Matt Reeves’ The Batman feels like the most obvious choice in tone and direction the franchise has encountered in years.
We’ve seen a myriad of approaches to the Caped Crusader over decades – with vastly different tonalities – but with Reeves at the helm, casual viewers and die-hards alike are going to be asking themselves “Where has this Batman been all along?” By throwing our Dark Knight into a pit of hellish pitch-black noir, and wrenching the character back into the realm of a brooding and pulpy detective tale, Reeves et al may have just made themselves the best Batman film not seen since The Dark Knight.
Two years into his “Gotham Project”, a young Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) has established himself as Gotham’s vigilante, so much so that even the city’s criminals fear the dark, empty shadows when they see his signal in the night sky. When the mayor of the city is murdered, it’s detective Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) who brings the Batman into the fold as an outside consultant on the case. It’s clear Gordon sees value in the uneasy alliance, especially given that the murderer is leaving personal messages to the Bat himself. Each riddle they solve, each clue they follow, leads them deeper into the belly of Gotham’s underworld, and closer to a deranged and legitimately terrifying serial killer determined to uncover the sins of the city’s elite.
Where Nolan made The Dark Knight through the prism of Michael Mann’s Heat, so too does one get the sense that Reeves is attempting the same with The Batman, this time through the lens of David Fincher’s Se7en. In fact, you could see the two films existing very comfortably in the same universe. The world of Gotham is oppressive – forever dark or grey, constantly raining, it feels almost inhospitable. It’s a place for people who have nowhere else to go, and for the criminal element, who see it as a modern day wild west. Reeves and his fellow collaborators set up a harsher reality of Gotham than we’ve ever seen previously, creating a grimy atmosphere that feels deeply uncomfortable to be in.
It’s this grimy atmosphere where the film leans full tilt into the dark noir detective origins of the character. Gadgets and gizmos are mostly sparse (nary a batarang in sight), in favour of brains and brawn. Echoing the hardboiled novels of Dashell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, this Bat / Bruce is the downtrodden private investigator, dealing with deep emotional (and physical) scars, and addled by nights of sleeplessness. There’s no superhero posing as the billionaire playboy. Pattinson plays Wayne as a broken young man, either trying to punch his way out of his trauma, or using it to fuel his nightly escapades. He’s unable to see beyond his own loss and so it’s the first time where you have to question whether he’s doing the right thing, by the city or himself.
Some might find Pattinson’s approach to Wayne a harsh deviation from previous go arounds. He has more in common with a Travis Bickle or Rorschach than he does with anyone even remotely more charming. A monosyllabic, highly intelligent brawler, he can’t see the forest from the trees in his own crusade so much so that even his relationship with his butler / family bodyguard, Alfred (Andy Serkis) is strained. It’s in Alfred we find a reluctant enabler, someone who doesn’t want to see the kid fall further down a self destructive rabbit hole, acting as a gentle guide away from a more self harming abyss.
Gotham’s underworld is bursting at the seams in The Batman. While another film could be accused of “too many villains” syndrome, here Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig, give each member of Batman’s rogues’ gallery an integral purpose. And they’re all cast to perfection. Colin Farrell as The Penguin, the right hand to mob boss, Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), is the film’s fun and bombast. He’s DeNiro’s Al Capone in The Untouchables but without the self aggrandising oration. A loyal head breaker, the character walks an incredibly fine line between being the film’s comic relief and coming off as a major threat. Farrell plays across the much more straight, and disgustingly charming Turturro, with his Falcone being the assured and soft spoken mafia royalty of Gotham, a man who could calmly talk you into signing your soul away to him without much hesitation.
With deep boots to fill, Zoe Kravitz handily and comfortably delivers a Selina Kyle worthy of the character’s legacy. Sultry, capable, and a little out of her depth, Kravtiz’s Catwoman is a survivor first and foremost, and master thief / cat burglar second. Not so much taking what she wants, but what she needs, she’s only ever barely a whisker ahead of everyone else in the crime game, and the story gives her a much more emotional reasoning for her actions beyond attempting to steal her next shiny trinket. While my fellow traveller, Pete Gray still believes Pfeiffer to be the reigning queen of the Catwomen, I feel as though Kravitz may be the most perfectly cast Batman character since Robbie’s Harley Quinn.
But it’s not since Heath Ledger’s Joker that a villain in a Batman film has made me so uneasy as Paul Dano’s Riddler. Part Zodiac Killer, part Jigsaw, I would never have thought any version of the character could terrify me so deeply as Dano’s take. His appearances in the film made my hair stand on end – particularly his shadowy first appearance. Slinking through the dark, his squeals of violence followed by the deep, muffled breaths of release are completely unnerving. A lot has gone into making sure this Riddler is taken incredibly seriously, and I don’t see how you couldn’t. Much like Ledger’s Joker, it’ll now be the bar to which every other iteration of the character has to meet – and that bar is set incredibly high (if it wasn’t already).
One of the biggest successes of this film (and there are many) is how lived in this world feels. A lot of that is thanks to the work of production designer James Chinlund and cinematographer Greig Fraser. Fraser has quickly become the new golden boy director of photography in recent years and rightfully so. His work here is sublimely grim, claustrophobic and yet intensely gorgeous to stare at. The frame never feels clean or glossy, instead obscured and cracked, you can never get a clear sense of things and are always off balance in Chinlund and Fraser’s Gotham City.
Reeves is a no brainer as director for this film. Following his work on Let Me In and both Dawn of and War for the Planet of the Apes, he’s the type of director who can take something as overtly silly as a billionaire fighting crime in a bat suit, and make it as believable and emotionally hefty as possible. It’s a film that takes itself deeply seriously and it’s Reeves direction that is supremely unapologetic. If Richard Donner had you believing that a man could fly, Reeves will have you believing that an emotionally and psychologically traumatised young man can, in fact, put the fear of God into criminals by dressing up as a bat. And you will applaud him for doing so.
The Batman is the franchise’s next step in its natural evolution. Or perhaps it’s putting it squarely where it’s meant to be – an unapologetic and grizzled detective story, a film that has blood on its knuckles and dirt in its eye. It has far more in common with Nolan’s Memento, Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or Phillips’ Joker than it does with Justice League or Man of Steel. And for the first time in the franchises long history, it will definitely make you fear The Bat.