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In back-to-basics 'The Batman,' Robert Pattinson shines in the darkness

Even in a cowl that blocks his peripheral vision, <em>The Batman</em> (Robert Pattinson) can still serve side-eye.
Jonathan Olley
/
Warner Bros.
Even in a cowl that blocks his peripheral vision, The Batman (Robert Pattinson) can still serve side-eye.

Let's get this out of the way at the top.

No, you don't see Thomas and Martha Wayne die.

You heard that right: Mercifully, in Hollywood's latest effort to begin Batman yet again, director and co-writer Matt Reeves skips the venerable, too-oft-told origin story.

No pearls. No popcorn. No alley. No mugger. I come before you today to make it known: Our long bational nightmare is over.

Be honest: If I hadn't told you this, you'd have spent the entirety of The Batman's two-hours-and-fifty-five-minute running-time (!) crouched defensively in your theater seat, hovering in a constant state of low-level dread, waiting for those damn pearls to start hitting the pavement yet again. Well, I'm here to tell you: They don't.

(There's a part of me convinced that we wouldn't have arrived at this welcome, long-overdue cultural milestone if it weren't for one very dumb, very dark, and very good blink-and-you-miss-it joke in the underrated gem of film called Teen Titans Go! To the Movies back in 2018. The part of me in question is my inflated ego, because I predicted the joke would have that effect, back then.)

Setting the scene (in Gotham)

Smartly, The Batman begins in media-property res, as it were, establishing that wealthy scion-of-the-city Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) has been strapping on a bulky bulletproof batsuit for two years, spending his nights clomping around rooftops and delivering beatdowns to street gangs and robbers and their ilk. (The film's Foley artists really earn their keep; the Caped Crusader's every footfall resounds like thunder, and every time he turns his head we hear the squeak of worn leather.) He's already found an ally in not-yet-Commissioner Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), and his butler Alfred (Andy Serkis) has more or less gotten used to Bruce's Chiroptera-themed war on crime.

Even so, he's carrying a lot on his shoulders, over and above all that Kevlar. There's a serial killer (Paul Dano's Riddler) targeting some of Gotham's most prominent citizens and leaving clues for Batman at his crime scenes. There's a cocktail waitress who's gone missing and her friend Selina (Zoe Kravitz) is prepared to slap on a cat-eared beanie and deal with the mobsters who took her. Selina's boss, the Penguin (Colin Farrell, buried under mounds of prosthetics) may or may not be mixed up with all that, and is definitely mixed up with Gotham crime boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro).

Reeves and his co-writer Peter Craig have settled upon a back-to-basics approach to Batman and his world. Where Tim Burton went goth, Joel Schumacher went swoonily over-the-top, and Christopher Nolan strove for a kind of stoic, masc, gunmetal-gray realism, Reeves' The Batman seems less hung up on stylistic flourishes that betoken his particular directorial perspective and more concerned with combining disparate, pre-existing elements of Batman lore in novel ways.

That, of course, is the job, with respect to a franchise like Batman. He's been around for 83 years, and spent most of that time cycling through the same rogues gallery. Over the years, some creators have found success adding the occasional new villain to the mix, but it remains a rare occurrence.

That might have something to do with how simply and effectively Batman's extant, O.G. foes manage to highlight the different facets of his character. Historically, a given story's villain pulls Batman into a distinct and recognizable genre. A Joker story? Psychological thriller. Catwoman? Noir. Penguin? Mob story. Scarecrow? Horror. Riddler? Mystery.

Nerds like me, who value the semiotic tidiness of all this, may quibble with the film's Riddler, whose methods and motivations Reeves seems determined to simultaneously Jokerize, and Baneify, and Ra's al Ghulicate.

Let me be clear: Most moviegoers won't care about keeping Batman's villains true to their historical essences — to them, it'll sound like I'm whining about having my peas touching my mashed potatoes. But the fact remains that it's tough to get a bead on Dano's interpretation of the character, even after his mask comes off. That may be intentional, but it's not particularly satisfying.

