the actors are good enough to keep the momentum going. Reeves also resist the urge to visualize the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne, freeing his story from Freudian flashbacks and back-alley murders. Instead, Reeves shows how the weight of that moment has robbed the light from Bruce Wayne’s eyes. Not that young Master Wayne was the only kid to lose a parent. The man The Riddler slaughtered in the opening was also a father, and it was his son who found him. While Batman is inspecting the murder scene, he catches the eye of the young boy whose life has irreparably changed. Reeves allows for a moment where both Batman and the boy share a solemn look at the crime scene. If Batman is staring at his past, then the boy could be staring at his future. The only question is: when that boy starts pulling on a mask to exact his revenge, what side of the law will he stand?
The Batman (2021)
Directed by Matt Reeves
Written by Matt Reeves, Peter Craig
Batman created by Bill Finger, Bob Kane
Produced by Dylan Clark, Matt Reeves
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Jeffrey Wright, Colin Farrell, Paul Dano, Andy Serkis, Jayme Lawson, Peter Sarsgaard, John Turturro
Warner Bros., Rated PG-13, Running time 175 minutes, Opens March 4, 2022.