It’s Halloween in The Batman’s opening scene, and one couldn’t ask for a better occasion to meet our new, vitamin-D deficient Dark Knight. Like Twilight’s Edward Cullen, he’s a pasty freak of the shadows, always looking vaguely disgusted at whatever he’s witnessing. Like Watchmen’s Rorschach, he’s got his madman’s journal full of daily “we live in a society” entries to narrate aloud. Unlike Christian Bale’s Batman, his voice is surprisingly gentle, making his wall-like physique only more unnerving.
Am I talking about Robert Pattinson’s Batman or Paul Dano’s Riddler? Both are pretty awesome in The Batman, Matt Reeves’ bold new start for DC’s most overrepresented hero.
This lengthy film’s plot of a masked hero and masked villain in a bad city isn’t anything new (“we’re not so different, you and I”, etc.) but it’s got all the mood, style, and muscular action moments we missed out on in the overrated Joker. Best of all, it feels like the first superhero film in a while to actually capitalise on the graphic origins of its story, with striking visuals that speak for themselves.
In Reeves’ Gotham, crime trickles down, from the performative local politicians to the gutters, and all cops are bastards except for Jeffrey Wright’s Jim Gordon (Bats literally tells him “you’re a good cop” at one point). As promised, we’re skipping the tired origin story to see an early-career Batman, still considered a freak and a nuisance by the authorities he’s aiding.
Sign up for Flicks updates
We get the picture early on when the civilian he’s just rescued begs, “please don’t hurt me”. This guy is barely heroic, and Bruce Wayne is pretty useless too, scarcely keeping daddy’s company afloat despite the tireless support of butler Alfred (Andy Serkis, underused).
Instead of putting his money and privilege where that pouty mouth is, Pattinson’s Bruce spends most of his time being the kind of nosey weirdo seen in serial killer movies from De Palma and Fincher: obsessively watching and rewatching every recorded minute of his night-prowling through high-tech contact lenses. Vengeful club worker Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz) is his latest eye candy and so she becomes ours, too.
This voyeuristic gaze can be clever enough but whew, we sure do see a lot of Kravitz struggling, posing, stripping down to a corset or undies…Her personal revenge plot is also wrestled from her control by Batman at the last moment, annoyingly.
He’s all big and sad and she’s all little and slinky and they make a great pair, adding some welcome sexual tension whenever the plot starts to feel plain. All Warner Bros.’ promises of a cerebral, complicated noir plot were a tad hollow, it seems: most of The Riddler’s riddles and Zodiac-esque ciphers ain’t exactly MENSA-level brainteasers. And who could’ve predicted that the evils of mob boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) go all the way to the top, intertwining with Batman’s own shadowy past? I had to agree with Colin Farrell’s squawk of “c’maaaan!” when his entertaining Penguin taunts Batman and Gordon as falling short of “the world’s greatest detectives”.
The Batman’s three-hour runtime is most keenly felt during referential scenes that we’ve all seen before (and a tedious teaser as to the next movie’s baddie, of course). But there’s enough new stuff and juicy character turns to keep fans and skeptics alike onboard the Batmobile. Like, say, the Batmobile itself vrooming up a ramp to burst through a wall of flames, or Pattinson grappling up a long spiral staircase as the floor falls out of our vision.
Reeves has a particularly dynamic grasp of foreground and background contrast like that, narrowly focusing the audience’s attention and directly recalling Frank Miller’s groundbreaking graphic style. Use of negative space, blackened doorways and halls, brings an understated chill to the reveals of our masked-up action figures.
You kind of agree with the guy’s antics until that drawn-out climax, at which point the film backs away from its convictions to stress that Batman’s past actually isn’t that complex and our villain is definitely a crazy awful person.
What I’ll remember about The Batman, though, isn’t the morally simplified super-heroics we end on: it’s Pattinson’s weird, lonely lead, Greig Fraser’s gothic visuals from the film’s murkiest moments, and Michael Giacchino’s maddening score, so complementary to Nirvana’s “Something In The Way” (which blasts a further three times [!!] after already getting our grunge juices going in the film’s trailer).
Somehow, all that craft and cool managed to make me excited to see the BatSignal over cloudy CGI skies once more; the DC’s cinematic universe riddle, solved with attractive brawn if not brains.