Review by Michaele Jordan: I don’t usually write about the big-name stuff. There’s always plenty of people out there discussing the blockbusters. You don’t need yet another opinion (even if it’s mine). But there’s been surprisingly little buzz about the 2022 version of The Batman, starring Robert Pattinson, for all that it did well in the official reviews and in the theatres (85/87 on Rotten Tomatoes). Even here on File 770 its only mention is that two of its actors were nominated for Saturn awards in 2022.
So let me tell you about it. Believe me, it’s a strange bird. (Well, a strange winged creature). First and foremost it’s Matt Reeves’ baby – his adopted baby. Originally it was intended to be a Ben Affleck film. Not only was Mr. Affleck going to star in the movie, he was going to direct it, write it—together with Peter Craig, and produce it—together with Dylan Clark. But in 2017, he stepped down from the writing and directing, although he assured us he would still star in the film. Mr. Reeves was hired to replace him in production. And then, in 2019 (fairly last minute by film production standards), Mr. Affleck also quit as star, to be replaced by Robert Pattinson.
It’s difficult to resist speculating on those two years in between. We are told that as soon as he started directing, Mr. Reeves started rewriting. That actually makes sense. The words are there to communicate the vision. Change the vision, and the words will have to follow.
But those rewrites were extensive. Did they perhaps represent a change of vision completely odds with Mr. Affleck’s vision? Nobody likes being rewritten.
Or not – I am probably reveling in my own overactive and drama-hungry imagination. Mr. Affleck has repeatedly stated that he resigned due to the stresses of the disintegration of his marriage to Jennifer Garner and the nightmarish production issues Justice League was suffering. He has never complained that this was not the film he would have made.
Entertaining as the gossip may be, none of that is actually relevant here. A review deals with the finished product, and its impact on the viewer, regardless of what issues may or may not have steered its creation. So let’s talk about the finished film. For me, the biggest problem was that it didn’t feel like a Batman movie.
As a legend grows, it absorbs a great deal of material that was not merely invisible, but genuinely absent from the original. This does not actually mean that the original has been forgotten, just that it has been sublimated. The Batman legend started with a comic book.
I’ve read something of Mr. Reeves’ intent. He felt it was important to explore the psychological trauma that underlies Batman’s existence. Having taken such a realistic approach to the character, he was committed to a realistic presentation of both the re-examined character, and the world that character lives in.
He’s not wrong. Every Batman fan has wondered about those issues and argued about them with their friends. Everything that Mr. Reeves has put on the screen makes sense to us, and echoes many of our own questions. But what the fans argue about is one thing and what they expect to see on the screen is another. I believe that, whatever the clever nuances, they still expect to see some reflection of the canon.
This movie starts – very cleverly, I thought – on a rainy Halloween night, with busy streets thronged with so many costumed revelers that Batman could walk right through them entirely unnoticed. When the costumed Batman confronts his first evil-doer, the guy says, “Who are you supposed to be?”
It’s funny. It’s also a warning of things to come. Batman’s costume is practically the only survival of the original cast, since so much of that cast was defined by the exotic imagery in which it was presented. It’s not that the original characters have been deleted, but they have been rendered so realistic that they are almost unrecognizable.
There is a slinky woman lurking and snooping around the edges of the underworld, but if you didn’t happen to remember the name Selina, you probably wouldn’t identify her as the Catwoman. (Kudos to Zoë Kravitz, for her sensitive presentation of a damaged soul.) Colin Farrell plays a fat and unscrupulous saloon owner named Oz. We accept him as exactly that – until we hear that he really hates it when people call him Penguin.
We don’t really get a chance to decide if we would have recognized Bruce Wayne, since we first see him when the Batman unmasks. So instead of being uncertain, I, for one, was disappointed. I was madly in love with Bruce Wayne as a child – he was rich and beautiful and heroic. But Robert Pattinson is not beautiful. He’s rich, but the money hasn’t made him whole. He’s sallow and sunken-cheeked. He looks like he got beaten up a lot as a kid. He looks like a loser. And, of course, he is. Because he’s never recovered from the crippling emotional damage caused by his father’s violent death. If he weren’t the Batman, he wouldn’t be anything at all.
The only character that retains any semblance of the original conception is the Riddler (played wonderfully by Paul Dano). He doesn’t wear an emerald green leotard, but he does decorate his handiwork with large, bloody question marks, and send the Batman cryptic clues, fully expecting them to be solved. In fact, he’s utterly delighted (laughs and laughs!) when one clue actually goes over the Batman’s head. And because he’s a realistic Riddler, he takes being a psychopathic killer seriously, and becomes so much more evil than any mere cartoon.
I can almost hear some of you muttering to yourselves, “So what’s wrong with that? He brings in a little realism? Treats our beloved characters seriously? Doesn’t sound so awful to me. And it isn’t awful. Just the opposite, The Batman is a fine film. The performances are superb and the plotting is precise – as it has to be, to navigate this convoluted tale of a troubled vigilante pursuing a serial killer through a stew of political corruption. If Mr. Reeves had simply changed all the names, and altered the protagonist’s costume, it might well have been hailed as a neo-noir classic.
It just doesn’t happen to feel like a Batman movie