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For over a decade, there has been a running debate over the best superhero films: it was good but was it better than The Dark Knight?
It was often asked of Avengers: Infinity War and now, fittingly, it is being asked of The Batman. For fourteen years, The Dark Knight has been the gold standard and, naturally, people are itching to see whether other directors can do better. No one wants to hear that the best has already happened.
As a life-long Batman fan, I find myself well-placed to make this judgement. The Batman is good, really good, but there is a big problem at the heart of it. But, as always, positives first.
The Batman is the most faithful depiction of Gotham to date. Finally, we have a Gotham on the big screen as we have had in the original post-Miller comics for years. The villains co-inhabit factions of the city, as opposed to lining up one-by-one for the caped crusader to take down. It is a welcome and long-overdue change; it’s like watching the ‘Arkham’ games.
Pattinson’s casting may have greeted some with hesitancy but it’s worth bearing in mind people scoffed at Heath Ledger when he was cast as the Joker. For me, Pattinson was the best part of the movie, settling into the role in a way I don’t think any other Batman truly has. Watching Affleck or Clooney is like watching an actor imitating Batman whereas Pattinson truly embodies him.
It is also often said that Matt Reeves is a visual director and that is most certainly the case here. The cinematography was utterly gorgeous, falling short only to the sound design which is some of the best Batman has ever seen – second only to the Burton films. No song suits the tone better than Nirvana’s ‘Something in the Way’, although it could probably have retained its effect better had it not taken up as much of the runtime.
But that’s just it isn’t it? The biggest criticism of The Batman will always be that its a three-hour narrative. Although length may not be a fair gripe, for it is hardly ever a film’s length, but how they use it, The Batman’s real problem is that every one of these 180 minutes is absorbed into the same plotline.
The film sinks so much time into this new Batman, yet gives us a Bruce Wayne that we comparatively see so little of. Had the film alternated between the main plot and a side plot embroiling Bruce Wayne’s life -think Doc Ock and Peter Parker losing his powers in Spiderman 2 – the runtime would be easier to swallow.
To use a musical metaphor, The Batman built a ten-minute song around the same four chords. We needed a key change.
The frustrating thing is that The Batman comes so close to striking that balance. The film’s most interesting attempt at a side plot was the conflict between Alfred and Bruce fighting over the family’s legacy versus becoming Batman full-time. It hinted at new territory to be explored, yet the film just let Bruce win immediately and never dramatized it – beyond the mayor-elect telling Bruce he should be doing more for Gotham. Perhaps this would sting a little less had No Way Home not posed the same question and shoved it aside barely four months ago.
Speaking of things being done before, the antagonist being a mysterious terrorist, capitalizing on a big sociological issue of the time? The Dark Knight’s Joker feeds into post 9/11 fears and The Riddler against our corrupt, oligarch-driven politics. The subversion of the usual ‘Thomas Wayne was perfect’ narrative might have been more effective had Joker not done the same three years ago. I don’t particularly mind that the plot was essentially an adaptation of The Long Halloween or Hush wearing the skin of Year One, but it could have been used as a vehicle for something new.
The closest we get to this is a Casino Royale-esque twist that the entire film has been an origin story and that the character we know only truly arrives at the end. It half pulls this off, but I don’t think there’s much that could have made this arc feel more satisfying without having Batman violate his ‘no kill’ rule throughout the film, only to have him re-establish it at the end.
Although it’s clear the devotion is here – in honor of the ‘60s film, Batman even dangles over a body of water by rope – one can only hope that Reeves will feel more comfortable taking risks when the sequel comes along. But please, don’t let it feature the sixth Joker incarnation in twelve years.