#6 in my ranking of theatrically released Batman films.
When I heard that Matt Reeves, director of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, was making a noirish, 70s inspired, epic three-hour Batman film, I was excited. To come out of the experience thinking that it was merely pretty good feels like a disappointment. I wasn’t jonesing for this movie like I had been Dune, but I had been really looking forward to it. And, it’s pretty good. It really needed at least one more rewrite to more properly coalesce its three distinct parts into a cohesive whole, but even without that, I was pretty consistently entertained in a Seven-esque sort of way with a disaster movie thrown in at the end for good measure.
It’s year two of Bruce Wayne’s (Robert Pattinson) effort to prowl the streets of Gotham at night as the menacing Batman, using his reputation and the light in the sky from Lieutenant Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) of the Gotham Police Department. Wayne is dedicated wholly to the idea of him being vengeance against the ills of the city that just keep seeming to pile up night after night, no matter what he does. In this environment, a Zodiac-like killer named The Riddler (Paul Dano) kills first the mayor of the city, then the police commissioner, and the DA, leaving hints along the way, always directed to Batman himself, about a vast criminal conspiracy hiding in plain sight that the whole city has failed to realize. It involves the famous takedown of a former drug kingpin in the city that helped make all of their careers, leaving Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) as the main criminal element, along with his right hand man The Penguin (Colin Farrell).
The interesting thing about the first two-thirds of this film is that it really is just a straight up detective mystery. Batman has to start with the clue left on the mangled body of the mayor to discover a particular car of the mayors which has a thumb drive which contains incriminating pictures that leads him to The Penguin’s club where he meets Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz) who is mainly concerned with a missing young woman, the former consort of the mayor. They team up to continue the investigation, using Batman’s tech to get him a view into the Penguin’s exclusive club that caters to the most powerful of the city. When she ditches Batman, feeling like she’s used him as far as she can, Batman ends up teaming with Gordon directly and, I swear, it becomes a buddy cop movie. It’s the dark, wet (it’s always raining in this Gotham City), serial killer version of 48 Hrs. I realized during an informal interrogation scene, and I got tickled. I mean, the scene isn’t funny (well, it ends kind of funny), but the concept of Batman and Gordon teaming up for an investigative adventure outside the confines of regulation just kind of made me happy.
The investigation goes deeper until it becomes obvious that Bruce Wayne himself is the fourth target of the Riddler because his father, Thomas Wayne, was somehow connected to this great criminal conspiracy. The Riddler’s attack ends up hitting Alfred (Andy Serkis), Bruce’s lifelong butler and father-figure, and we suddenly get a theme. Up to this point, it just felt like a gritty Batman adventure, going deep into a conspiracy to fight the bad guys. And then it decides to become a movie. It’s really this point where I feel like the script needed one more rewrite.
Thomas Wayne being implicated in corruption has a great effect on Bruce, so much so that, in fact, the movie simply stops all other activity for the younger Bruce to go into the lion’s den and meet Falcone face-to-face to hear about his connection to Thomas. Then Bruce goes to a recovering Alfred to hear his side. I swear, I had no idea that Bruce’s concept of his father was supposed to be some kind of thematic center of this film until the 90-minute point. I feel like a rewrite would have put Bruce’s concept of his father in the first thirty minutes, at most, instead of relying, it seems, on the audience’s previous knowledge of how other iterations of the Batman saga have treated the relationship. Then, the Riddler could have made it known his targets early, giving Bruce time to, at the same time, investigate those living and dismiss before learning to accept any evidence against his father, creating some kind of arc. Instead, at about the halfway point, the film stops to shove all this in. It’s not bad. It’s fairly well-written, it’s just really concentrated into one roughly fifteen-minute-long block of film right as we were getting close to the resolution of the big mystery. It would have been nice if these revelations could have been better interwoven into the rest of the story.
Now, the actual resolution of the mystery comes, and it’s satisfying. A lot has been swirling around it involving Bruce, Selina, and the big secrets of Gotham as well, and then the movie keeps going for forty minutes. Acting out like Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver would if he had been a comic book villain, the Riddler blows up the seawall protecting Gotham, and the city becomes flooded, driving people to a high point where the Riddler’s social media followers have a surprise set up. This disaster thing…I get why it comes out of nowhere. There’s a real point to it, keeping the Riddler a few steps ahead of Batman even after Batman physically catches up. Since the film is told pretty exclusively from Batman’s point of view, it makes even more sense. However, it makes for somewhat odd storytelling as one movie ends and another one, in a completely different genre no less, begins. I could imagine ways to integrate it earlier (the Riddler can only blow up part of the seawall because of Batman’s efforts, or something, but leading to similar results) with copycats popping up for seemingly unrelated reasons. Hints that there’s more going on so that it doesn’t quite feel as jarring.
That being said, it’s spectacle, and this movie doesn’t do spectacle all that often but does it well when it comes. It’s about three-quarters brooding investigative mystery, but that final quarter is all booms, pews, and woahs. The car chase with the Penguin provides some fun twists in that they end up in traffic. The disaster movie ending is often quite beautiful to simply look at. For all the dark, rainy, and grimy setting, the film is consistently well framed and lit. It’s all the popular low-lit to nothing because we’re using the best digital cameras and we can get away with it mixed with arthouse focus on weird things in frame, but, despite the pretensions, it does look very good.
Acting is good all around, though I don’t think anyone really stands out other than Colin Farrell, completely disappearing behind the makeup of The Penguin, and Paul Dano, only really revealed late but completely convincing as a totally insane person who understands his physical limits. Pattinson is fine and brooding. Kravitz is alternatively intense and fragile when the situation calls for it. Wright is quietly intense as Gordon. I also want to note that its interesting to hear some squeakier male voices like Alex Fern as the commissioner, giving some supporting characters a different kind of life to them.
Reeves does the most he can in terms of the production, but his script that he co-wrote with Peter Craig comes across as three squished into one instead of one cohesive whole. Properly foreshadowing the third act might not have been a huge lift, but the integration of the Thomas Wayne stuff earlier probably would have demanded much more work. As it is, though, the mystery is the kind of deeply twisting, ever-changing movie mystery that leaves the audience guessing right along with the characters. The character work, when it comes it, is well-considered, and the spectacle works. It may not be the epic masterpiece I had secretly hoped for, but it’s a solidly good film nonetheless.