This Batman is back-to-basics

Reeves doesn't seem interested in offering us a singular, discrete and distinctly Reevesian cinematic Batman. Instead, what he's accomplished is something that looks and feels more akin to the kind of Batman story you could pick up in a comic book shop today than any previous Batman film has managed to achieve.

Or, more specifically, a multi-issue Batman story arc, because that nearly three-hour running time lends the film a distinctly unhurried, deconstructed sense of storytelling. So many characters gets introduced in the first hour that when the film's various plotlines begin to complicate, they don't so much deftly intersect as slam headlong into each other. The story's big reveals aren't permitted to stick around very long before getting summarily reversed or minimized, so they tend to land without much much of an impact. Connections between characters grow muddier just when they're meant to become clear.

Along the way, the fans get duly serviced: Wright's Jim Gordon does his narrative duty as Officer Exposition, reading Riddler's clues aloud to Batman like a kindergarten teacher at Story Time. Kravitz's Catwoman flirts and fights and must be dissuaded from choosing violence. Farrell's Penguin is ... is basically Robert De Niro's Al Capone, really.

Production designer James Chinlund's Gotham is filled with capital-G Gothic elements, but though the city's architecture sends plenty of buttresses flying hither and yon, it feels lived-in and functional, unlike the Gothams of Burton and Schumacher, which never stopped looking like the painstakingly designed movie sets they were.

Robert Pattinson's Batman puts the emo in emote

But it's Pattinson who makes the film what it is. It's not surprising that he can brood — he made his bones in the Twilight franchise, where he spent much of his screentime glittering and sulking. But since then, he's made a series of bold choices in idiosyncratic films; on paper, his taking up the Bat-cowl might seem like a step backwards.

Pattinson's Bruce/Batman is a searching, wounded, haunted soul with a My Chemical Romance haircut. The black makeup he smudges across his eyelids before donning the mask feels less like a costume choice and more like an extension of his truest, most emo self.

But Pattinson's Bruce/Batman is a searching, wounded, haunted soul with a My Chemical Romance haircut. The black makeup he smudges across his eyelids before donning the mask feels less like a costume choice and more like an extension of his truest, most emo self. Pattinson's jawline is sharp enough to slice Manchego, and this iteration of the Batman costume has been designed to highlight that fact — in close-up, he looks like a lovingly rendered illustration.

As the tenth actor to wear the Batman costume in movies (yes, I'm counting the two dudes who did the '40s movie serials), he tackles the role's signature limitation — the way it strips its performer of access to facial expressions — with aplomb. There's a scene later in the film that calls for Batman to seem impassive to the person he's speaking to, but it's necessary for all of us in the audience to register that in truth he's freaking the hell out. In close-up, Pattinson's eyes glisten, his taciturn mouth ever-so-slightly tightens. He sells that moment, and others like it.

As a result of this expressive vulnerability, Pattinson's Batman is unique in following a clear narrative and emotional arc over the course of the film. Whereas Christian Bale's Batman, for example, was bellowing "SWEAR TO ME" from the jump, Pattinson's starts the film whispering his every utterance: The ASMR Crusader. But as he's confronted by a series of revelations about Gotham and his family's connections to it, his anger waxes and wanes; he begins to question himself and his methods. By the time the credits roll, he's not the same Batman he was when the film began — his motivation has changed, and Pattinson ensures that we can see that change, in every frame. He holds himself differently. He's more centered, more assured. He's grown up.

Does every one of the film's 175 minutes justify its existence? If it were just 20 minutes shorter, might some of those needlessly complicated plotline pile-ups have been avoided?

Could it all have taken place in less time? Does every one of the film's 175 minutes justify its existence? If it were just 20 minutes shorter, might some of those needlessly complicated plotline pile-ups have been avoided? These are legitimate questions that I started grappling with the moment the lights came up.

But while Matt Reeves' The Batman was unspooling before me, I didn't check my phone, didn't think about the passing of time. No, the film isn't a Nolanesque game-changer, nor does it manage to step out of the long shadow of previous Bat-films to do anything so grand as define Batman for a new generation. And that's fine; it doesn't seem much interested in doing so.

What it does do, quite effectively, is tell a solid Batman story, with the most soulful and vulnerable Batman to ever grace the big screen. And that much, at least, is new.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.