The Batman is an origin story. Not the one you’re thinking of which we’ve seen depicted in film and comic form more times than Superman has abused his X-ray vision powers to spy on hot singles in his area. Director Matt Reeves doesn’t show us yet another slow-motion shot of Martha Wayne’s pearls scattering across a grimy alley as some low-life guns her and her husband down, leaving the crying Bruce Wayne to swear vengeance and grow up to wear a gimp suit with ears. No, in The Batman, Bruce has already been battling crime for 2-years. He’s still young, hot-headed and prone to losing control. He’s Vengeance, but he’s not The Batman. Not yet. Not until the credits roll on this excellent new telling of the Dark Knight.
The central theme is of Bruce coming to understand that being vengeance incarnate isn’t enough. As he says himself, he’s fighting a losing battle. Gotham city is still decaying, becoming more and more infested by criminals and human vermin. It’s not a place you would want to live because every trip to the local grocer would entail at least a 50% chance of being mugged/raped/shot/stabbed. And Batman simply can’t be everywhere at once – while he’s busy stopping a brutal beatdown, across Gotham someone will be left in a pool of blood.
Robert Pattinson has worked hard to shed the baggage of playing human disco-ball Edward Cullen in the bloody atrocious Twilight movies, so I’m more than delighted to say that his hard work has paid off. Not once did I connect Pattinson to poncy-McSparkly, only ever seeing the Batman. Any doubts I had about the casting choice were decimated quickly because Pattinson kills it in the role, and doubtless my favorite live-action Batman to date.
Some people have complained about Pattinson’s refusal to bulk up for the role, and to be sure he’s a leaner Batman than Ben Affleck’s thic-boi portrayal in Justice League, but it works, especially since this version of the costume kicks the ass of the crappy suits Christian Bale had to wear. It’s clearly been pieced together, giving it a rough and ready feel, again aiding the idea that this is a young Batman who hasn’t yet perfected his crime-fighting craft. Ensconced in the cowl, Pattison feels suitably intimidating as the Dark Knight, although I will concede that practically anyone is intimidating when wearing a suit of body armour that can absorb gunfire like I can absorb Big Macs.
He’s not quite there as Bruce Wayne yet, though. However, that’s actually kind of deliberate. This inexperienced Bruce Wayne hasn’t yet figured out that keeping up appearances as the billionaire playboy is vital to his success, and instead Bruce and Batman are treated as one and the same – both brooding, both sullen. His obsession with Batman is so all-consuming that every day and night is blurring into one, and so he keeps a journal in order to remember everything. Whether he’s wearing the costume and beating up criminals or wearing ordinary clothes and moping about his home, Bruce can’t take off the mask. It’s clear that becoming Batman is an unhealthy coping mechanism for the trauma he has endured, one that’s dangerous because Bruce doesn’t care what happens to him. I think Pattinson does exactly what he needs to be doing for the film, and I can easily see him in a sequel playing it up as the billionaire playboy with a sharply cut suit and slicked-back hair instead of the emo cut he rocks in this movie.
Bruce’s only friend in the world is Alfred, the faithful butler played by the amazingly talented Andy Serkis who gets surprisingly little screentime. This version of Alfred is rougher and younger and was the one to train Bruce in the fighting arts, which might be why this Batman battles like a brawler. It’s a cool idea but it does strip Alfred of the more fatherly role and puts him more into the role of the cool uncle or older brother. Sorry Serkis, Michael Gough remains the Alfred Pennyworth of my heart.
What I love about The Batman is that it completely leans into the facet of the character that is most often forgotten about in movies – Batman is the world’s greatest detective, not just a thug with money and a penchant for black. There are lengthy scenes where Batman stalks crime scenes amidst wary and untrusting police officers who only grudgingly accept his presence because of Jim Gordon, who at this point trusts Batman implicitly. While he isn’t exactly the greatest detective in the world just yet, he’s clearly smart and observant, picking out clues that the police detective miss or may have taken far longer to discover. And I’m also happy that Batman doesn’t bust out magical gadgets to analyse the clues, either; he does it all himself. At times it almost feels like a noir detective film, right up until Batman unleashes on a thug. Even the use of moody narration from Bruce beautifully imitates both detective noir flicks and the Batman comics themselves which usually kick off with Batman’s inner monologue.
The whole movie is presented as a slow-burn thriller rather than an action-fest. That isn’t to say that there’s no fighting; this is Batman, after all, but the movie is content to take its time with lengthy shots given over to Batman untangling the mystery of who has been murdering Gotham’s elite, or even just to the solid thump of Batman’s heavy boots as he emerges from the shadows. And yet despite the near 3-hour runtime, The Batman flew by. Perhaps a couple of scenes could have been tightened up, but for the most part, I was happy to watch every minute, even if my arse was getting numb and my bladder was in danger of becoming an IED.
I especially liked how this Batman feels even more grounded than the Christopher Nolan version. In the latest iterations of Batman, both in comics and the movies, the character has become more and more powerful, boasting a plan for nearly every possible scenario and incredible gadgets. Of course, Batman’s near-omnipotence is has become central to the character over the years and it has been vital to letting him stay as part of the Justice League, but it can also make him tricky to write. Pattinson’s Batman is far more limited – he has contact lenses that can record whatever he sees and a wing-suit so that he can glide, but his gear is otherwise fairly basic and even his Batmobile is a tricked-out muscle car, although its introduction is nothing short of badass. This keeps Batman feeling powerful yet vulnerable throughout the movie. Even a basic thug can still hurt him, so fear and intimidation are vital weapons. That’s shown in the opening moments as Batman narrates, describing Gotham as a city dominated by criminals. He can’t be everywhere at once, and so the Bat signal is not just to summon him, it’s to scare the criminal element into thinking Batman is in every shadow and around every corner.
