Starring: Robert Pattinson (Tenet), Zoë Kravitz (Divergent), Paul Dano (Ruby Sparks), Jeffrey Wright (Casino Royale), John Turturro (Barton Fink), Peter Sarsgaard (Flightplan), Andy Serkis (Black Panther), Colin Farrell (Seven Psychopaths)
Director: Matt Reeves (War for the Planet of the Apes)
Writers: Matt Reeves and Peter Craig (The Town)
Runtime: 2 hours 56 minutes
Release Date: 4th March (US, UK)
Synopsis: When masked killer The Riddler starts murderering Gotham’s elite and exposes their darkest secrets, Bruce Wayne/Batman must reconcile his family’s legacy with his obsessive crusade for justice before the city is consumed by corruption.
The concept of superhero fatigue comes up alot in current movie discourse, and if there’s any comic book crime fighter we should be all sick of by now, you’d think it would be Batman. Instead, he seems more popular than ever. He’s practically been the face of the genre since 1989, his history in cinema consists of some of the highest highs and lowest lows, and fans will still endlessly argue about which version of the Caped Crusader was the best. He’s a character that means something different to everyone, malleable to interpretation more than any other superhero, and it seems like every generation will get at least one definitive portrayal. So what does Batman mean in 2022? What does yet another perspective on such a well-worn character have to say about the source material, the genre itself, and beyond? Matt Reeves’ sprawling epic clearly has these questions and many more on its mind and, whilst it doesn’t answer all of them perfectly, what it does deliver is one of the finest depictions of The Dark Knight on screen since…well, The Dark Knight.
Whilst it began its life as a DCEU project, The Batman is completely divorced from that universe and sets itself in a more grounded but still stylistically heightened reality. On both a visual and tonal level, this is easily the darkest interpretation of the comics on screen, but it avoids both the dedication to realism of the Nolan trilogy and the Frank Miller-inspired neo-fascistic undertones of the Zack Snyder version. Where it most sets itself apart, however, is in its approach to genre. Previous entries certainly incorporarted Batman’s status as The World’s Greatest Detective, but they were primarily action movies with occasional mystery elements. Reeves’ vision, in contrast, is a straight-up crime thriller with shades of socio-political intrigue and even elements of horror in what is probably the closest thing we’ll ever get to a David Fincher superhero movie. There is plenty of high-flying spectacle and the familiar elements you’d expect from a Batman movie, and there’s never a sense it’s ashamed of being a comic book movie (*cough* Joker *ahem*), but it does feel less concerned with being a crowd-pleaser and more with delivering a unique yet faitful take on the source material.
The central mystery is a genuinley intriguing and character-driven detective story that unravels Gotham’s underbelly and psychologically tests Batman more than any previous film, and the sheer quality of it all secures it a place as one of the best Batman films ever brought to the screen. What perhaps holds it back from being absolute perfection is its length and pacing, both of which may test general audiences expecting a more typical blockbuster. Clocking in at nearly three hours and taking its sweet time to unravel its intricate and sprawling murder mystery, it at times plays out less like a movie and more like a truncated season of True Detective, and though slow-paced it still seems rushed and lacks the time to properly explore certain characters and scenarios. That said, it’s hard to fault a movie that leaves you wanting more in such a positive way and, whilst it mostly avoids any kind of MCU-style teasing, it’s clear that they don’t intend for this to be a one-and-done. Now that the expectations have been set and the puzzle pieces are all in place, hopefully the next chapter of The Batman can refine the formula in much the same way The Dark Knight did for Batman Begins.
Another Batman, another casting choice that sent corners of the fandom into a frenzy where, thankfully, they’ve been proven wrong again. Only more time under the cowl will confirm it, but based on this performance alone, Robert Pattinson may be the best live-action version of The Dark Knight yet. He’s certainly the most eccentric take on the character since Michael Keaton, portraying him as a brooding loner with no social life and an all-consuming fixation on vengeance. He’s an incredibly weird and off-putting presence in all the best ways, accentuated by how many characters are baffled by his mere presence, but at the same time he’s easily the most human version of Bruce Wayne too. It’s one of the few stories where Batman is not only pushed to his limits but forced to reckon with his methods and change for the betterment of Gotham, and both Pattinson and Reeves have done a fantastic job of portraying that inner conflict and dogged self-righteousness. It’s also the first time since Begins that Batman himself hasn’t been overshadowed by his co-stars, and whilst his civilian side doesn’t get a huge amount of screentime, Pattinson’s presence looms large and finally proves himself in front of a mainstream audience that he’s more than just “that sparkly boy from Twilight“.
