There are very few things that are still expected in this life. Those include Kanye West saying or doing something totally outrageous, Donald Trump calling the 2020 presidential election rigged and an egotistical Bruce Wayne basking in his obscene wealth and heroism in equal measure.
And now, writer-director Matt Reeves’ “The Batman” has eviscerated that third bullet point. But who is The Caped Crusader without all the flair, duality and unsettling humanity that has made him so fascinating to watch on the big screen all these years?
The short answer from the new film could also be determined after shaking a magic eight ball once: “Reply hazy, try again.” This irresolute reaction comes not just because “The Batman” is a stark departure from what we’ve seen before theatrically. (Honestly, it would have to be different in order to justify its existence just shy of a decade after Christopher Nolan’s superb “The Dark Knight” trilogy).
It’s that “The Batman” reaches for an ingenious and compelling new way to tell a story about the thin lines between corruption, greed and nobility — but ever so limply and always just out of its grasp. That’s a bit jarring to witness after decades of watching the masked vigilante, played before by a bevy of actors like Adam West and Ben Affleck, navigate these muddy waters with sleek confidence even while making questionable choices in the most dangerous situations.
With Robert Pattison in the role, “The Batman” character is considerably precarious and apprehensive. However, he seems to also have a big heart and wants to be part of the change for reasons not based on pride or rage but something else he can’t quite put his finger on (and the movie, frustratingly, never tells us).
Part of that pathos is due to age. We meet Bruce Wayne younger than we’ve seen him previously and in an earlier era of Gotham City. It’s about 20 years after the brutal murder of his billionaire parents, which puts him at around 30 years old. He’s alone and mopey, though evidently not without hope that he can clean up the streets — simply because he feels he must.
That timid faith compels him to blindly align with law enforcers, even though we know their system to be contributing to the corruption, like lieutenant Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), presumably because it’s the right thing an orphaned child should do to exact what he calls “vengeance.”
But that’s a word repeated often in “The Batman” without any real heft to it. In fact, much of how Batman operates is mechanical. Not yet inhabiting his more familiar staggering presence that can alternate between reckless and flashy — as he does in later years when he flits from brawling in dark alleyways to lavish parties at the Wayne mansion — Bruce here is a shell of who we know he becomes later. Both the young Batman and the young Bruce are uncertain and terribly dull to watch, even in the film’s thrilling chase scenes and recognizably moody look.
That’s because very little about Bruce’s internal conflicts come to the fore in satisfying ways (including Pattison’s monotonous voiceovers and a too-brief scene with Andy Serkis’ trusty butler Alfred, who confirms a startling detail about Bruce’s parents). There’s no rich debates between hero and foe, not even one between paladin and officer that could delve into Gordon’s own misgivings as a paragon in a nefarious unit.
That’s disappointing, because that could have given Batman a bit more texture and leaned into what it seems Reeves might be going for here. As it is, we have to depend on getting a little better glimpse into Bruce’s psyche through the film’s soundtrack, which includes the angsty Nirvana track heard also in the movie trailer: “Something in the Way.”
Yes, this iteration of the character is decidedly emo and beaten down — down to the bruises on his skin and the smudged bat makeup when he’s out of costume (which is curiously rare and further shadows his humanity). It’s an alluring switch for the character, but the writing does little to make it more interesting beyond aesthetics.
But this sense of discomfort in his own skin offers potential to contend with deep-rooted themes throughout the franchise, like wealth privilege and the relationship between heroism and villainy. It’s clear that Emo Batman wants to save Gotham from its own decay in the form of the mob and The Riddler (Paul Dano), whose serial murders fuel the main plot and give it much-needed adrenaline shots. But he doesn’t really know how or even why at this point. The movie struggles with that as well. Where does his hope come from beyond his inexperience?
Like certain other Batman films (“The Dark Knight Rises” instantly comes to mind), “The Batman” gets bogged down with intertwining storylines throughout its overindulgent three-hour runtime. That includes sometimes frivolous confrontations with mob men like Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) and Oswald Cobblepot (aka The Penguin, played by Colin Farrell). Flirtatious, and often perilous, encounters with club waitress/vigilante Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman, played by Zoë Kravitz) attempt to pull out facets of Bruce’s humanity to no avail while exposing some of her vulnerabilities in rather unfulfilling ways.
Those characters are usually fun to watch, but here they are flatly written and merely serve as fodder for the real, albeit unsuccessful, impetus for “The Batman”: delving into Bruce’s interiority and self-contention. But it is The Riddler, who like The Joker in “The Dark Knight” proves that villains make excellent points sometimes, that gives the audience at least something to chew on. He reminds Batman that he wanted for nothing as a child and was brought up in a sprawling home, while other orphans like him share scraps in squalor.
It begs the question: Is Batman actually part of the problem? Though he continually fights capitalist corruption in the streets, is he a byproduct of it? It would certainly make it difficult to be the issue and solve it at the same time. But “The Batman” doesn’t compel its character to grapple enough with this, saving a lot of these big queries toward the end of the film when it would have made a more captivating story if they were introduced earlier.
Instead, it leaves its audience with trite questions about flawed heroism already embedded, and far better, in prior installments of the franchise to consider without any new provoking dialogue to support it. So then, what’s the point of presenting a more emotionally invested Batman if you weren’t going to let him, as well as the audience, reckon with these feelings? For that matter, what’s the point of watching?