The Batman is a muted, early-in-the-career superhero story with a narrow emotional register

Robert Pattinson is haunted and hallow as billionaire Bruce Wayne, but in a film with just under three hours to play with, The Batman’s cast of secondary characters feel too sketchily drawn.

28 February 2022

By Kim Newman

Robert Pattinson in The Batman (2022)Robert Pattinson in The Batman (2022) © Courtesy of Warner Bros
Sight and Sound

► The Batman is in UK cinemas from March 4.

The latest iteration of the Bat-franchise mutes the colour (and emotional) palette of the film even more than Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy or Zack Snyder’s cut of Justice League. Set almost entirely at night in a drab, perpetually rain-washed Gotham City, Matt Reeves’ The Batman offers a charcoal bat-suit without a yellow shield for the bat-symbol and presents a young Bruce Wayne not yet confident enough to leaven grimness with humour or compassion. Michael Giacchino’s outstanding score is pared down too, sometimes just to an ominous solo piano. Even the bat-signal barely glimmers against the perpetual cloud.

With his sharp chin and black eye makeup, Robert Pattinson’s Batman is unusually expressive through the cowl, while his Bruce Wayne is as haunted and hollow as Pattinson’s last billionaire role in David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis.

After numberless reboots and reimaginings in comics, film, television and animation, Matt Reeves’ version feels little need to go through the primal Crime Alley shooting or stage the vow against crime as a bat crashes through the window of Wayne Manor, but is still an early-in-the-career story. This Batman stresses the definitive article because he has something to prove – he isn’t yet accepted by the honest citizens and police of Gotham or a figure of terror to law-breakers and the corrupt.

Invited to view a crime scene, the masked, cloaked man (someone calls him ‘Zorro’) is regarded warily by GCPD officers as he brings forensic skills to bear on the one villain in the classical Batman Rogues’ Gallery who demands he be a sleuth rather than an action hero. 

Later, with the same cops chasing him, he hesitates in momentary terror before jumping off a roof, not yet confident his kite-suit will work. Pattinson’s Batman sends a mixed message while pursuing a monomaniac war on crime, it appears the victims he rescues are as afraid of him as the gangsters and goons he batters. Still, he is profoundly shocked when a terrorist (identified as a ‘bitter nobody’) justifies a random act of senseless violence by reciting his own tag-line (“I am vengeance”). 

For decades, Batman’s primary comics titles have been Detective (where he debuted) and Batman (his own book). Most previous Batman movies have drawn from Batman, with colourful villains and fantastical elements (even Nolan’s films had the Scarecrow’s illusions and the mystically empowered Ra’s al Ghul). What Reeves has delivered is a Detective Comics movie, fenced off from a DC universe of amazons, flying aliens and super-speedsters.

The simplicity of the origin story devised by comic book writer Bill Finger was compromised by DC in the 1950s with complications, including a more complex explanation for the alleyway killing of the Waynes, something that’s revisited here. However, the murder of Bruce’s parents is just one element in a web of corruption involving storylines from several eras of the comics and such fringe iterations of the franchise as the TV series Gotham and the revisionist Joker. 

Colin Farrell as The Penguin in The Batman (2022)
Colin Farrell as The Penguin in The Batman (2022)
Courtesy of Warner Bros

Just as the Joker has been reimagined as everything from a camp clown to a psychopathic incel, Reeves gives the Riddler a make-over as a combination of John Doe from Se7en and Jigsaw from the Saw franchise. Paul Dano’s best moments come with his mask off, giving himself up in an Edward Hopper-look diner or ranting in a cell at Arkham Asylum under the wary eyes of the Batman as he seems to have solved the city’s biggest riddle (Dano’s repeated reading of the name ‘Bruce Wayne’ is his key, imitable moment).

Usually, initial entries in franchise hero series try for economy of storytelling – the extra characters, momentousness and extended action scenes come in follow-ups that stretch the running time. The Batman insists on three hours to play with, which is a lot for a movie with such a narrow emotional register.

Workable new takes on familiar characters – Jeffrey Wright’s honest cop Jim Gordon, Zoë Kravitz’ thief-avenger-temptress Selina Kyle (“you have a lot of cats”), Andy Serkis’ factotum Alfred, an unrecognisable Colin Farrell’s not-yet-a-boss ‘Penguin’ – are subordinate to the case, and are less revisionary than they are sketches for the people we’ve seen in other versions of the saga.

Rather than switch to IMAX for the action set-pieces, Reeves segues from intense conversations into hallucinatory, brutal fights in shadows and a car chase through fire and rain with a sleek, unusually roadworthy Batmobile. 

Impressive as The Batman is, it still feels – like so many first entries in superhero series these days – like an extended introduction, getting all the players in place, rather than a fully-played game in its own right.

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

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