“The Batman” might be the worst Bat film thus far. Its sins are numerous and horrendous, starting with the run time. The film is 176 minutes, and you feel every second almost as if it were unfolding in real time. In case there’s any ambiguity in that observation, this is a very bad thing. It’s a slow, bloated quagmire.
Until now, the longest Batman film was “The Dark Knight Rises,” at 165 minutes. That film, now a decade old, managed to cram in several major action set pieces, from a jet plane heist to the destruction of a football stadium. It was epic in scope to the point of being unwieldy.
“The Batman” is the opposite in almost every way. Depending on how you define action, there might be two action set pieces, and both are underwhelming and disappointing for a superhero film.
Therein lies the problem: this is not a superhero film. This is something new for the genre of comic book adaptation, and it simply doesn’t work. The closest precedent would be “Joker,” an excellent and powerful meditation on existential trauma akin to “Taxi Driver.” Joker took the idea of Batman’s archnemesis and told a dark tragic tale of madness completely separated from the world of Batman.
“The Batman” is trying to do something similar but fails at almost every turn. When Christopher Nolan did his Batman trilogy, it was hailed for being dark and serious. Compared to “The Batman,” Nolan’s “Dark Knight” is downright whimsical.
That’s because, as much as Nolan wanted to do something grounded in reality, he still understood that Batman is larger than life. His trilogy was both grounded and operatic. It balanced the inherent silliness of the character with the deep layers of meaning that decades of interpretation and reinterpretation have accomplished.
It’s become evident now, in light of “The Batman,” that there was a lot of fun to be had in the darkness of Nolan’s trilogy. He created a brilliant balance between light and dark.
Voice-Over Is Cringe-Worthy
On the contary, there’s no balance to “The Batman.” The focus is almost entirely on the title character. In fact, for the first time in a live-action bat film, the audience is subjected to a voice-over.
Narration either works in a film or it doesn’t. It’s either “Goodfellas” or the theatrical cut of “Blade Runner.” Thankfully, the narration in this film is limited, but those brief moments are cringe-worthy to the point of self-parody. For example: “They think I am hiding in the shadows. Watching. Waiting to strike. But I am the shadows.”
This falls completely flat, for at least two reasons. The first is that this Batman is no ninja. Rather, he’s a bullet-proof bruiser who isn’t particularly skilled in combat. He’s a hammer, not a surgeon; a puncher, not a boxer.
In the name of ultra-realism, the character has regressed physically to a point below Batman ‘89’s barely mobile molded rubber. So the idea that “he is the shadows” is absurd. He’s nothing of the sort, moving slowly towards his prey, making no attempt to hide, and pummeling them with all the art of a schoolyard thug.
Emoting, Not Brooding
More importantly, this is meant to be the poetic moans of a tortured soul, not a commentary on his crime-fighting modus operandi. What he’s saying is something like, “They think I like to use the darkness, what they don’t understand is that I AM DARKNESS.”
A character that tells the audience something this pretentious is unbearable and completely unrelatable. He may as well look in the camera and say, “I really want you to understand that I’m dark. Like, I’m the darkest thing you’ve seen. My soul looks like space without the stars.”
This Batman is an exercise in masturbatory emoting, not tragic dark brooding. Robert Pattinson has become a great actor since “Twilight,” and it was clear even then he was a good actor. The material was bad (so were as many of his costars), but he played the sparkle emo vamp to the hilt. The issue isn’t Pattinson. It’s the conception of the film and the writing.
In fact, all the actors are quite good, Colin Farrell and Paul Dano being the real standouts. The film is also beautifully shot. But this can’t save it. In fact, the fundamental weaknesses are highlighted by its virtues. It’s the epitome of lipstick on a pig.
Hopelessness Overcome, But Without Explanation
Now for spoilers.
The plot of “The Batman” is highly reminiscent of modern noirs like “Seven,” in which the hero accomplishes absolutely nothing because he’s trapped in the maniacal grasp of an evil beyond his ken. This is an anti-superhero film.
No matter what he does, Batman cannot meaningfully contribute to the narrative beyond what the Riddler allows. This is par for the course with film noir. Some might argue it makes the film more interesting, but I disagree.
The reason is that the film doesn’t fully embrace its own darkness. The viewer is repeatedly beaten over the head with how bleak and meaningless this world is, then, at the end, after Batman has accomplished nothing aside from leading some people to safety, he realizes he needs to be nicer. Vengeance and anger for the sake of vengeance and anger won’t solve anything. But after three hours of utter futility, it’s hard to understand why this answer makes any sense.
“Seven” has one of the most hopeless endings in film history. They felt the need to tack on a short, narrated coda to mitigate the nihilistic ending: “Hemingway said the world is a good place and worth fighting for. I agree with the second part.”
That is in essence what Batman learns by film’s end: the world is brutal and meaningless, but Batman must fight for it anyway. But why? Nothing that happens has motivated this conclusion. The reason is obvious: despite its best efforts to be anti-superhero, it is still a Batman film and he is still the good guy. He has to learn something positive, and so he does. It’s terrible writing.
Even the fact that he so clearly learns a lesson is a moment of high cringe. The climax occurs and then we’re treated to a corny summation voice-over about how scars make us stronger.
The Riddler wins, and Batman doesn’t accomplish anything in the course of three hours except solving a few riddles, usually just in time for something terrible to happen. It would be more logical for him to come to the opposite conclusion — that increased ruthlessness might make him more effective for crime fighting.
That said, the world-building aesthetic may be stronger than it’s ever been in a bat film. Gotham feels like a real place. That combined with very good casting gives this Batfan great hope for the inevitable sequel.
A much shorter film and a good script with this cast and production would be phenomenal. This film was misstep after misstep, but maybe the next film will build something amazing upon this dismal new chapter in the bat saga.