Driving the plot is the Riddler, a classic member of Batman’s rogue’s gallery that hasn’t been seen in a live-action movie since Jim Carrey gurned his way through Batman: Forever in sparkling green spandex. Although I have to say that while Batman: Forever is typically viewed as a bad movie, I actually really enjoy it for what it is. Anyway, back to this film. Keeping with the grungy, grimy and grim tone of the movie this Riddler is portrayed as deranged and dangerous, leaving a trail of bodies across Gotham along with notes for Batman. There’s an element of modern-day terrorism to his character as well, along with him using social media to connect with others like himself. Overall, I’m not sure how I feel about Paul Dano’s performance. He does come across as a deranged yet intelligent foe, but a couple of his more manic moments felt a little too much. Still, for the most part, the Riddler is a satisfying foe for Batman to take on.
I do love how this Riddler’s birth is connected to Batman, the idea being that, like the Caped Crusader, the Riddler didn’t truly feel like he could be himself until he put on a mask. He was inspired by Batman and his ruthless methods, his vigilantism. It plays into an old idea that Batman is the cause of many of the his worst villains, that Batman’s existence is itself what creates lunatics like the Joker. Battling the Riddler shows Batman that being vengeance and throwing low-life criminals around isn’t enough. His anger alone can’t fix Gotham. Batman is fear, but he can also represent hope for the people.
The Riddler isn’t the only villain to make an appearance, as Colin Farell delivers a strong performance as the Penguin. So strong, in fact, that I didn’t even realise it was Farell at first as he’s wearing a significant amount of makeup. We also get Carmine Falcone, the classic mob boss who featured heavily in earlier Batman stories. John Turturro plays the criminal mastermind who seems to have the entire city on his payroll and does a decent job, although I couldn’t quite buy into him being feared and respected.
And then there’s Selena Kyle, A.K.A. Catwoman, the thieving anti-hero and love interest of our hero. Zoe Kravitz slips into the leather outfit and gives it her all in a solid performance. Sadly for her, I thought Catwoman was mostly superfluous to the movie and her and Batman’s connection was tenous at best. They didn’t have much chemistry, and I wouldn’t have had an issue with her parts of the movie being cut out. Hopefully she gets to come back for a sequel and the will-they-won’t-they relationship between her and Bats can be properly fleshed out.
In fact, there’s more chemistry between Batman and Jim Gordon, the two of them teaming up to solve crimes. All they need is a dog, a stoner and a van. I’d watch it.
Gotham is often described as being a character by itself, a dark and brooding city that defines Batman as much as Batman defines Gotham. It was an aspect the Nolan trilogy was entirely lacking as Gotham was just New York City with a different name, and contributed heavily to my feeling that they didn’t feel like Batman movies so much as Nolan films that just so happened to star a bloke with bat fetish. By contrast, the Tim Burton movies were gothic wonders, so completely absurd that any architect would look at it and throw away their tri-square in disgust. For The Batman, Reeves settled on a look somewhere in the middle, giving us a Gotham city that appears to almost be perpetually cloaked in darkness and bathed in rain. The architecture isn’t as bold as the older movies, but there is never any doubt that it’s Gotham, unlike the Nolan films.
Gotham’s thick atmosphere of despair is reinforced by a grungy, dirty soundtrack. Reeves spoke about how listening to Nirvana helped inspire the film as he began to draw connections between the tragic figure of Kurt Cobain and Bruce Wayne. In an interview with Esquire he said, “When I considered, ‘How do you do Bruce Wayne in a way that hasn’t been seen before?’ I started thinking, ‘What if some tragedy happened, ie: Wayne sees his parents murdered, and this guy becomes so reclusive, we don’t know what he’s doing? Is this guy some kind of wayward, reckless, drug addict?’
“And the truth is that he is a kind of drug addict. His drug is his addiction to this drive for revenge. He’s like a Batman Kurt Cobain.”
Unsurprisngly, then, Nirvana’s Something in the Way is the headlining track. For some, it might come across as a little too emo and edgy, but for the tone and style of the movie it works exceptionally well and fits this reclusive Bruce Wayne perfectly. The actual Batman theme is fantastic, creating this growing tension and power. The rest of the music and score is relatively subtle, sticking to the background and even dissapearing for some scenes. However, the moments where the music fades away can reveal the flat sound effects during action scenes. The muted sounds of flesh being pummeled take away from the brutality of the fights.
Here’s the thing: I think the Dark Knight is a better movie with one of the best performances in memory. But I think The Batman is a far better Batman movie. As much as I do love Nolan’s interpretation of the character, something about it just never felt quite like Batman as I know him, whereas this movie is unmistakably Batman, like it was ripped straight from the pages of the comics and imprinted onto film. While it certainly isn’t perfect, this depiction of a younger, rougher Bruce is an excellent start to what will hopefully be a fantastic new set of Batman adventures. I cannot wait to watch The Batman again when it arrives on 4K Blu-Ray, and the idea of a sequel has me drooling.