Review: The Batman

I’m sure most average people wonder why there’s another Batman. I’m also sure most of those people didn’t have the dubious honour of witnessing Ben Affleck’s awful Batman. For all of those who haven’t given a shit since 2012 and The Dark Knight Rises, we have a new Batman (with the definite article too). The Batman is a hefty, grimy, concussive and thoroughly excellent return to what makes the character so popular.

Into only his second year as Batman, Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) is young, broken by his attempts to tackle crime in the utterly corrupt Gotham, and beset by doubt and injuries. Via a working relationship with Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), this still rookie Batman is called in to help investigate a series of chilling murders across the levels of power in the city, masterminded by a thoroughly disturbing and enigmatic murderer calling himself The Riddler (Paul Dano). Encountering cat burglar Selina (Zoe Kravitz) with her own axe to grind, and low-level mobster Oz (Colin Farrell) fronting up the corruption, Bruce/Batman starts to make an impression on the city.

The first thing to mention here is before and with the exception of Tenet in 2020, and a series of lesser-known independent, edgier films I’ve seen in the last couple of years, Robert Pattinson was – at least to me – just that annoying sparkly bloke from the romantic vampire crap. I knew he was very uncomfortable with his earlier heart-throb fame, but I also knew he was deliberately not starring in blockbusters. Something pretty definitively changed though, and here we now have our second British Batman.

I wasn’t sure what to make of his casting, but I have to say that his performance here, and the movie crafted exceptionally by director Matt Reeves, was a really positive surprise and one of the very best Batman films yet made*. Utilising Pattinson’s de facto reputation as the glowering pretty boy, Reeves and the actor create a more morose, self-questioning Wayne but (and more surprisingly for me at least), a surprisingly brutal, horror-tinged Batman wrestling with demons literal and metaphorical.

Reeves, who came to prominence with Cloverfield and latterly with the highly-lauded Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and War for the Planet of the Apes, gives cinemagoers a Batman we’ve never seen before. Gone are the family of supporting characters (bar Alfred), the playboy billionaire, the military-grade weaponry and tank-mobiles: here we’ve got a raw, younger and more intelligent Bat, finally showing off touches of the great detective the comics always made him out to be.

That goes hand in hand with perhaps the darkest and most grim villain and plot of any of the films, with the result that at times this feels more like a heightened, comic-book version of Se7en or Zodiac than a movie about a rich sadist with a leather fetish. Reeves crafts an intricate plotline, bringing in corruption, organised crime, urban renewal and deprivation, untrustworthy institutions, exploitation and resentments buried or barely hidden, and in doing so gives us a stunningly bleak Batman movie with no superheroics or fantastical powers to be seen.

A large part of this goes not only to his excellent screenplay, but also to the technical craftsmanship on display from cinematographer Greig Fraser, and the engrossingly gothic score from Michael Giacchino. On the story first: while this film is three hours long, it doesn’t feel like it thanks to Reeves’ and editors William Hoy and Tyler Nelson’s ability to keep the plot moving and your attention fixed on the ins and outs of the storyline, building to some impressive crescendos while avoiding reheating any of the older films’ elements. A lot of static takes and clever camera choices also mean action is shown organically, clearly or otherwise intelligently obscured (its car chase is more engrossingly visceral than many seen for a long time).

I think this is probably the best Gotham City yet, thanks both to Fraser’s impeccably grimy and lurid lighting and the fact that Warner Bros chose Liverpool and Glasgow for real location shooting. Christopher Nolan’s films always felt like they half-arsed their Gotham – it was plainly Chicago with sprinkles of New York, and nothing much was done to distinguish it. Affleck’s Gotham meanwhile was just a shithole over the river from Metropolis, with no character to it.

Reeves’ Gotham drips with corruption, poverty, decay and baroque architecture like nobody’s business, and the rainy, polluted British stonework (via intelligent CGI) gives it a unique mid-Atlantic feel of age, hidden wealth and pollution. Fraser’s lighting plays strongly into this too when it comes to the greasy, decrepit, claustrophobic and industrial interiors, from the heavily-industrialised nightclubs to the gothic stately home grandeur of Wayne Tower, through to the frankly condemnable Gotham Police Department. Merging all this with sleeker, more modern city elements gives it all a strong sense of place and history, and when your fictional city is so key to its main character, this all plays into the film’s hands.

Returning to the story for a moment, it’s worth noting that if you wanted to give this film a genre, you’d have to choose between horror, police procedural, violent action thriller, crime mystery and disaster movie. That it balances on all of these tightropes and succeeds is remarkable, honestly. It’s worth noting here that this film was rated 15 – I don’t think it quite justifies that, but it’s absolutely toeing the line, particularly where the Riddler’s crimes, appearance, demeanour and tone are concerned. Take that in mind if you’re of a more squeamish, easily-disturbed mindset!

