Note: This is a spoiler-free review.
It’s hard to beat a great mystery movie. With a special emphasis on intrigue and surprise and limitless permutations of structure — and plenty of room for stylistic flourishes — mysteries are well-built for the medium of the cinema and ensure the intellect is up to par with a film’s action. The rewatchability of a film with a memorable twist ending is certainly an issue, but a mystery film with glowing reviews is good for at least a top-notch filmgoing experience the first time around.
Thankfully, the box office has answered my fervent wishes for more mysteries with the past two movies I have seen in theaters, Death on the Nile in February and The Batman in March. The differences between the two are immense — one is based off a comic book superhero while the other is an Agatha Christie protagonist, one film is dark and brooding while the other shines in the Egyptian sun, I would probably take Batman in a fight against Hercule Poirot, etc. — but both lived up to my expectations and left plenty of material to dissect.
I’ll start with Death on the Nile. One of the more memorable Agatha Christie novels, Death on the Nile is a title I have both read in middle school and seen its PBS television adaptation, though the twist eluded my memory in this viewing until the final scene. The film is the second of Kenneth Branagh’s adaptations of the Poirot mysteries (the first being the forgettable Murder on the Orient Express) and stars Branagh as both director and as the iconic Belgian detective. In this installment, Poirot joins on a honeymoon cruise through the Nile with a newlywed couple and their family and “friends,” until the excursion turns foul with the murder of one of the passengers.
What this film adaptation of Death on the Nile brings to the classic story is Kenneth Branagh. Even as a David Suchet enthusiast, I found myself entranced by Branagh’s reprisal of Hercule Poirot, a part played with flawless wit and alluring charisma. It’s hilarious to see other characters recognize Poirot as the famous detective, but when this man says “little grey cells,” the audience — and the characters — believe it without hesitation, along with all of his other quirks. On the director side, Branagh dials up the visuals to 100 and makes the film the polar opposite of Murder on the Orient Express. The Luhrmann-esque luxury of the honeymoon is on glorious display, while the simmering heat and historic locale perfectly match the suspense and horror of the murder mystery genre. Add in the early 20th century aesthetic, this Death on the Nile adaptation is the quintessential old-school murder mystery.
Ultimately, the adherence to the murder mystery genre caps the ceiling of Death on the Nile — it’s not going to be the greatest movie of all time, and it’s not going to be as fun a watch with knowledge of the ending. But that’s the nature of the genre, and I can’t imagine a better adaptation of the source material than Branagh’s attempt. From the visuals to the acting performances from Branagh and stars like Gal Gadot, this vivacious film is an example of a film being even better than the book.
Death on the Nile is obviously a mystery, but The Batman circumvents the norms of the superhero movie genre to give the Caped Crusader a caper for once (on the big screen, anyway). This time, Robert Pattinson of Tenet fame is doubling as Bruce Wayne and Batman, coursing through a Gotham that has the Riddler (Paul Dano), Catwoman (Zoe Kravitz) and the Penguin (Colin Farrell) in play. Batman has plenty of henchmen to fight, but also a series of senseless crimes and a city-wide conspiracy to grapple with.
Watching The Batman was one of my favorite film experiences of the past couple years. Some of the action sequences made me laugh simply because they were so amazing (the car chase in the teaser as one of them), and the composition of shots and colors gave this film a compelling noir aesthetic. This film operates on the same emotional frequency throughout — a frequency that is the exact opposite of Death on the Nile — and it works tremendously. As a devoted enthusiast of rain scenes in movies, I also have to mention that two of the best-ever superhero rain scenes are in this one. The runtime of two hours and 45 minutes is welcome and more than bearable because every scene just builds upon the last.
That’s also part of my biggest gripe with The Batman. Death on the Nile stays in its lane but does an excellent job at that, while The Batman has higher aspirations. That in itself isn’t a bad thing, but after A to A-minus quality in the first two acts, the film doesn’t stick the landing because it just has so many endings that it erodes the sense of finality of any one of them. In a film that feels gritty and real, the finale just keeps going and going and loses the momentum that has ratcheted up over the course of the first two hours. The ending doesn’t ruin the movie or the experience and not all of those scenes are bad in my opinion, but director Matt Reeves missed an opportunity here to leave viewers on a note that sticks in viewers’ minds for years to come.
In comparison to the Dark Knight trilogy, The Batman holds its own. The Dark Knight is still the gold standard for Batman movies with its airtight structural gymnastics and iconic humor, but I’m content to slide The Batman somewhere around Batman Begins and above The Dark Knight Rises. From an acting standpoint, I adored Pattinson’s performance as Bruce Wayne/Batman and even prefer it to Christian Bale’s take on the character. The duality between Batman’s heroism and dwelling in the darkness pervades both sides of his identity to give the film its darker tone, and Pattinson plays the detective role with delectable nuance and aptitude. There’s no Heath Ledger Joker-type presence in this one, but I’ll give credit to the tag team of the criminal underworld and the Riddler’s following as giving Batman his match in this one. One more shoutout — Michael Giacchino, the composer of the best superhero film of all time’s soundtrack, absolutely nails this score and helps the mystery work.
Murder mysteries are can’t-look-away-caliber stories, ones that nail so much of what makes movies great and that land right in my Q-zone. Death on the Nile and The Batman are excellent additions to the genre, giving me plenty to look forward to on my next viewing even with the resolution spoiled. I’m hoping the case isn’t closed on either franchise’s time on the big screen.