Here’s the thing about Matt Reeves’ The Batman: the film is great. It is impeccably cast with actors who absolutely shine in their roles. It is beautifully shot and wonderfully atmospheric. Michael Giacchino’s score dominates from end to end, like a mournful and hopeless tone poem. It finds its own angle in the Batman mythology, and focuses on detective work over action, and suspense and tension over explosions and loud noises. The film is a pastiche: it openly touches on most of the big serial killer-themed thrillers of the past few decades. Seven (1995) is an obvious touch point, as is David Fincher’s other great thriller Zodiac (2007). The film is knowing, and it is smart.
Here’s the other thing about The Batman: it is all of those things, until it simply does not know how to end. It simply stumbles on, as if it has run full-pelt down a hill and hasn’t found a way to stop without crashing face-first. If the first two hours represent this endlessly rebooted superhero property at its finest, then the third represents it at its worst. The excellent work undertaken in the lead-up is wasted, the goodwill is shot, and when it finally does end at a staggering 176 minutes the conclusion is not triumphant or tragic but rather merciful.
It is a victory of story and a failure of plot. Reeves, working with co-writer Peter Craig, has a tremendous handle on the story. Gotham City’s mayor is killed, and the assailant has left a note for ‘the Batman’. Working with police lieutenant Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), Batman (Robert Pattinson) investigates a growing chain of killings that link Gotham’s leading police and political leaders with the city’s criminal underworld – ruled by gangster Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) and his right-hand Oswald “Penguin” Cobblepot (Colin Farrell, buried under so much makeup it’s a wonder they didn’t simply hire another actor).
The premise is strong. The film also does itself an enormous favour by kicking things off a full year into Batman’s crime-fighting career. There is no flashback to Bruce Wayne’s parents’ murder. The film is also clever in how it constructs a bleak, atmospheric world – there is not a single exterior without a visual reference to urban blight – and populates it logically with various Batman characters. Some previous films have struggled under the weight of multiple villains. The Batman includes the Penguin, Falcone, Catwoman (Zoe Kravitz), and the Riddler (Paul Dano) and never feels over-crowded or busy.
There is comparatively little action, all things considered, but when it hits it does so impactfully. There’s a rough edge to this particular take, and it works much better in context than it did in the film’s underwhelming marketing materials. Pattinson is rock-solid in the role of Bruce Wayne, as is Jeffrey Wright as Gordon. Andy Serkis makes a few odd appearances through the film as reliable butler Alfred Pennyworth, but it honestly feels like the bulk of his performance was edited out.
That structure, though. The film essentially has two climaxes that could have easily been reshaped into one. The first is dramatic and suspenseful. The second creeps into view from behind what seems a menacing coda, breaking the energy of that first climax and replacing it with something half-hearted and vaguely planned.
A sequel has been announced, and honestly the better aspects of this first film suggest a much stronger outing the second time around. It needs a better handle on its plot, and a lot more structural discipline. Fingers crossed its makers achieve that.