The Batman is the latest big screen incarnation of Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s iconic comic book hero. Over the last 30-odd years there have been multiple film takes on Batman from Tim Burton’s brooding gothic noir and Joel Schumacher’s neon-drenched camp, through to Christopher Nolan’s crime-thriller and Zack Snyder’s gritty graphic novel style. You might think that nothing else could be done with the character, but more than 80 years of comics illustrates that Batman can constantly be reinvented and repurposed for new eras and new generations.
Director and co-writer (alongside Peter Craig) Matt Reeves has decided to focus on Batman’s detective leanings, framing the movie as a serial killer thriller and presenting Gotham City as a gritty rain-soaked metropolis which is rotting from the top down. Setting the film during the second year of Bruce Wayne’s war on Gotham’s criminals means we are dropped right into the action with a Batman who is already proficient at striking fear into the heart of the underworld.
Opening with the violent murder of Gotham City Mayor (Rupert Penry-Jones) by The Riddler (Paul Dano), The Batman is immediately in detective mode as Robert Pattinson’s Batman and Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) search for clues to the killer’s identity. The dynamic duo begin an investigation which uncovers a conspiracy involving Colin Farrell’s crooked club owner Oswald Cobblepot (aka The Penguin), feared mobster Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) and the high-standing elders of Gotham City. As The Riddler continues to prey on the city’s power elite, The Batman’s investigation into the murders is complicated by the presence of Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), a low-level criminal eager to find her friend and seek revenge on those who have wronged her.
Borrowing very heavily from David Fincher’s filmography, Reeves takes elements from Seven, Fight Club, Zodiac and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and filters them through the world of Batman. What we get is a comic book movie which ditches the overblown aspects of the genre to keep things (relatively) grounded and deliver a thriller where the detective happens to wear a cape rather than a trench-coat.
All the elements are all in place for an intriguing movie. So how does The Batman shape-up in regards to The Dark Knight’s cinematic legacy? It’s good – perhaps even very good but there’s something lacking which makes it fall short of being anywhere near excellent.
Robert Pattinson makes for a good Batman – and he stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Christian Bale’s take on the character. However, he has no persona as Bruce Wayne – only Batman – and ultimately this means he’s one-note. We know Batman is dark and intense but it’s the complexity of having the Bruce Wayne side to the character which creates inner-conflict. Pattinson does bring a feral quality to The Batman’s eyes – a don’t mess with me intensity works well when he’s locked in close contact with others. On a personal level, I prefer Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and Ben Affleck’s versions of Bruce Wayne/Batman over Pattinson’s, but the actor should be able to develop in further franchise instalments.
Jeffrey Wright’s Jim Gordon is now the definitive screen iteration of the character. For the first time we finally get to see Batman and Gordon really work side-by-side. Wright uses this performance to capture the everyman in Gordon, which isn’t unlike his take on Felix Leiter in the James Bond films – a way of showing humanity in a larger than life world.
Colin Farrell excels as The Penguin. Hidden under a mountain of prosthetic make-up, Farrell’s Oz Cobblepot has 1930s gangster swagger, which is not unlike Robert De Niro’s Al Capone in The Untouchables. He balances grit and humour to ensure the character is memorable and entertaining – there’s a wonderful moment where he waddles which is a clear nod to The Penguin’s comic book roots. It’s not a huge part – but Farrell has the potential to add extra layers to the feathered foe in future films and his own HBO Max series.
Masked and shrouded in secrecy for most of the film, Paul Dano’s The Riddler is a curiosity. A fiery and aggressive presence when he’s teasing the citizens of Gotham City through online videos – he loses his mystique when he ditches the mask only to reveal that he’s simply…Paul Dano. At this point he becomes a series of character ticks and hammy line deliveries.
Selina Kyle is The Batman’s biggest disappointment. I’ve always felt that Catwoman is a great character for unearthing hidden depths within Batman – but we don’t get that here. Zoë Kravitz’s performance is nothing more than a lot of strutting and spouting first-draft sounding dialogue in an attempt to sound tough. It may have been just about passable if she wasn’t following in the high-heeled stilettos of Michelle Pfeiffer in 1992’s Batman Returns and Anne Hathaway in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises.
An end of movie scene introduces Barry Keoghan’s ‘Unseen Arkham Prisoner’, a tease of The Joker which offers-up the tantalising prospect of the the actor getting to chew the scenery in further Batman movies down the road. Keoghan’s casting is certainly off-beat and it shows that Reeves and company are certainly thinking outside the box when it comes to casting. At the moment it’s nothing more than a brief scene, one which has the potential to infuriate or excite in equal measure.
The Batman looks and sounds great. Production designer James Chinlund has delivered a wonderfully realised Gotham City, a beautifully bleak gothic hell which is merged with grungy modern cityscape. It’s perfectly shot by cinematographer Greig Fraser who really brings the dark to The Dark Knight. Fraser’s camera work is flawless – save for an energetic car chase which renders the new Batmobile all but a sleek black blur. Michael Giacchino’s score is an atmospheric piece which works well within the operatic nature Reeve’s film – it’s nowhere near as good as Danny Elfman’s flawless work on Tim Burton’s movies – but that’s an incredibly high benchmark.
The Batman’s hefty 3 hour running time certainly gives you plenty of bat-bang for your buck (although it could probably lose 25 minutes). It’s an epic film which eschews most comic book tropes and takes its plotting (and audience) down a refreshing new route. That central mystery isn’t as clever or complex as Matt Reeves would have hoped, but it’s certainly more intriguing than endless CGI action sequences. While it might not be the greatest Batman story ever told, it’s good to see someone attempting to try something a little different with the character and the genre – and that alone means The Batman has an excellent defence for its existence.