Directed by Matt Reeves
A few years ago, I remember sitting in a coffee shop and seeing a youngish mum, probably in her late twenties, doing a Batman colouring-in book with her daughter. It dawned on me that she likely grew up watching Batman herself – probably the Burton and Schumacher ones. As too may her own mum, with the Adam West show. Heck, even her grandmother, now a great grandmother, could have been raised with Batman in her life: he’s been around for over 80 years after all. And now we have his latest incarnation: Matt Reeve’s sixth outing as director (and co-writer), The Batman.
As a genre, superhero films have changed a lot since the last Batman solo flick – The Dark Knight Rises. Since then, we’ve seen a turn towards inter-genre cinema, with recent offerings embracing less common filmmaking styles such as science fiction, romcom, heist, period drama and martial arts. Now we can add crime thrillers to the list. From Batman’s extensive rogue gallery, The Riddler is maybe my favourite villain. He’s smart, he’s a snappy dresser, and though his compulsive need to drop clues seems needlessly risky it’s a cool concept. As such, I was delighted to see him come back to the big screen, for the first time since Jim Carrey asked the questions in Batman Forever. This time around he’s reimagined as a green gimp-mask wearing serial killer, with more than a hint of the Zodiac, stalking his victims then leaving their corpses behind with clues to who he’s going after next. The common thread is they’re all corrupt political figures. So enter the Dark Knight to track him down in time for the next election.
Something which is immediately apparent is that Gotham’s super gloomy this time. Reeves has embraced a noire aesthetic to really takes us into its darkness: a city in a state of decay and decline. While Nolan and Todd Phillips may as well have just called it New York, Reeves has committed to the idea of Gotham being a dive. It’s constantly wet, the streets are full of thugs, and every shadow provides the perfect place for a mugger or monster to hide. This is the fourth time we’ve been introduced to the city in 20 years, and somehow it’s completely different from all past trips. It isn’t just a backdrop any more, but a character in its own right. Stylistically, The Batman finds a space between the realism of the 00s and the over-the-top gothic of the 80s and 90s – making for a universe in which hardboiled cops can work with a guy in a Halloween costume. Despite the location’s miserabilism, the cinematography is simply stunning. Reeves and co have a real eye for atmosphere, making a super moody city, and his framing means numerous shots that could have come straight from the comics. He can stage a good action scene too. There’s a warts and all viciousness to the violence, which reminds us that vigilantes aren’t a good thing, yet he can, when he wants to, go big. For example, a blunt set-piece at a funeral chillingly recalls real-world violence. A high-speed car chase is also among the most exciting sequences these films have ever had. Yet it’s rarely what you’d call fun. I don’t mean that in a bad way: it’s almost refreshing to see a superhero film with such little humour.
There are even some horror elements, like how the fear the bat signal conjures up is enough to put several would-be villains off in the opening minutes (an amazing montage). It’s a testament to his acting that a guy still best known for playing a sparkly vampire can live up to this sort of hype. It’s is just as well since this is maybe the Batman movie with the most Batman in it. We don’t have his usual problems of keeping up appearances and balancing out two lives – Bruce spends almost the whole thing in the shadows. R-Batz makes for an effective caped crusader with an intimidating physique and a brooding intensity. He’s well-meaning but struggling with the guilt and weight of his parents’ legacy as philanthropists. Like them, he has a way of helping those in need, yet he knows he can never do enough. Pattinson is an accomplished actor who manages to find a vulnerability in even the most badass suit in all of cinema. Whereas Bale always looked well-rested, this is a guy who always looks like he’s on the verge of death. Pale, sad and scarred – no hint of the billionaire playboy we’ve come to know and love.
The rest of the cast are similarly successful. An unrecogniseable Colin Farrell puts his all into The Penguin, Jeffrey Wright is a good Gordon, even if his perpetual confusion recalls his work on Westworld, and Zoë Kravitz is a kick-ass cat woman. And though his scenes with Bruce seem to rely on the audience’s familiarity with the relationship to grant them pathos, Andy Serkis is an enjoyable Alfred. The clear standout though is Paul Dano’s Riddler. Think Jigsaw with an unpredictable, occasionally excitable, incel energy about him. For much of the movie, he’s limited to a voice on the other end of phone or video calls. It still works, but he and Batman’s relationship lacks the significance of his rivalry with Joker, Ra’s al Ghul or even Superman before. Yeah, there are some neat parallels (the opening bit in which The Riddler watches his prey is repeated shortly after from Batman’s side), and to an extent their conflict is personalised. Still, it’s only in a murky, abstract way in which they’re joined by a long chain of events we don’t see – after The Riddler drops more breadcrumbs than a baker’s apprentice. As such it’s only towards the end that their dynamic properly grabbed me. It was compelling as a game of cat and mouse, but without the human drama Nolan was so good at, I was more impressed by the presentation than invested in the story. Still, when he and Batman eventually meet to trade-off sad boy barbs it’s immensely satisfying – even if you wish that it had happened an hour ago.
This is one of several storytelling decisions which frustrated me. While I spent much of the first half thinking this may be the best Batman yet, I wanted it to hurry up and get to the point for much of the second. It’s interesting to see Batman immerse himself so much in a case, but it struggles for momentum without the aforementioned stakes or emotional hooks. Where it’s good, it’s still very good – there’s an intriguing mystery at its core, and even though Riddler’s puzzles get solved within seconds, they supply a decent throughline. But for about an hour it descends into convoluted join the dots conspiracies and endless conversations about events that take place offscreen, involving bit-part characters we met an hour and a half ago. It’s almost like a clumsy murder mystery in which the author rapidly introduces readers to a large cast of characters – then expects them to remember who each is and how they’re all connected later. The world’s greatest detective? Maybe. But far from the world’s greatest detective film. The labyrinth plot means there’s a lot of talking about what’s just happened, so some characters are done dirty: I struggle to think of another three-hour film where so few roles are substantiated. As a result, something that should be huge on paper falls emotionally flat. A romance plot also feels unearned, with the characters not having the charm or sexual tension necessary to sell it.
Thankfully the third act brings it all back around for an impressive finale that goes darker than I was expecting and is all the more rewarding for it. Not only does Reeves fully deliver on the action quotient, he does so in such a way that even the most optimistic viewers will be worried about the body count. Batman’s journey and endless musings on his own legacy also come to a fitting conclusion. As such, even though I fully believe the story could be streamlined, I wouldn’t want much of it to be taken off the ending. Both Reeves and Pattinson have implied they’d be up for another – putting to bed the rumours that they fell out on set over the latter’s sexual liaisons. There’s also a little teaser for what angle it may be going for, and from what little we get it seems promising. It’s an accomplished if bum-testing film that has already done well. As such, I fully expect we’ll be seeing plenty more Batman for years to come.