A ubiquitous mainstay at the multiplex, Batman has yet again been revived by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, the recent Apes films) with Robert Pattinson starring as the titular dark knight. While a lot of people would ask why we need another reboot a mere 5 years after the last theatrically released film featuring the caped crusader, The Batman is the best Batman film since The Dark Knight – and may even come close to that lofty watermark.
We open with narration from Batman himself. He tells us that he’s been fighting crime in Gotham for two years now – and questions how effective any of that has been. He also talks about the power of the Bat symbol, echoing Nolan’s approach in that it’s a warning to criminals. “They keep expecting me to come out of the shadows…But I am the shadows.”
We then see him make short work of a group of thugs terrorizing a civilian on a train station. It’s these kinds of street-level brawls we’re used to seeing Batman win with ease – but his focus on the nitty-gritty and smaller fish in Gotham’s criminal underworld is costing him the big picture. While he is bloodying his knuckles on these minor players, a mysterious serial killer strikes, murdering the mayor – and leaving a special clue for Batman himself.
Finger & Fincher
What unfolds is what fans of the comic-book version of Batman have been clamouring for since Burton first brought the character to the big screen in 89 – a noir-inspired, dark detective story, where Batman must solve the clues given to him to figure out The Riddler’s plan. In terms of the overall narrative thrust, it’s the closest an adaptation has come to the vision presented in comics, with Gotham being impossibly corrupt, and Batman doing his best but just keeping his head above water.
Another big influence on the film is the work of directors like David Fincher. Although technically the same character, Dano’s portrayal of the Riddler is about as far as you could get from the first time we saw him with Carrey’s over-the-top take. The character in this film shares more in common with the Zodiac killer – even giving Batman and the Gotham PD ciphers to solve – than his verbose, showman persona we’ve seen before.
It also deals with deep-seated corruption within Gotham and the influence of the mob on the day-to-day of the city. John Turtorro plays Carmine Falcone (The Roman), a man so assured of his status as in charge that he never regards the police – or Batman’s emerging threat – as serious competition to his power base. The film examines the city of Gotham almost as its own character, and questions the circumstances that allow a man like Falcone to end up in the position he holds.
While the label “dark, gritty reboot” is tossed around a lot these days, there’s been few real examples of just how dark and gritty a property can be to match this take on Batman. Everything from the cinematography to the characters to the setting is dark to the point of being fairly humourless and dour.
Colin Farrell – unrecognizable here as Ozwald Cobblepot (aka The Penguin) is unrecognizable under a layer of prosthetics and make-up. He also appears to be having the most fun out of the cast, as one of the few characters to crack a smile during proceedings. Zoe Kravitz is also striking as Catwoman, a role we’ve seen before but not in quite the same way as it explores the complicated relationship between her and Bruce more thoroughly than we’ve seen before.
But this is, of course, Batman’s show. Unlike some adaptations that have sidelined the Dark Knight in favour of his colourful rogue’s gallery, this film makes the conscious decision to put Batman front and centre. He’s in virtually every scene. Pattinson’s take reflects the darkness and inherent tragedy of the character, as this Batman is a brooding loner – isolating himself from everything that doesn’t directly involve his one-man war on crime.
While this is definitely a really good film, for the most part, there are some minor complaints I have about the film overall. The first one is just a matter of practicality and is probably the most controllable: the length. While there are some sequences that stand out, a tighter edit could have made the film more impactful, especially to make a second act that drags a bit more compact.
The second complaint is in regard to Paul Dano’s performance. While he’s an unknown quantity intimidating both Batman and the Gotham public from afar with videos that call back to Ledger’s demented appearances on the news in The Dark Knight, once he is unmasked his interrogation scene with Batman lacks impact. It feels like he’s struggling to find the character – and does a lot of overacting trying to get there. The best I can say is that the scene in question is mercifully short.
Perhaps my most significant complaint though is in a film that claims to “get” the character of Batman on a deeper level than what has come before, it misses one of the crucial elements that define him. Namely, while Pattinson’s take on Batman himself is excellent, there is no distinguishing Batman from his persona as Bruce Wayne.
Traditionally, there are 3 distinct parts of Batman: the Bruce Wayne he presents to the world, the high-flying socialite. The Bruce Wayne he is in private, with characters like Dick and Alfred, where he’s probably the closest to his “true self”. And of course Batman, the terrifying spectre he presents to criminals. The film is pretty myopic in its presentation of the character, focusing on the dark, brooding orphan, and not doing enough to distinguish these usually separate parts of his personality.
Ultimately though these complaints are fairly minor. The film takes a little while to get going, but sitting in the cinema about an hour in – when the Batmobile sequence kicks into gear – it elevates itself into Nolan territory, and you can’t help but feel your heart begin to beat faster.
But even that comparison feels a bit remiss, as Nolan was trying to play everything as “real world” as possible. Reeves does this but tinges it with a sense of the mythology around the character, bringing more of the comic-book roots into focus.
This is backed up by the incredible design and cinematography work. This is definitely the best and most authentic take we’ve seen on Gotham presented in the cinema, with Reeves realising the city is nearly a character in and of itself. It shares a lot in common with Blade Runner, a neo-dystopic urban hellscape, constantly drenched in rain with Pattinson’s dark vigilante keeping a constant watch.
Particular sequences are beautiful to look at and are lit by a single source – for example, one standout setpiece involves Batman fighting a group of thugs in a hallway where the only light comes from the flash of their machine guns.
“I am the Shadows”
Of course, without its game cast, the film would fall flat. I’ve mentioned most of the principals but Jeffrey Wright also deserves acknowledgement as Gordon. We get to see the relationship between him and Batman played out a lot clearer in this film, as Batman aids a police department desperate enough to trust a masked vigilante. He makes a great foil for Batman.
But anchoring proceedings with his performance is Pattinson. While the script doesn’t give him much room to manoeuvre in terms of the other aspects of the character, he plays Batman in the way Bale spoke of but never really nailed: “something elemental, something…terrifying.” He deliberately makes noise as he emerges from the shadows, intimidating his opponents before they even see him.
Matt Reeves has managed to walk the line between the comic-book world, what has come before film-wise in the Batman canon, and his own unique take on the character – a high wire act that in lesser hands may have come crashing down. But under his assured hand, this is the best Batman film since 2008, and definitely worth catching in as big a cinema as you can get to for the more bombastic sequences (plus theatres are struggling and really need our support at this time).
The Batman is now showing in cinemas everywhere.
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