In his second year of crimefighting, Batman (Robert Pattinson) is pulled into Gotham City’s underworld when enigmatic serial killer The Riddler (Paul Dano) leaves a trail of cryptic clues in his wake. As the evidence leads close to home, the masked vigilante is forced to make surprising allies to bring the guilty to justice.
It was always going to happen. Since Tim Burton took ‘Batman’ off the table in 1989, and then Christopher Nolan used ‘The Dark Knight’ in 2008, the question wasn’t if but when we would get a movie named The Batman.
As the title suggests, Matt Reeves’ new venture into Gotham City sets out to take us back to the core of the series – the Bat himself. Indeed, this is an exploration of Bruce Wayne’s dark alter ego – as well as the society that forged him – to a level we’ve never before seen on the big screen. Where Burton’s Gotham was drenched in art nouveau surrealist horror, and Nolan painted the city as a grounded, sprawling, concrete jungle, Reeves has created a world that almost seems to have emerged from the young filmmakers of 1970s New Hollywood – dank, desperate and wet – and from that world has sprung his Batman.
Like Burton, though (and perhaps wanting to avoid yet another retelling of the most famous of superhero origin stories), Reeves gives us a Batman who already dons the cape and cowl; he’s in year two of fighting crime, in fact. The first act finds Batman working with G.C.P.D. ally Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), investigating the murder of elite Gotham citizens by a killer who livestreams, leaves cryptic clues and calls himself The Riddler. Tonally, it’s grim and desperate and, narratively, it’s mostly engaging.
The Batman official trailer
The Reeves who made Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) and War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) is no stranger to iconic movie series’, and news of his hiring back in 2017 felt like a natural next step in his career. Seeing the end result, Reeves’ familiarity with big budget blockbusters shows in spades – a midpoint car chase is particularly jaw-dropping – and his decision to cast Pattinson as his reclusive hero has proved to be an inspired one.
Stepping into Bat-shoes once filled by popular incumbents like Michael Keaton, Christian Bale and, most recently, Ben Affleck, Pattinson has no easy task in living up to their legacy and the expectations that come with playing one of popular culture’s most iconic characters, but he certainly rises to the challenge. Where Keaton gained most acclaim when in the mask and suit, and Bale always seemed more comfortable as the playboy-acting Bruce Wayne, Pattinson is the first to portray a screen version of Batman where the billionaire is the facade – it’s the masked vigilante who is the character in his natural state. Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne is a withdrawn, edgy almost rock star-like figure (Reeves has cited Kurt Cobain as an influence) who hides his extreme mental scars behind introversion and inaccessibility. And in the Batsuit, Pattinson is a revelation – a physically-imposing force of nature who deals with the hoodlums of Gotham brutally and without mercy.
As for how the movie looks, this is a Gotham we’ve not seen before. With DP Greig Fraser, Reeves has taken stylistic inspiration from some of the masters of modern cinema. The neon red lights of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) permeate near-black streets, giving the picture at times a burning intenstity to match its protagonist’s own inner rage. And the creeping, torch-lit darkness of David Fincher’s Seven (1995) is a clear influence – the perfect compliment to some of the more disturbing, sadistic moments in the film. The result is a movie that breathes creative life into the superhero genre. No narrative templates here, this is visual comic book movie storytelling, and it’s executed very well.
And, finally, we have a Riddler worthy of a now decades-old character. Paul Dano steps into a role most recently played by Jim Carrey but there are no histrionics or arm-flailing here. Dano’s Riddler is a cruel, calculating mastermind with a Batman-shaped chip on his shoulder. Again, the Fincher influence is obvious as, like in Zodiac (2007), our killer taunts police with cyphers and menacing phone calls. Dano said that, due to the intense nature of the character, he barely slept through production, but there is no lethargy in his performance, striking a balance between terror and theatricality as The Riddler pushes Batman to the edge both physically and – by tapping into some old Wayne family secrets – psychologically, too.
Elsewhere, Zoë Kravitz excels and excites as a waitressing, drug-dealing Selina Kyle who forms an unlikely crime-fighting partnership with Wayne. Jeffrey Wright is strong, likeable and dependable as ever as Liuetenant Gordon; Andy Serkis plays the usually unflappable butler Alfred as an unreliable narrator who thinks his charge off the rails and unsaveable; and frequent scene-stealer Colin Farrell is unrecognisable as crimelord Oswald “The Penguin” Cobblepot.
On the flip side, as well shot as the movie undoubtedly is, the relentless gloom makes for a lack of variation in the visuals; with a 2 hours 55 minutes runtime, the movie feels too long; and, due to a narrative misstep around a major character, the climactic set piece does not deliver the tension it aims to.
In terms of superhero success, Marvel have held the genre in a stranglehold for over a decade but, by taking a little from the Marvel template, and harking back to old-fashioned visual and (say it quietly) non-formulaic filmmaking, Reeves has created a DC cinematic universe we can get excited about again.
Reeves impresses by finding sides to his protagonist not yet explored on the movie screen. The murder mystery narrative twists, turns and (mostly) entertains; the cinematography makes this one of the best looking Bat-movies to date and, in Pattinson, we have a Batman who is already in the conversation for greatest big screen version of the character.