Batman is an eccentric billionaire who rarely leaves his inherited fortress, and when he does, he often runs around punching people. He sets his steely gaze on villains through a pointy-eared mask and says he “is Vengeance.” Anyone watching a superhero movie must be willing to suspend disbelief, but the officers sneering in the latest, Matt Reeves’s “The Batman,” prove Batman’s behavior is outlandish by Gotham City standards, too.
This isn’t a storytelling problem, but an opportunity. Given the relative recency of Christian Bale’s and Ben Affleck’s grim portrayals of the character, the only reason to relaunch Batman with Robert Pattinson was to present a tonally divergent take on the hero. “The Batman” accomplishes this a bit, allowing slight entry for Pattinson’s trademark wackiness, but on the whole tends toward a gritty bleakness reminiscent of what we’ve already seen.
A creative duty emerges: We must let the Batman be weird.
Pattinson, who in real life has admitted to trying to cook raw pasta in a microwave and lying on national television about watching the death of a circus clown, is well-qualified for the task. In the past few years, during which the superstar dipped into independent film, he tackled the roles of a lighthouse keeper driven mad in 1890s New England and a surly convict who volunteers to set out on a dangerous space mission in exchange for his eventual freedom. His “unhinged” performance as the French rival to Henry V in “The King” was the most memorable, hilarious aspect of the Timothée Chalamet vehicle. As an actor, Pattinson boasts an enviable versatility.
His Batman acts as an unusually dressed detective who sometimes engages in hand-to-hand combat but who spends much more time decoding messages left to him by the Riddler (Paul Dano) inside cheesy greeting cards. Naturally, Batman does not seem to recognize the absurdity of it all. He’s a strange guy himself.
Embracing Batman’s potential for silliness means allowing him to behave as he does without explaining away his idiosyncrasies. In a recent New Yorker article titled “The Case Against the Trauma Plot,” writer Parul Sehgal notes an overreliance on backstories in contemporary art, adding that “the invocation of trauma promises access to some well-guarded bloody chamber; increasingly, though, we feel as if we have entered a rather generic motel room.”
In newer iterations of Batman, Bruce Wayne’s curmudgeonly ways are always traced back to his childhood trauma of witnessing the murders of his parents, Thomas and Martha. While Reeves does away with depicting the fatal mugging, it wriggles its way into newscasts and conversations with the family butler, Alfred Pennyworth (Andy Serkis), who becomes a father figure to Bruce. Unable to bring his parents back, Bruce becomes obsessed with the concept of justice, teaming up with police lieutenant Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) to solve local crimes.
Filmmakers like Reeves needn’t rely on trauma to inform their characters’ modes of being. Some might argue that Bruce allowing his past to dictate his personality is itself a notable trait; his backstory adds to the poignancy of his encounters with a boy whose own father is killed early on in the film, for instance.
The issue is that it’s been done to death. Haunted men are a specialty of director Christopher Nolan, whose Dark Knight trilogy already sent Bale’s Batman into a spiral of doom and gloom. Hollywood continues to churn out origin story films to justify the evilness of established movie foes as well, even if, as with Disney’s “Cruella,” their eventual villainy includes wanting to skin puppies. There’s something to be said for just letting characters be the way they are.
Though critics made note of its darkness upon its release in 1992, Tim Burton’s over-the-top “Batman Returns” also serves as a reminder of the goofiness that can thrive in superhero movies; Pattinson himself referred to the Michael Keaton-starring film as a “masterpiece” in a recent interview. It’s a tricky balance to strike, but one the younger actor has proved capable of managing. Though the new film leans hard into its grunge influences, there are glimpses of Pattinson’s natural charisma, often when Batman interacts with Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz).
Reeves has confirmed he is already in talks with Warner Bros. about a sequel to his film, in which there’s a chance the hero will face off (yet again) with his most famous nemesis, the Joker. “The Batman’s” return is inevitable. When the time comes, may he do so a little less seriously.