However, a Batman is only ever as good as his villains and allies, and the supporting cast of The Batman is certainly worthy inheritors of such revered characters. Jeffrey Wright makes for a compelling Jim Gordon and his repartee with Pattinson feels instantly familiar and yet strikingly fresh; they feel very comfortable with each other and yet distant enough not to fully trust the other. Andy Serkis doesn’t get a huge amount of time as Bruce’s loyal butler Alfred but he makes the most of what he has, especially in a heartbreaking scene where he recalls to Bruce his father’s greatest mistake. Whilst it’s always going to be hard to top Michelle Pfeiffer’s portrayal in Batman Returns, Zoë Kravitz’s Selina Kyle stands wonderfully on its own as a more nuanced and modernised take on the classic femme fatale, and her emotionally-charged performance makes for a great contrast with Pattinson’s dogged stoicism. John Turturro makes for a charming but still unnerving Carmine Falcone, whilst Colin Farrell is utterly unrecognisable as Oz Cobblepot and brings a wickedly sleazy energy to the classic villain, even if his performance at times teeters into Dick Tracy territory; seriously, his accent sounds like Al Pacino doing a Robert DeNiro impression. All that said, the real standout here is Paul Dano’s demented version on The Riddler, who runs with the “familiar yet different” remit of the film to its extreme. He’s easily the most unsettling take on the character yet, far removed from the popular conscience’s vision of Frank Gorshin and Jim Carrey, and yet once the mask comes down he’s still recognisably the puzzle-obsessed weirdo comic books fans have known for years. If this is the standard moving forward in this potential franchise, I can’t wait to see how Reeves reimagines more of Batman’s legendary rogue’s gallery.
Because Gotham City is a fictional location, it has been reinterpreted almost as many times on screen as Batman has himself in a way that often reflects the current interpretation of the character itself. Reeves’ version of the crime-ridden metropolis sits somewhere between the gothic cacophany of Tim Burton’s Gotham and Christopher Nolan’s more grounded take (i.e. basically just Chicago and New York mushed together), bathing the streets and alleys with grime, shadows and neon. It is dripping with atmosphere like a graphic novel come to life, and yet it feels real enough that it’s easy to get lost in its spell. Greig Fraser’s cinematography is a huge part of this effect, and whilst at times the visuals can be underlit and disorienting, it creates an immersive aesthetic so thick you can practically smell the fog and steam that coats the city.
The set and costume design is absolutely top notch, with one of the most practical yet page-accurate Batsuits ever put to film, and a Batmoblie that thankfully eschews the tank-like design of recent years; it looks cool and dangerous, but it still feels like a real car you could feasably buy and modify. There isn’t a whole lot of action here, but what’s there is executed with a irresistable stylistic flair that emphasises the forboding fear of Batman himself, with the Batmobile chase against Penguin and the climactic shown in the heart of the city being the easy standouts. Tying it all together is Michael Giacchino’s haunting score that clings to your ears and oozes with atmosphere on every note, including a simple but instantly memorable new theme that more than earns its place next to the compositions of Danny Elfman, Elliot Goldenthal and Hans Zimmer. The film’s use of Schubert’s “Ave Maria” as a chilling leitmotif is an especially dark touch, plus “Something in the Way” by Nirvana is brilliantly deployed as basically the soundtrack to Bruce’s inner monologue.
The Batman isn’t the best Batman film ever, but captures the essence of the character in a way that no other adaptation has dared to, crafting an evocative and emotionally-rich thriller worthy of such a vaunted character. Yes, it is lengthy and may test the patience of those wanting more comic book spectacle, but the world of Gotham is so thick and all-consuming that it’s easy to just get lost in its gloomy aura. This is absolutely a Batman movie that reflects our modern anxieties and fears, shows its heroes and villains as being far more morally uncertain than ever before, and leaves things open for further expansion without feeling like it is begging for it. If you’re tired of all the cinematic universes and cookie-cutter storytelling of the current superhero landscape, The Batman is a welcome change of pace that reaffirms the genre has plenty more to offer when it diversifies and broadens its horizons.
FINAL VERDICT: 9/10