The Dark Knight gets his third live-action cinematic rendition in ten years with The Batman, the delayed, highly-anticipated DC Comics adaptation with Matt Reeves (Dawn of/War for the Planet of the Apes, Cloverfield) at the helm and Robert Pattinson donning the cowl.
While a built-in audience will no doubt always be provided when taking the vigilante to the screen, The Batman has a bit of an uphill climb to tackle in order to win the crowd. There’s the film’s bumpy road to fruition (Ben Affleck was once poised to direct and star in his own solo outing as the hero), Warner Bros’ wildly mixed output when it comes to their DC universe, the studio’s polarising handling of behind-the-scenes qualms, and, well… the fact that this is yet another Batman, with another actor taking on the role, offering another angle of the caped crusader we’ve seen many, many times before. But the surrounding noise can be drowned out by a good movie – and The Batman, it’s my pleasure to report, is a good movie indeed.
We have quite the glum Bruce Wayne here – with or without the suit on. Pattinson’s caped crusader is a perpetually angry, depressed individual, weighed down by the loss of his parents as a child and with little regard for his family’s fortune and the businessman front needed to keep it going. He has one agenda: to take the fight – however minuscule it may be – to the rampant crime that’s invaded Gotham City. Alas, this Batman is still in his early days, with a lack of experience out in the field, run by hard-to-contain emotion, and with both sides of the law keen to have him out of the way. Not an ideal time, then, for the rise of The Riddler (Paul Dano), a sadistic masked killer taking out political figures, while putting forth claims of corruption and targeting Batman with coded messages.
Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig (The Town, Bad Boys for Life) have smartly chosen a moment in Wayne’s life that serves as an origin story of sorts – without resorting to the character’s typical origin points; things like training, crafting the Batman concept, and the creation of the Batsuit and his array of tech are thankfully glossed over. We’ve seen all that before. Instead, this origin story explores Wayne’s attempt to become the hero that Gotham needs – and the one he needs himself to be.
At this point, Wayne isn’t well equipped to handle the city’s precarious state, with leadership plagued with corruption and chaos allowed to reign. Nor has he mastered the ins and outs of what it is to be Batman, from the emotional ramifications to the more practical side of things (the night gig has him in an almost hungover state during the day, having to wear sunglasses in an effort to hold back the glare). Don’t get me wrong: Batman can still kick serious ass here – and in often brutal style – but the man’s dispirited nature makes him a more grounded and vulnerable figure, which in turn provides us with a powderkeg inching closer to igniting as the film goes on. In many ways, this may be the darkest Knight we’ve had.
It’s impressive that Pattinson’s Wayne manages to stand apart from the many Bruces that have come before, but the film’s determination to hold him at various depths of emotional low points throughout does teeter him on the verge of being a one-note persona. Pattinson puts in a strong performance as both Bruce and Batman – utterly exhausted as the former and perfectly imposing as the latter, all while grasping at straws as this situation unravels. But as a character, Wayne/Batman is kept at arm’s length, pushing us to study his eyes, his lip twitches, anything to get a read on any evolvement. There’s strong psychology at play with Wayne; it’s just buried a little too deep, for a little too long.
It comes down to the escalating events and the characters surrounding him to provide us with some kind of character arc. Thankfully, the likes of Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz), James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), Alfred Pennyworth (Andy Serkis), and Edward Nashton/The Riddler (Paul Dano) populate this pitch-black tale wonderfully. Pattinson’s chemistry with his co-stars is palpable – with Kravitz, in particular. The Bat and the Cat have long enjoyed a flirty love-hate relationship in DC canon, and the two stars nail it, exuding a steamy chemistry that provides some of the film’s few lighter back-and-forths.
Batman fans that have long wanted to see the character’s detective leanings at play on the screen need look no further: The Batman is a gritty detective film, complete with horrible deaths (not R-rated, but pushing that PG-13 barrier for all its worth), a killer gleefully dropping clues, and an unstable protagonist that could have a connection to it all. This may be a comic book adaptation about a superhero, but The Batman is no superhero movie, per se. This is a crime picture, a grounded (that’s the key word) mystery thriller that’s Batman by way of David Fincher’s Se7en and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. To be clear: a big compliment.
Reeves places heavy emphasis on atmosphere and mood; the characters, the buildings, the weather itself – all fine-tuned to make The Batman a potent noir. The craft and attention to detail that’s gone into the film’s overall aesthetic is remarkable. Working with a team that includes Aussie cinematographer Greig Fraser (Dune, Rogue One) and production designer James Chinlund (Dawn of/War for the Planet of the Apes), among many others, Reeves has a picture that oozes accomplished technique. Almost every moment emits tension, while the sporadic action sequences benefit greatly from strong visual composition (the rainy, night-time car chase is spectacular). Also of note is the fantastic score by Michael Giacchino, the Up and Spider-Man: No Way Home composer delivering a booming theme that nods to the Batman music of the past while giving the film an unmistakable signature arrangement.
As mentioned: Grounded. Reeves has taken this corner of the DC universe and seemingly placed it in our world; you can’t imagine Jason Momoa’s Aquaman turning up with a hair flick and quip here. For much of it, it’s a grim and very mature picture, proudly dodging the need to intercut each reveal with an action sequence and avoiding needless levity (even if some of Selina’s cat references are a little on the nose). The Batman has a measured approach to its pacing that could surprise some DC fans – and I can imagine some audience members wanting a little more kapows, booms and zaps for their buck. But while the film confidently pulls on its long string, you’ll be forgiven for occasionally wanting to give it a stronger tug to have it showcase its reveals a little faster. The film’s almost 3-hour runtime doesn’t feel entirely needed, as we wait to have more of The Riddler’s plan explained far into the film. Perhaps a slightly tighter edit was needed, or one or two extra action scenes to break up the relentless tone.
A few scruples aside, The Batman is an accomplishment. Pattinson’s take on the Dark Knight may be a tad too enigmatic at times, but he’s an enthralling man to follow nevertheless. Reeves has managed to make a Batman film that stands on its own; a tense, carefully crafted thriller depicting a broken vigilante – a man aiming to do his best in a broken world that, for better or worse, draws many parallels to the current state of the world.