OVERALL GRADE: C
The overriding impression I got from Matt Reeve's The Batman was that it wasn't at all what I was expecting. I wasn't expecting to just be thrown right into the narrative, for it to be three hours long, and certainly not so gosh darn depressing and serious. Those things aren't bad in and of themselves, but I really don't get why this had to be "Batman" film. There's almost no way to discuss this film without spoilers so I think I'll give an overview statement or two and then jump into my five biggest gripes about the film: The Batman is a dour film that presents us with a seedy and crime-filled Gotham City whose past is being exposed by the newest Joker/Bane like villain filtered through a Zodiac/Right Winger lens. Batman stumbles through a long film a step behind everyone else until the film decides he isn't a step behind and is allowed to take some proactive steps. The whole thing ends with a moral lesson that doesn't quite feel earned in my estimation. It's a long, convoluted, depressing, and conflicted miss of a film with excellent production (the score is amazing) from a really good director.
Five Biggest Issues (SPOILERS)
1. The Film Doesn't Need Batman: I have zero issues with films having clear influences. I love that Captain America: Winter Soldier is a superhero take on a cold war political thriller and that The Dark Knight is a superhero story told in the style of Michael Mann's Heat (among other influences). When I heard that this Batman would be influenced by films like Se7en and Zodiac it piqued my interest because I really liked those films. The problem here though is that this really is just a crime thriller and not really a superhero film. It's not an influence, it's the actual genre and story. Seriously, you could've made Batman just a quirky detective or a Man on Fire type on the force and the fundamentals of the story wouldn't be much different. I wouldn't be surprised if the script had been written first and foremost as crime thriller and only later (to sell it) the Batman universe was set on top of it. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but this decision led to the next issue.
2. Batman is Far Too Passive: The film essentially throws us right into the "Batman is a detective" aspect of the story from the beginning. He's at the crime scene of the city mayor looking over evidence and it's clear most of the police see him as a freak. At the crime scene is a letter addressed to Batman along with other riddles/clues (Aside: despite the killer literally calling out Batman, the police never seem desirous to sit him down and question him and work with him on why.) Anyways - the movie is essentially Batman running from clue to clue, crime scene to crime scene, always a step behind. Everyone he talks to just gives him exposition after exposition. Follow Selina - exposition and backstory. Talk to Penguin - exposition and backstory. Talk to Falcone - exposition and backstory. Talk to Alfred - exposition and backstory. There's practically no one he saves, no crime or killing he prevents, and never even seriously questions if he should be following the clues of a maniac/killer. You may say, didn't he hunt down Penguin? Yeah, remember, and he was wrong. He thought the "flying rat" was like three other people before he even considered Falcone last. He's not shaping the narrative by his choices at all, he's being dragged on by the one character who shaped everything - Riddler.
By the time the Riddler turns himself in - Batman's sole contribution to the actual necessities of the plot is moving Falcone "into the light" for Riddler to shoot him down. Even then the film reverts back to the previous pattern: Batman talks to Riddler - exposition and backstory and then reaction. I'm sorry, but again, why is this a "Batman" movie? Why does this need a beloved superhero and blockbuster production values? Think about it, even the biggest detective discovery by Batman about the floor of Riddler's apartment is a reaction to the lucky comment by the cop on the scene, "It's a carpet tucker..." Shouldn't this be a story about a rookie cop/freelance investigator alongside a grizzled old detective...you know like Se7en or Zodiac?
3. The Film is Fundamentally Conflicted: On one hand, the film really wants to be a challenging experience for the viewer - thrown right into the story without a lot of "here's the status quo for this Batman universe" kind of prologues. It moves slow and expects patience from the viewer who is asked to glean a lot of details about Bruce's life through the plot rather than through specific scenes meant to directly tell the audience. It's meant to be dark (it feels like they are never outside during the day), the city has trash everywhere, everyone is dirty or corrupted (they even give Bruce's parents a dirtier backstory than usual). Riddler is meant to be a truly frightening character and we get borderline violent scenes with him - yet the film is PG-13 and gives us that heavy handed narration at the beginning and the end of the film. Even in little ways, like Batman is this outcast cops don't like at crime scenes, then at another moment the cops are trying to arrest him, then in another scene he's back at crime scenes and no one is arresting him.
Batman is sure to tell us he's "Vengeance" in this film (in fact more people seem to call him that than Batman), yet he's the only one not corrupted, who doesn't cross lines himself, and stops other people from crossing ethical lines. How is he "vengeance" if he's the nicest guy in the city and looking to play by the rules? At the end of the film we return to the narration where Batman essentially says vengeance was the wrong motivation – that’s Riddler’s route – he needs to be hope instead. So he helps people out of the rubble. I don't get it - he wouldn't have helped people in the rubble before? Isn't what he was doing by being an ethical crime fighter? Is it just about the motive? He should punch people and take out criminals because it gives people hope and not because he's angry? Is he still gonna punch people or are the next Batman films all just gonna be THE BATMAN: FIREFIGHTER, THE BATMAN: EMERGENCY SERVICES RESPONDER? I don't get it. The film feels fundamentally conflicted with itself, between being depressing/uplifting and being a small arthouse crime film/blockbuster superhero film. Didn't work for me.
4. There's No Rich Side Characters: Shorter critiques here on out. I don't expect rich side characters from regular films, but I do expect them from 3 hour epics. Honestly, can tell me anything really interesting about Jim Gordon, Carmine Falcone, Penguin, or Alfred? Selina Kyle is probably the character we spend the third most time with and she's...not all that interesting. Out of Bruce Wayne and Riddler, I think Riddler is probably the most developed.
5. The Film is Just No Fun: I've no problem with art house films being moody and serious. I do have a problem with three hour blockbuster films that exposit constantly, move slowly, provide few likable or rich characters, or give us any moments of levity or humor. Unless you love the grim crime stuff, there's barely anything here for us to really enjoy/like. Maybe you'd think it's in the action? Nope, the action is purposefully uninspiring. The film seems to go out of its way to say to the audience, "Our Batman is basic when it comes to action. He's primarily a detective. We are favoring style in the action presentation rather than substance" He's essentially a quirky cop wearing body armor and driving a muscle car. That's fine, but it just circles back to my other criticisms. If you knew you wanted to make a film where the action was minimized, heavily toned down, basic, and more artsy in the cinematography then why is this a Batman story? It leads to a passive Batman who just isn't that much fun. Batman isn't really well known for amazing action (unlike the top tier Marvel films), but this film giving us sequences that aren't even in the top 15 best Batman action sequences is really really disappointing.
Judging by the critical and popular reception, my experience is not the one others are having. People are loving this Batman and I think that's fine. Perhaps my thoughts will change after viewing it at a later time. I just kept thinking throughout the entire thing how much more I'd rather be watching an actual crime thriller or an actual superhero film. This 3 hour joyless blend of the two didn't do it for me.
OVERALL GRADE: C