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‘The Batman’ returns to the basics with a vengeance, but not an identity

Robert Pattinson plays a newer, younger, and darker Batman in Matt Reeves' reboot also starring Jeffrey Wright, Zoë Kravitz, and Paul Dano.

The following review of The Batman is an edited transcript of the video above.

The Batman is a totally new, totally reinvigorated reset of the iconic comic book character, certainly one of the most recognizable and beloved costumed heroes of all time, certainly one of the surest bets Hollywood can still make when it comes to box office franchises, as we can easily compare Batman to Marvel’s darling, Spider-Man.

It’s been a while since Warner Bros. brought forth a focused Batman film, with just Batman and his Gotham-centric carousel of villains and allies and everyone in between to come out and play. This new take was directed by Matt Reeves, famous for delivering one of the best trilogies in recent years, that being the Planet of the Apes trilogy which started with Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Reeves co-wrote this screenplay with Peter Craig, who worked on a few of the Hunger Games movies and The Town.

Our new Batman is played by Robert Pattinson, who is certainly one of the most exciting young actors working today, so for those of you who might’ve missed some of his other roles since starring in the Twilight films, Pattinson has become a mainstay in independent cinema, showing up in some truly stellar films like Good Time, The Lost City of Z, and Claire Denis’ High Life. But he’s back in the blockbuster spotlight once again as a young Bruce Wayne trying to survive his second year of crime-fighting as, well, you know.

For source material, The Batman is a curious blend of several Batman comics; it dabbles in Year One, especially when it comes to how Bruce Wayne’s struggle to figure out how to “be” Batman. But in terms of the plot, it’s really lifting from The Long Halloween and its sequel, Dark Victory, because the story mainly follows the detective side of Batman, where he and the Gotham PD are trying to solve a string of serial killings. But the big change here is that they’re going with the Riddler, played by Paul Dano, as the villain instead of the Hangman or Holiday (though Riddler was technically in Dark Victory, to be clear). It’s an interesting choice because the film purposefully frames Riddler and his unending ciphers and codes as Gotham’s version of the Zodiac Killer, which nicely matches the moody 70s noir action vibe Reeves brings in from films like The French Connection and Chinatown, while also gracefully merging them with many a David Fincher film.

The film also stars Jeffrey Wright as Jim Gordon, not yet a commissioner but already a reliable ally of Batman. And Zoë Kravitz plays Catwoman, who similar to Batman is still finding her way as she’s sort of a cat burglar but also a nightclub waitress and maybe she deals drugs, too. We also have John Turturro as the mob boss Carmine Falcone (since you can’t really do Year One and have Catwoman without Falcone). Andy Serkis plays Alfred in the usual doting paternal figure who sort of just needles around in the background, and Colin Farrell is basically unrecognizable as the Penguin, who in this is really just a mid-level mobster still making a name for himself.

The cast is exactly as good as it sounds, if not better. Pattinson’s Batman, and Bruce Wayne for that matter, has a murkier, broodier, more insomniac flavor to his performance, almost like he’s a man who is addicted to being Batman like a troubled rockstar is addicted to, well, actual drugs, and this all helps to really sell that he’s still new at this and still figuring this dangerous world out. It’s a bold story choice because the audience certainly has a good idea of who Batman is, what his code is, and so on; so there’s a bit of catching up that this new version of the character has to do. Thankfully, it comes together because Pattinson plays the part so imperfectly perfect through this unique edge of a man who isn’t a suave, charming billionaire fighting thugs in his free time as we’ve seen in other Batman films, but rather an emotionally stunted teenage daredevil in a 30-year-old’s body, which of course makes for some stellar character development and progression as he also happens to be a genius borne out of his obsession with understanding and undercutting crime at its most basic level. Being the world’s greatest detective has a relatable, thought-provoking downside. It’s sourced by an unhealthy obsession that gradually chips away at Bruce Wayne’s humanity, or what’s left of it.

Zoë Kravitz and Jeffrey Wright round out what I would consider to be one of the best trios of performance acting we’ve seen in a Batman film, if only because they manage to tug at dueling worldviews as reflection characters, a devil and angel on Batman’s shoulder, yet at the same time they can almost look indistinguishable. The film also has one of the best car chase scenes ever put to film in the modern era, easily the most impressive and spectacular since Mad Max Fury Road, and much of its success is thanks to Colin Farrell’s stunning commitment to the Penguin persona, a character I honestly underestimated in his value to the story up until that moment. This is also some of the better fist-fighting action we’ve seen in any Batman film, though not quite at the level of the brilliant warehouse scene in Batman v Superman.

Overall, The Batman is a grab bag of story and aesthetic elements that add up to something seriously impressive and thrilling to watch. It’s one of those “I’m glad this exists” kind of movies, similar to Joker, in fact. As I said before, it’s David Fincher’s Zodiac with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight blended together with some of the best crime dramas of the 70s and 80s. Yet by the end of the film, I had trouble pinpointing why it didn’t fully connect in the way that The Dark Knight and Batman Begins did. It’s certainly of a piece with The Dark Knight in terms of its grounded approach with more realistic emotional stakes. It’s clearly inspired by the grittier, earthier atmosphere that made Joker turn heads, even at the Academy.

So what is it? What’s the problem?

At first, I chalked it up to the length of the film and how it takes quite a long time to actually end. The third act goes on far longer than it’s set up for, and structurally, the film loses itself after the midpoint, when we move into the higher stakes of the second act and we’re gearing up for the climax, and instead we get a series of mini climaxes, essentially. Which made me think that upon repeated viewings, the film might work much better, it might be more engaging and easier to appreciate once I go into it with all the pieces already put together.

But I do think the problem, the real underlying issue, is a bit more complex. For one thing, The Batman lacks its own identity and point of view. Because it borrows so heavily from so many other great works, it doesn’t really come together to say anything all that profound, the same way we can still quote so many lines of dialogue from The Dark Knight, all of which had deep, resonant connections to the film’s themes.

More specifically, The Batman lacks an engine for its story, that type of page-turner quality that makes audiences want to keep going and going and going with it, never wanting it to end. The Batman is really just a series of well-made, nice-to-look at vignettes that just barely connect to each other or lead into each other with the energy and propulsion audiences crave from big-budget action spectacle movies at this level.

Which partly explains why the ending can’t come soon enough, because the story itself is just a bit too loose and meandering with all its various threads and pieces, all of which are technically and visually satisfying in their own ways, just not tied together to have that intentional, unmistakable quality that does what the best films do, which is not just entertain, but change the viewer. It’s a high bar, so I’m far away from saying the film is lesser or weak or “bad” for not clearing the bar, but it is notable that it jumps as high as it does and just barely comes short.

That said, hardcore fans of Batman already have a built-in “engine” for enjoying this movie in all its painstaking effort, as the character being put to film so confidently will be enough of a page-turner for most fans, and I do expect most people who can’t wait to see it will walk out thoroughly fulfilled, perhaps wondering to themselves if this might be the best Batman film ever made or close to it. For me, that’s still The Dark Knight by a wide margin, with Batman Begins not too far behind, but The Batman certainly isn’t far off, either. It’s an exciting new reboot for a franchise that really needed a back-to-basics reset and a fresh coat of franchise paint.

The Batman opens in theaters this Friday.

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