March 5, 2022
A STRONG KNIGHT WITH A WEAK RIDDLE
Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) has spent two years as the caped crusader making few friends like lieutenant Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright). All over Gotham, The Riddler (Paul Dano) is leaving dead bodies and riddles for the duo to solve. This forces them to enlist Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz) and interrogate night club owner Oswald Cobblepot (Colin Farrel) to uncover a deeper conspiracy involving the mob boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro).
Directed by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield and the Planet of the Apes sequels) and co-written by Peter Craig, The Batman is not a live-action adaptation of the mid 2000’s animated series, but rather a reboot of the character in the ongoing reworking of the DC extended universe. Originally in the hands of Ben Affleck as director, writer, producer, and star, he dropped out due to creative differences with Reeve taking over. Pattinson’s casting was met with backlash because people forget that he has a career outside of Twilight, as evident with 2019’s The Lighthouse. Add in the delays brought by the pandemic (Take a shot every time this happens) and you have another contender fighting for theater exclusivity. Despite occupying a presence in the comics, the Riddler is an underutilized villain, only appearing in Batman Forever (Jim Carrey) and the Arkham video games (Wally Wingert). Even the coveted animated series from the 1990’s only has three episodes dedicated to his puzzle solving death traps (John Glover). Part of it is because transitioning to visual media presents increasing storytelling obstacles, as evident in the book Batman Animated written by Paul Dini and Chip Kidd:
“A constant frustration to Batman, as well as our writing staff, the quizzical Edward Nigma, better known as the Riddler, earned the dubious honor of being our series’ most difficult villain. There are at least a half dozen full or partially completed Riddler stories in our dead script file that proved ultimately too complex or too silly to produce. In a comic book, mystery novel, or live action drama, the writer has the luxury of time to set up and solve a brain-wracking crime. In a twenty-two-minute cartoon, the action has to keep moving and gimmick-heavy characters like the Riddler have to make their point quickly and get on with it.”
Unfortunately, this movie proves why the Riddler is underutilized in an otherwise grounded Gotham. Much like Mask of the Phantasm, there’s more focus on the mystery than the action which is a double edge sword. All the characters are well casted. Zoë Kravitz as Catwoman knows how to balance self-preservation with a hint of care for Bruce’s intentions. Colin Farrel as Cobblepot keeps the suave personality that disguises the condescending greed. Jeffrey Wright juggles impatience with uncertainty as he navigates who he trusts in the underbelly of Gotham. Andy Serkis is the unsung thespian as Alfred Pennyworth being Bruce’s only voice of reason, even when he gets angsty. Then there’s Robert Pattinson as the playboy billionaire. He shows how moonlighting gets to him personally as well as his public persona. His combat skills match that of every actor that has come before him. He can also say so much with one expression, something that a person in business would be used to. And thank goodness he doesn’t have the Christian Bale voice when donning the suit.
However, since everything revolves around the Riddler’s mystery, it slows everything down to a crawl. This does a disservice to the villain because he relies on theatricality like in Arkham City. As annoying as some of the puzzles are, they’re still authentic to the villain’s motivation and ego. Dropping him in a down to earth scenario downplays his unique element as he requires undivided attention when partaking in his games. There are a few scenarios where he’s a legit terrorist, but it’s the opposite of Heart of Ice where it takes away what makes him stand out. Three hours is enough time to ponder answers to his questions that would otherwise decapitate his victims. And the idea of him being a social media influencer fits the time period given that people are willing to follow public icons from all walks of life. But this environment distracts from the complexity of his mind and proves that the character is difficult to adapt without resorting to quantity over quality. A hero is only as good as his villain. There are plenty of felons in the Batman universe that can adapt to a realistic environment: Two-Face, Victor Zsasz, Black Mask, Death Stroke, and Hugo Strange. Sadly, Riddler doesn’t make the cut because his theatrics are too removed from everyday life. This should’ve either played to Riddler’s strengths as a mastermind of complex puzzles or put more focus on Cobblepot and Falcone. It worked in the tv series Gotham, so why not this?
The Batman is a solid detective story that’s sadly brought down by its underwhelming villain. While the casting is pinpoint, the atmosphere is moody, and the score elevates the sense of dread with new development, the drawn-out runtime and the weak villain keeps it from being one of the best comic book movies, which is saying a lot given the competition. If your curious about what this has to offer, it won’t put you through the same story beats that any Batman fan is familiar with. If you want Batman media that knows how to utilize the Riddler to his full potential, either watch The Animated Series or play the Arkham games. Either way, you’re sure to come out with a new appreciation of the Dark Knight’s adventures.