I mentioned the music – I’m sure you can hum the Nolan Batman music (or at least achieve a Hans Zimmer BRAHM), and some may even be able to hum the original Danny Elfman theme from the first movie back in the late 80s. Giacchino, essentially, had a battle on his hands – but what he does here is excellent, stripping the theme back to few notes like Zimmer, but repeating it, to the extent that his theme is as horrifying, imposing, monumental and in your face as Batman is once he lays into some goons.

Beyond this, his score ably soundtracks not only the Riddler’s twisted, horrendous acts and psyche (excellently interpolating the classical track Ave Maria for bone-chilling effect) but also the more urbane, sophisticated and sultry tones of Selina Kyle. Added to this is a clever, if on the nose use of a very famous song by a very famous grunge band – which, if you listen carefully, dovetails nicely with the Batman theme. We’ve gone from egomaniac Batman to emo Batman, and yet it all works.

That’s entirely down to Pattinson though, and I can’t praise him enough. In the suit, he’s unrecognisable, and his Batvoice is both imposing and not ridiculous like Bale’s. Out of the suit, his scarecrow-like haunted visage shows us a younger, more broken Bruce Wayne, one who prefers isolation to engaging with the world. Pattinson is both febrile out of the suit and unstoppable in it, with the fight choreography and shooting style more brutal than any Batman before it. He genuinely feels like he’s one punch away from killing a given criminal, and that edge sets him apart.

Pattinson also strongly articulates Wayne’s inner turmoil across both sides of the character, and he has great chemistry with Kravitz and Wright, as well as some more human scenes with Andy Serkis’ Alfred. All in all, he really surprised me and impressed me – this more animalistic, intelligent, driven but also still-learning Batman is a real breath of fresh air.

Kravitz meanwhile gets a surprisingly well-fleshed out role as cat burglar Selina (to call her Catwoman would be ridiculous given the interesting way her story is laid out). The actress conveys a sense of knowing and world-weariness that sets her apart from other prior incarnations, and instils a burning injustice in this woman that takes what she wants because the world took enough from her already. Her scenes with Pattinson are full of unspoken subtext, and her focus and aims noble enough to give her agency instead of just being a romantic interest.

Paul Dano, no stranger to playing odd characters, absolutely defines the mood of this film though. His Riddler is a terrifyingly psychotic, uncomfortable to watch and witness villain – a serial killer to rival any other in the way he taunts the police and Batman during his spree. Acting from a misguided sense of justice, he mirrors the hero in more ways than one, but Reeves and Dano contrive to make this incarnation genuinely distressing, the actor’s tics and choices (and high-pitched voice) profoundly uncomfortable in another top-level Batman/villain interrogation.

Jeffrey Wright is absolutely perfect as our latest Jim Gordon, and for once we don’t have to sit through his relationship with Batman’s origin – these two know and trust one another, even if the rest of the police don’t. Wright does wry and world-weary better than most (see No Time to Die), and it’s nice to see him have such prominence in this storyline. The two characters investigate the crimes together, and this high level of mutual trust is well articulated by Wright and Pattinson’s easygoing chemistry too.

Serkis doesn’t appear much, but isn’t out to replace Michael Caine’s excellent turn as Batman’s butler – instead, this Alfred is younger, more battle-scarred and less disposed to his Bruce’s morose, hide-from-the-world mentality, breaking through that visage in some of the film’s more emotional scenes later on. John Turturro’s oleaginous performance as string-pulling mobster Carmine Falcone is great to watch, while small but notable turns from Peter Sarsgaard’s jumpy public official, Alex Ferns’ gruff police commissioner and Con O’Neill’s suspicious police chief all help paint a picture of a corrupted, flawed and broken public system.

Last but most certainly not least though is an astonishing appearance from Colin Farrell. Buried beneath convincing and incredible prosthetics, the Irish heart-throb/character actor gives a great performance as the scarred, dumpy and eminently-untrustworthy Oz, or the Penguin. You’ll honestly not believe it’s him, and the transformation liberates the actor, who sounds nothing like himself and plays American scumbag criminal so believably well that you’ll wonder why other actors don’t take this transformative approach.

I don’t think I’ve got any particular complaints or issues with this film. With time and a rewatch, perhaps that’ll change. On first impressions though, I can’t wait to watch it again, or to see where Reeves and Pattinson take the character forward. Unlike Joker or Batman v Superman before it, The Batman gets to the heart of what makes the character so enjoyable and endlessly adaptable, adding in some long-awaited touches and feeling almost like a brave reboot – when in fact all it’s doing is being interesting, and respectful to the character and its origins. See it!

(*it’s still not the best Batman film though)

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