ST. LOUIS — It's hard to walk into a brand new Gotham City-based movie and not recall the previous cinematic adventures. That's the price of admission into territory that Hollywood has covered long and well, for the most part. Bill Finger and Bob Kane’s comic invention is what Warner Brothers Pictures shines in the sky when another franchise needs rescuing, or their comic book department just needs a fresh face-lift.
So, the task that writer/director Matt Reeves-a filmmaker who already blew our minds with his reinvention of the "Apes" trilogy-faced with "The Batman," is making the material fresh and something that looks like it came from his own mind. Did he succeed? For the most part, yes he did. Let's get into my thoughts on the Robert Pattinson-led young detective "Batman" adventure. If you want no spoilers at all, skip the next few graphs and head to the bottom of the page for the final say.
***MILD SPOILERS, PLOT DISCUSSION***
This is Tim Burton's "Batman" meets David Fincher's "Seven," with some Alex Proyas's "The Crow" thrown in for good measure. Dark and twisted with a brutal sense of violence that fits in with the patented rainy aesthetic. Things are bad in Gotham (aren't they always?), and getting worse. Pattinson's Bruce Wayne hasn't worn the cape for long as the movie opens, but he's clearly more of a rage monster than Gotham's gloomy billionaire, orphaned at a terribly young age (which Reeves spares us from seeing for the 15th time).
Pattinson owns the role immediately. It only takes a couple looks at him in costume to appreciate the actor's dedication to the role. As an older version of Alfred Pennyworth would joke, it's not all about those push-ups and situps. The actor is indeed ripped and bleached with a pale sadness, looking the part almost immediately. But the more he climbs into the role and gets more lost in the absolute form of justice his Bat is dispensing, you stop seeing the young kid who wooed us with "Twilight," and just see who the actor has become over the last 10 years. Someone who likes a challenge.
Buying into his bat early on helps set up his eventual showdown with Gotham's resident anarchist, The Riddler. Played with raspy-sounding bad guy glee by Paul Dano, it's a complete 180 course correction to Jim Carrey's outlandish and over the top take on the character. While it fits in with Reeves' world, the aspirations for this role and its interlocking with Pattinson's bat far exceeded its execution. As in, I was left wanting more with Dano's Riddler. But that also could be a complaint on the script.
If there's one thing that is lesser than the sum of its parts, it's the screenplay. Co-written by Reeves and Peter Craig, it follows the usual goings and happenings in this world, albeit with its own little twists and turns. It comes off more preachy at times than sincere and original, borrowing themes from earlier films while introducing a few worthy elements of its own. For me, the way to stand out in this world of Batman movies is the script and what it gives the actors. Christopher Nolan's films had excellent story construction and balance. Reeves' "The Batman" is predictably 24/7 doom and gloom and while he makes it his own, it's also too familiar in the way it tells and wraps its story.
Once again, how many versions are we into this character and his sad descent? A ton. A lot of what happens here, except for a handful of scenes, is what one would expect. The battle for Gotham between the Bat and Riddler. The relationship and partnership with Selina Kyle's Catwoman (Zoe Kravitz), who I think was woefully underwritten here. Or, there's just nothing new about her take on Kyle, and I throw more pie at the script than the actress there.
Andy Serkis doesn't get a whole lot to do or develop as Alfred, even if a few tasty breadcrumbs are laid near the end of the movie. John Turturro plays a familiar version of his past characters as the sneaky-yet-deadly mobster, Falcone. Amusing if slight in the end. But two of the supporting cast really stand out. Jeffrey Wright and Colin Farrell.
Wright makes for a fierce, commanding, and collaborative Jim Gordon--Batman's true partner out there on the streets. The moments between Pattinson and Wright play very well and it becomes this detective graphic novel in motion. The dialogue and chemistry between the two crimefighters of different makeup bolstered the movie. I wanted more of that and less of the various, unnecessary subplots.
Farrell nearly stole the film. You could make a case for it, even with Pattinson and Wright's strong work. He was unrecognizable under the makeup and accent as an early days Penguin, enforcing for Falcone while building his own rep. Farrell, in only a handful of real scenes, leans into the role and opportunity. Gone is the overzealous Bullseye from "Daredevil" and in is the seasoned character actor who has built a fine career, post-movie star fall from grace. It's not like the Irish actor can't hold a movie on his shoulders as a star; he's just so much more fun and interesting to watch carving out these character pieces.
If any character leaves you wanting more in a good way, it's Farrell. He's very entertaining, something the film strives very hard to be in all its gothic rage. Take a drink every time Nirvana's "Something in the way" starts to play. Michael Giacchino's score is overwhelmingly bombastic, for better or worse.
At times, it seemed like I was watching two different movies wrestling with each other; a more mainstream action-centric one, and another that was trying to be something much different and deeper. Something less loud and more complex. But when it was on, "The Batman" was top flight entertainment.
If it takes one top prize in this everlasting DC Comics film franchise, it's "best car chase." There's no doubt. About halfway into the movie, in a rainy night face-off with Farrell's fleeing Oswald Cobblepot, Reeves and Pattinson smash the pedal into the metal with a thrilling sequence. Featuring the souped-up old school muscle car Batmobile, turbo-charged and tanked up in the back, blasting straight through exploding semi-trucks, the viewer feels the entire compression of Reeves' aesthetic coming at them. The sliver of footage you saw in the trailer is enhanced into an extended five minute scene that ranks among the best of anything I've seen this year or last in the car chase department.
But when it's down, the length and pacing of the movie leaves the viewer a little restless at times. You do feel the nearly three hours here and before any running time snob comes rolling out, it's perfectly fine to state that not every Batman movie or superhero tale needs to be so long. You could have lost 15 minutes easily here. Or, choose one kind of film that you want to be.
While certain elements keep it from greatness, I firmly applaud Matt Reeves' vision with "The Batman." He delivers an equally entertaining and thinking-man's take on the material. There's enough intrigue left at the back door here to want to see more Pattinson-led adventures.
The cost of doing more of these stories is the high mantle set by the previous filmmakers. But as my good friend Eric Moore said after the screening, "Batman Begins" didn't exactly achieve greatness overnight. Some marinating could be in order, so don't take my criticisms here as old man burns. Matt Reeves didn't unload all of his power in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." He saved a good amount for "War," the third chapter and his second attempt at the material.
I didn't love "The Batman," but it did enough to hook me in for another Reeves/Bat adventure.