By John H. Foote
(**) In theatres
How many actors have portrayed Batman since 1989? Take a wild guess. In 33 years, Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Christian Bale, Ben Affleck, and now Robert Pattinson have worn the dark knight cape (that’s six). For me, the best of them was Bale, who played the role in a trilogy, while Keaton portrayed the role twice for director Tim Burton and will play the part again as an older, wiser man. The weakest of the performances was George Clooney, who stood no chance in Joel Schumacher’s mess of a film. It got to the point where it seemed not to matter, anyone who could fit into that rubber suit would do. That was until Christian Bale gave us his growling portrayal in Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). The middle film of the trilogy elevated the comic book superhero film to art, a brilliant, dark portrait of a hero as much as the villain (Heath Ledger’s Joker)) he is chasing. It is an absolute work of art and by far the best film of its year. In the years since, Ben Affleck played Batman in a few films and, though older, I quite liked him in the part. As you read this, Michael Keaton is returning to the role as an older version of the character, sending fans into a rabid frenzy.
Until that film opens, we have Robert Pattinson in The Batman (2022). He exploded to stardom as the vampire Edward Cullen in the romantic Twilight franchise, and has worked very hard to establish himself as a true actor. Just before the last Twilight film opened, Pattinson took a couple of risks with portrayals in Bel Ami (2012) as a womanizing young man with no money, and Cosmopolis (2012), a David Cronenberg film seeing him as a young wealthy man living out of his car. He took a second plunge with Cronenberg in Maps to the Stars (2014) and then stunned critics with a superb performance in Good Time (2017) as a young criminal trying to stay alive on the streets of New York and impressed critics further opposite Willem Dafoe in The Lighthouse (2019) for director Robert Eggers. After Tenet (2020), he returned to the blockbusters with this film, after long discussions with director Matt Reeves about the sort of film they were making and the sort of Batman he would be portraying.
In Matt Reeves near three-hour epic superhero film, Pattinson makes what I assume will be the first of several appearances in the cape and does a good job despite the film’s failings. Given that Reeves did such a superb job on the recent reboot of Planet of the Apes, I admit to expecting big things with this first Batman reboot. In addition to Batman, we also get the Riddler (Paul Dani), Catwoman (Zoe Kravitz)) and best of all, but seen fleetingly, the Penguin (Colin Farrell), the unrecognizable Irish actor.
I find the films work best with a single villain. More than one becomes a distraction, and the plot just becomes far too busy. It happened with the second Tim Burton film, Batman Returns (1992) in which Michelle Pfeiffer’s white hot sexy Cat Woman simply blew Danny De Vito’s disgusting Penguin off the screen. The third film, Batman Forever (1995) has a superb Jim Carrey as the Riddler sharing the screen with an appalling over-the-top performance from Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face, and the horrific finale film of the first franchise saw Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, alongside Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy. Too much!! Once Burton stepped away from the franchise, Joel Schumacher gave the films more of a comic slant, less darkness, and less of everything Burton brought to the films.
The reboot from Christopher Nolan was refreshing and brilliant, especially the middle film, The Dark Knight with Heath Ledger’s magnificent Joker. Reeve does a great job in The Batman creating the look of the film, and the atmosphere is splendid, a mix of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and the original Burton film, a smoky dark city teeming with nastiness it seems. No one can be trusted, not even the police force, many of whom are in on the corruption and helping feed and expand it.
The maniac behind the many killings in Gotham is a serial killer known as The Riddler, masked for most of the film, though Paul Dano manages to project his madness right through the mask and costumes. I would have liked to have seen some of the manic frenzy he displayed as the young preacher in There Will Be Blood (2007), but they went in a different direction with the Riddler this time. Jim Carrey was an astonishing Riddler, and I had hoped Dano might rise to that challenge but sadly does not. The Penguin is certainly helping him, but we see very little of him. Too bad because Farrell is really into playing the character. The slinky Catwoman, aka Selena Kyle, becomes an unwitting ally to Batman, though will that last after this first outing? Will she even stay in Gotham City? There is real confidence in Zoe Kravitz’ performance, her portrayal is the best in the film along with Farrell. A warrior at heart, Catwoman is portrayed as such, and she happens to look terrific. She moves well, like Pfeiffer did in 1992, and knows what she looks like in that skin-tight suit. Kyle knows what and who she is and is comfortable with that.
Does the plot even matter with these superhero films? It is the heroes against the villains, am I wrong? With that, we get chases, explosions, fights, and grand technical achievements and visual effects that audiences will devour with unbridled glee. But the question comes, is it a great film? Does it approach the greatness of the Dark Knight (2008), Wonder Woman (2017) or Black Panther (2018)?
Though Reeve puts together an entertaining film filled with great sequences, it just does not have the depth that we hope for. After watching comic book superhero evolve into sometimes powerful cinematic experiences with excellent narratives, (remember Avengers – Endgame…emotionally stunning), this one is sadly lacking in such emotions.
It seems certain that both Pattinson and Reeve will be back for several more outings with Batman and Gotham City, and audiences are all but salivating for this movie, so it’s likely to make a fortune. We get a teaser of a character who is obviously going to make an appearance in upcoming films. In some ways this is exciting, in others, we are going in circles are we not? What makes the great superhero films truly outstanding is that they break free of the paint-by-numbers plotting devices and take risks. I hope Reeve takes greater risks next time out.
I must say though, the limitations of the genre are becoming evident—good guys vs. the villains—and not much more to offer.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.