To be absolutely clear: I wanted Robert Pattinson to be good as Batman.
Despite his early. reputation as a vapid pretty boy, both Pattinson and his Twilight co-star Kristen Stewart have become two of the most interesting actors of our generation. Pattinson’s performances in Good Time, The Lighthouse, and The Lost City of Z have shown him to be layered and compelling, best when playing off-kilter individuals. That seemed perfect for Bruce Wayne, a seemingly handsome man with troubling layers just below the surface.
At first, it appears that director Matt Reeves will pay off that expectation in The Batman. Batman’s first appearance in the film comes set to an extended monologue about his role in Gotham City and his home in the shadows. After several fake-outs, we see a group of face-painted thugs preparing to beat up an innocent citizen.
The camera holds on a dark tunnel. Heavy footsteps fill the soundtrack, blending in with Michael Giacchino\’s glorious score. Out walks the Batman, who responds to an attacker with a brutal barrage, captured in a single, unflinching take. The bad guys dispersed, Batman races away on his motorcycle, the purple prose of his narration continuing as the score gives way to Nirvana’s “Something in the Way.” Returning to his cave, Batman removes his cowl to reveal eye black streaking down his face, bleeding into the bangs that cover his eyes.
In these movements, Reeves captures an emo-noir tone, unique to the superhero genre and fitting with a 2020’s version of the venerable character.
It brings me no pleasure, then, to say this: Pattinson is the worst part of The Batman, and he nearly sinks the movie. His Batman is very sad, often angry, and very serious, emotions that Pattinson conveys by staring. When Bruce Wayne feels anger at mob boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), he gives the older man a hard stare. When Selina Kyle aka Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz) flirts with Batman, he returns his attraction by staring at her. When Batman feels a connection with a young boy whose father was murdered by the Riddler (Paul Dano), he stares at the kid.
Unlike his predecessors, Pattinson plays Batman as a man without dual identities. His Bruce Wayne is just as sulky as his Batman, even when at public functions. On a plot level, this can be explained by suggesting that he’s portraying a Batman in only the second year of his career, who hasn’t learned to use his Wayne persona as a cover. But whatever the reason, there’s no denying that the choice only exacerbates Pattinson’s one-note performance, making him the worst Batman since George Clooney.
Believe it or not, The Batman largely works, despite this shortcoming in its center. Serkis has a bit more grit to his few scenes as Batman’s loyal butler Alfred Pennyworth and Turturro’s charisma makes Falcone compelling and frightening. Jeffery Wright’s rare ability to chew scenery even when being subtle makes him an excellent Lieutenant Jim Gordon, bringing the movie’s few overt jokes. Kravitz’s grittier Catwoman avoids too many comparisons to the actresses who have played the role in the past, save for the times she needs to have chemistry with Pattinson.
Despite the movie’s overall more dour and grounded tone, Dano and Colin Ferrel, playing the Penguin, inject the film with all the energy that you’d want from supervillains. Caked in make-up and a fat suit, Ferrell does sometimes feel like he walked off the set of 1990s Dick Tracy (not necessarily a bad thing), but Dano pulls off an impressive high-wire act, bringing genuine humanity and menace to the Riddler.
Except for the title character, the Riddler felt the most fraught, given the oversized shadow Heath Ledger’s Joker casts not just on Batman movies, but serial killer types in general. Furthermore, Reeves’s realistic take on the world threatens to make Riddler into a Jigsaw-type figure, which would have been disastrous for what is still a PG-13 superhero movie. Fortunately, Dano avoids all of those traps, crafting a version of the Riddler who belongs in this world, but still feels like a colorful supervillain.
The Batman also overcomes Pattinson’s lackluster performance with a strong script by Reeves and Peter Craig. More than any other film starring the character, The Batman is a proper mystery, one that devotes more time to Batman looking for clues than it does him beating up baddies. At times, the movie feels like a stylish procedural or a 90s thriller, both welcome in a theatrical landscape dominated by superhero films.
However, that choice raises a question that the movie never quite answers: if you’re going to do a 90s thriller, then why is the main character in a Batman costume? Reeves seems to self-consciously avoid the operatic elements that often seem to lend themselves to a guy who dresses up like a bat. The movie’s commitment to realism restricts the visuals to small shots, with the camera often peering at its subjects indirectly, in a reflection or through a window. But it also precludes some of the more iconic elements of past films, such as the Batwing taking a break from an attack on the Joker to fly in front of the moon in Batman or even Batman standing in silhouette atop a pile of rubble in The Dark Knight.
This isn’t to say that The Batman lacks striking visuals. Cinematographer Greg Fraizer works with Reeves to make some memorable images, especially those involving red lights. It\’s just that few of those images are about making Batman look cool. Most of the time, Pattinson\’s Batman walks into scenes, rarely making a notable entrance. When he does do something traditionally Batman-like, such as when he turns his suit into a glider to leap from a building, Fraizer and Reeves put the camera close to Pattinson’s face, choosing realism over grandeur.
There’s nothing wrong with a gritty thriller, and the movie has all the elements you’d expect from a movie in that genre. But it chose to graft a Batman story onto that style, seemingly embarrassed by the baggage the superhero brings with it. The Batman offers an exciting mystery, punctuated by strong performances and compelling visuals. But given the fact that none of those elements involve the title character, one has to wonder why Reeves would bother making a movie called The Batman.