Film, Reviews

THE BATMAN thrillingly provides a Gotham and Dark Knight for a whole new generation

There was a moment during The Batman in which it became clear the film was a great piece of cinema.

Following an attack that almost kills him, Batman is cornered by aggressive police officers looking to blame him for the Riddler’s reign of terror before he is assisted in an escape in which he rappels up through Gotham PD headquarters, crashing through to the roof before he abseils down into the murky city below. In and of itself, this could be a sequence from any Batman film since 1989 but it was the point where it dawned on me just how well Matt Reeves’ latest take on the Caped Crusader was working.

Because, let’s be honest, everything was stacked against this. DC Comics, one or two outliers aside, have had a torrid time of it in cinematic terms since the conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s towering Dark Knight trilogy a decade ago. Ben Affleck essayed a fine Bruce Wayne across two (and a bit) dreadful Zach Snyder-led movies but Batman remained in the shadow of Nolan’s modernistic take on Gotham’s corruption and Bruce’s tragic heroic myth that felt, in many respects, quite definitive. There are always fresh avenues to take with a hero who has frequently reinvented himself but where could you go after those films and it have the same scale and impact was the burning question.

Snyder’s answer was bigger, louder and universal. Reeves provides a more satisfying response with The Batman by far.

What Reeves does is angle his brooding take on the Dark Knight through a combination of the kevlar-suited, tooled up Batman of the Nolan films with a greater emphasis on detection and deduction.

This is not perhaps quite as pronounced as the project promised, with Reeves perhaps aware he has to serve multiple audience masters in order for the film to at least break even in the nebulous post-Covid (or sort of post) cinematic landscape, but Robert Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne certainly in the first half of the picture spends time piecing together the clues dropped by the Riddler which leads him further and further down the rabbit hole into Gotham’s criminal underworld and city-wide corruption.

Nothing new, in some respects, here either when lined up with the Nolan films. If people suggested The Dark Knight was a Michael Mann crime epic with a superhero filter, then The Batman perhaps fuses elements of Coppola’s The Godfather with a slick, neo-Gothic aesthetic; his Gotham is probably the darkest, wettest and grimiest we have ever seen on screen (barely any of the film takes place in daylight), while his Wayne building/manor is a paean to classical architectural regency as opposed to the sprawling urbane mansions we’ve seen previous versions of the billionaire live in. This Bruce has less of a grounded sense of home, perhaps appropriately.

That’s primarily because Reeves chooses to both dial down Bruce’s appearances and amp up Batman – no twenty or so minutes of screen time for the Bat as we saw in The Dark Knight Rises, this is a film where Batman is near constantly on screen. He is also, especially in his introduction, the fiercest and more overtly mythic we have seen him. Hoodlums cower in fear. The symbol becomes not just a call for help but a warning, a portent of vigilante terror. Pattinson’s brooding voiceover which bookends the picture adds internal monologue, a slice of noir, and context to Batman’s arc across the picture. He begins barking “I’m vengeance”. He ends intoning “this city needs hope”.

This is key. Reeves begins his new saga with a Batman who is two years into his journey, skipping the origin story, and establishing key relationships – not just Alfred (a dignified, though sparsely used Andy Serkis) but also detective Jim Gordon (wonderfully wearily played by the ever great Jeffrey Wright). But he is failing. Gotham is spiralling into depravity. He can’t stop the tide. Which is where the Riddler (a haunting, unhinged Paul Dano) provide a twisted leveller. We’re a long way from Jim Carrey’s gurning mad scientist. Dano’s Edward Nashton takes more of a cue from the growing domestic terror of the incel movement, fused here with a Zodiac-style of torture porn killer. He’s the kind of nihilistic villain who in our modern age is a perfect counterpoint to Bruce’s merciful, tortured vigilante. 

He wants justice not for Gotham but for his own entitled lack of white man privilege.

Arguably, though dramatically utilised with the same chaotic level of interference into the narrative as we saw Nolan deploy with the Joker in The Dark Knight, the Riddler is the most acutely successful villain in The Batman, even if perhaps his plan is too reminiscent of the Joker’s moral, off-stage denouncement in that film. Colin Farrell, near unrecognisable under heavy prosthetics, chews the scenery as Oswald ‘the Penguin’ Cobblepot, but he is present more to establish him for assumed later sequels. John Turturro is effectively louche as Carmine Falcone but after an enigmatic introduction he swiftly descends into a rather rote Mafia boss role, even if he is quite central to the overarching plot, Bruce’s backstory and the involvement of Zoe Kravitz’s slinky Catwoman, Selina Kyle.

Kravitz has steadily proved herself more than worthy of a role such as this and she plays off previous incarnations of Catwoman while grounding her take on the character with greater physical mettle and less sass. She does, thankfully, have good chemistry with Pattinson, both of them moody Instagram-era idols as they are (thankfully also moonlighting as fine actors), which makes their interactions worthwhile. One hopes to see her Catwoman again in some form. As for Pattinson himself? He more than earns his stripes in a role many were dubious about him taking, to a degree for some that rivalled Daniel Craig’s ascendancy to James Bond back in 2005. He nails the angst but also absolutely convinces in the action stakes. There is little, at this stage, he can’t seem able to do as an actor.

Pattinson is tasked with a Bruce who considers his suit a project to be recorded, driven by his own pain and deep rooted in a sense of wanting to serve justice for his murdered parents. He is provided a backstory which, for the first time, sees Batman faced with personal corruption alongside that of the city he seeks to save. The icons of Bruce Wayne’s story are compromised in The Batman and it gives Pattinson a deeper register to play with as an actor, even if some fans might query the choices made. There is a point, however, given how many Batman films we have seen in the last three decades, where new approaches are needed to explore the character without simply repeating what came before. 

The Batman manages to build on those earlier versions while successfully weaving its own stylistic web.

If there are negatives, they are seldom. The film is longer than any Batman movie to date, perhaps a touch too long (there is a touch of sag in the mid-section) and there is an argument to be made that it is a trifle episodic at points as the narrative covers a lot of ground, working to keep an eye on future films and possible spin-off projects. It also, possibly, suffers a little from too many endings, or presumed points where the story could have drawn to a close. It perhaps seeks to immerse viewers so deeply in the world of Gotham that it doesn’t quite know when to bring the curtain down. Again, a minor criticism, as by the end you might want to simply keep living in the world Reeves creates here, especially backed by Michael Giacchino’s magisterial score.

We have seen Batman evolve as a character remarkably since Tim Burton first revitalised the character, immortalised by that point through the joyously camp 1960s series, as a brooding hero for the age of the blockbuster, after which Joel Schumacher fused both stylistics together across the 1990s. Nolan gave him weight and substance again, enhancing his mythic status, while Snyder—for all of the faults of his take on the DC universe—sought to make him the grounding heart and soul of a cosmic approach. Reeves brings him back down to earth with both grit and a romantic sense of tragedy, filling his Gotham with murky politics and a thrilling sense of the Batman as a force once again. More than a man. A legend. You will also be left with great sympathy for Mr Vengeance by a conclusion which suggests greater trials to come.

The Batman is the triumph we hoped for, and the film DC have desperately been in need of for a long time.

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

DIRECTOR: Matt Reeves

WRITERS: Matt Reeves & Peter Craig

CAST: Robert Pattinson, Zoe Kravitz, Colin Farrell, Paul Dano, Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro, Andy Serkis

STUDIO/DISTRIBUTOR: Warner Bros

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