The Batman - deftly handles a blend of horror, thriller and noir to create a story that is original.
Updated: Apr 11
4 out of 5
When I first saw the trailer for The Batman, it looked like it was going to be a continuation of what Christopher Nolan did with the character in his now-iconic trilogy. It would be more gritty realism that took the hero even further into a realm that shrugged off his comic book style origins. Thankfully, Matt Reeves has a much better understanding of how to blend the pulp nature of Batman into a world that is even darker than Nolan’s version. By truly exploring his role as The World's Greatest Detective The Batman has managed to bring some truly fresh and invigorating elements to the franchise that are sorely needed.
If you have seen the trailer you’ve probably noticed that the film is synonymous with the term ‘dark’ and it really takes that to another level. Well, as much as it can with an 15A-rating. Splotches of rain batter the camera lenses, dull neon lights glow in the haze and dance music thunders as Batman beats up goons. Every aspect of this film is designed to draw you into the gritty underworld of Gotham City. One that’s often physically and metaphorically bereft of light.
Writers Peter Craig and Matt Reeves do give plenty of justification as to why their Batman is so dark and brooding. We quickly learn it’s not just the character’s tragic backstory that’s impacted him but it’s also the result of months of psychological damage from his obsession with taking vengeance on a corrupt city. It’s an approach that isn’t working. With two years of crime fighting under his belt, this isn’t a story of Bruce Wayne’s quest to put on the cowl. This is a story of Batman’s quest to cross the line from vigilante to hero – and it’s a surprisingly poignant arc.
Director Matt Reeves has also clearly been digging into the comics as he draws from The Long Halloween and more importantly, draws from great crime mystery films such as Dirty Harry and Zodiac. The Batman features a fairly radical reinvention of classic Gotham City villain, The Riddler (Paul Dano). For most of Riddler’s pop culture history, he’s been a relatively harmless criminal genius. While lives have definitely been lost at his hand, he’s usually depicted as someone more interested in outsmarting Batman and the authorities than he is of taking lives.
In The Batman, however, the Riddler is a far more ominous figure. And while his mission is one that ultimately would seem to align with Batman’s, to rid the city of corruption, his methods are still chilling, and it leads to some graphic murders on-screen. The Batman draws inspiration from a real life serial killer for its version of the Riddler: the infamous Zodiac Killer who terrorized California in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and whose crimes remain unsolved to this day.
The similarities to the Zodiac Killer are peppered throughout the film, both in terms of his actual crimes and even the cinematic depictions of those crimes. For example, the Zodiac Killer left greeting cards to taunt the police as The Riddler does here.
By utilising The Riddler thus, The Batman becomes a decent whodunnit as the caped crusader rushes from clue to clue but always one step behind the murders. Along the way he encounters other characters that populate Gotham City. It's a real A-list cast. Everyone treats the material with the gravitas it implies without coming off as so serious as to be grating. Paul Dano’s Riddler is monstrously chilling while still being able to be a piece of big comic book acting. Jeffrey Wright is cementing the possibility of being the best James Gordon in the Batman’s feature film canon. An unrecognisable Colin Farrell somehow manages to work through the prosthetics to deliver a pitch-perfect gangster Penguin. Zoë Kravitz is perfectly sultry, suspicious, and sympathetic as Catwoman, but her part in the story is the one element that feels it could have been reconfigured. Still, there is no complaint here about her in the role and the hope is she will return for a sequel.
In fact, looking at that lineup above should show you one of the things Reeves understands so much better than Nolan: the Batman is only as good as his villains. Where Nolan felt almost frustrated by figuring out how to work such colourful foes into his Michael Mann take on Batman (with the true outlier being Ledger’s Joker), Reeves wants to build his rogues gallery and create a real universe for Batman. The fact that no less than five major villain characters are in The Batman should be a testament to Reeves’ delight at getting to really take advantage of this legendary group of baddies.
And then there is Robert Pattinson. Of all the actors to play the Batman, Pattinson is the first one to truly capture the broken little boy hiding underneath all that intimidating costume. There is sorrow peeking through all of his anger and it’s mostly done in extreme close-up, allowing Pattinson to emote in near-microscopic ways. His vocal performance also rarely steps into the gravell-laden grumble we’ve gotten recently. Instead, Pattinson whispers as if the only person he’s often talking to is himself. He is easily one of the best to ever don the cowl on the big screen.
He’s also bolstered by a plot that keeps The Batman moving along nicely considering its almost 3-hour running time. Despite it's length I never once checked my watch and was surprised when it ended. It had me engaged all the way.
Thankfully, there is no origin story and no re-enaction of the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne which has been, if you forgive the pun, done to death.
Christopher Nolan’s version of Batman will always have its fans and those films have their place in the history of the character, but Matt Reeves has crafted something that pushes forward into new territory while still firmly embracing the undeniable comic book nature of the property. It’s a perfect blend that shows so much promise. But if this is the only Batman movie we get from Matt Reeves, he can rest easy knowing he’s made a lasting mark on the world’s most popular superhero. And with this, The Suicide Squad, and Joker, DC has finally taken the lead over Marvel when it comes to consistent quality productions.