“Gotham loves a comeback story,” Paul Dano’s Riddler is told at a critical juncture in The Batman. After the double disappointment of Batman V Superman and Justice League, it’s the Caped Crusader himself who’s in urgent need of a resurgence. Enter comeback kid Robert Pattinson, the latest actor to don the cape and cowl, and director Matt Reeves, who brought soul and spectacle to his underrated Apes sequels, Dawn and War.
Extricating their take on the character from DCEU continuity for a near-three-hour superhero standalone, this is the darkest knight yet – a film that has as much in common with David Fincher’s Seven as it does with the average comic-book-movie tentpole.
That isn’t a glib comparison. The Batman opens with Dano’s terrifying Riddler bludgeoning a man to death as he squeals with bestial zeal. It gets several notches more disturbing from there, as the puzzle-obsessed psychopath dishes out poetic justice with elaborate murder machines that John Doe or Jigsaw killer John Kramer would take pride in. Let’s just say we’re a long way from Jim Carrey prancing around in a leotard.
It’s all in service of a Gotham and a Batman rooted in some approximation of psychological and physical reality. This isn’t a world of super-folk and alien invaders. Here, Batarangs aren’t shuriken tossed with superhuman precision, they’re knives to cut through police tape. The Batmobile isn’t a transforming tank, it’s a souped-up muscle car. The Batsuit may be bulletproof, but this is a Batman whose scars don’t heal.
Set two decades after the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, and two years into Bruce’s bat-powered ‘Gotham Project’, the plot centers on a masked maniac who’s assassinating the great and good of the city, murdering their reputations in the process. Riddles conspicuously left at each crime scene addressed ‘To The Batman’ lead Sergeant James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) to seek the help of the caped vigilante, much to the ire of his GCPD superiors.
Always one step behind his logically minded nemesis, Batman’s investigation takes him into the orbit of Zoë Kravitz’s cat burglar Selina Kyle, and deeper into Gotham’s criminal underworld, where he crosses paths with the Penguin (an astonishingly unrecognizable Colin Farrell) and his boss, Carmine Falcone (John Turturro).
It’s a dense, labyrinthine detective tale that grips from the off, feeling like the truest representation to date of a Batman graphic novel on screen as its focus shifts and reconfigures in order to explore lengthy tangents that provide a richer understanding of the city and its inhabitants. The first Bat-film to fully deliver on the oft-forgotten fact that ol’ Bats is supposed to be the ‘world’s greatest detective’, this is a story that unfolds entirely on the rain-soaked streets and seedy underbelly of a Gotham blighted by corruption and crime, with clues left at each bloody tableaux leading inexorably to the next, in classic ’tec movie fashion. There’s even a hard-boiled voiceover that bookends the film, hammering home the noir influences.
First and foremost, however, it’s a story about Batman. No Bat-flick has centered so fully on a suited and booted Bats in media res, and without its gaze wandering irresistibly to that peerless rogues’ gallery. Thankfully, RBatz is up to the task – the indie-minded actor proving a credible and worthy crime-fighter. Operating at the apex of his anger, he’s a Batman with little sympathy for anyone who crosses the line into criminality, but one who sticks resolutely to the ‘no kill’ golden rule.
Employing theatrics and scare tactics to swing situations in his favor, this is a Dark Knight for whom fear really is as much of a weapon as his meat-tenderizer fists. The fight scenes are a punch above most consequence-free comic-book movie fare. Choreographed and lensed with brutal clarity, they deliver a conscious rejection of impossible superhero athleticism. Instead, this Batman’s a fallible, relatively inexperienced brawler who’s often on the receiving end of as much punishment as he dishes out.
If the film’s Batman is an unqualified success, its take on Bruce Wayne is comparatively a drag – too sombre and one-note to enjoy the company of for all that long. Tellingly, Reeves keeps Wayne’s appearances to a minimum. In this Gotham, Bruce is a recluse with none of Christian Bale’s playboy twinkle, the floppy fringe and goth eyeliner more mopey teenager than comic-dom’s coolest superhero. It is, perhaps, more logical that a person who turns to costumed vigilante justice wouldn’t have an especially well-adjusted personal life, but neither is the film all that fun to watch when Bruce is on screen.
Compensating for this is the presence of an enjoyable mix of supporting players – mostly fresh spins on familiar faces. Andy Serkis’ Alfred is a gruffer, tougher Pennyworth than the avuncular butler of previous films, but his sympathy for Bruce and concern about the dark road he’s going down is keenly felt. Wright’s Sergeant Gordon is practically a sidekick for Batman for much of the film (“What is this, good cop, bat-shit cop?” quips the Penguin) and the two make for an enjoyable double act. Farrell is clearly having a hoot as ‘Oz’. Completely transformed under mountains of latex, his proto-Cobblepot is the most traditionally comic take on any character in The Batman, but he’s such a treat to watch it never jars. Turturro meanwhile is surprisingly central to The Batman’s story as Carmine Falcone – the character all the more chilling for a performance that hinges on a sociopathic, friendly facade.
Kravitz’s Selina Kyle has a similarly crucial role to play, as she conducts her own missing-person investigation in parallel with Batman’s puzzle quest. It’s a compelling enough alliance of convenience, but the shift into love-story territory never truly convinces. And while Kravitz is a physically adept Catwoman, one whose speed and agility makes up for what she may lack in stature, it’s not an especially interesting or revolutionary take on a character who has already been realized exceedingly well on screen across multiple iterations.
Clocking in at a bladder-busting 175 minutes, The Batman is a film with an awful lot going on. It’s an anguished character study, a serial-killer crime story, a political conspiracy thriller about the legacy of lies, a love story between the Bat and the Cat, a Year Two Batman tale, as well as an origin story for multiple Bat-villains. It may keep Crime Alley off screen, but Bruce’s past and his connection to the rot at the heart of Gotham is key.
Gotham itself is a beautifully believable creation, a grounded but grand take on a familiar locale seamlessly stitched together with atmospheric location work and flawless visual effects. The Batcave and Wayne Tower are stunning gothic spaces, but glimpsed so fleetingly you feel a twinge of pity for the production team who slaved over their creation. A word too for DoP Greig Fraser, whose sublime cinematography almost reaches the heights of what he achieved on Arrakis, with a graphic color palette that mixes deep blacks and bold colors in a way that feels cinematically distinct.
But that inflated runtime is as much of a problem as it is a virtue, particularly when it comes to the film’s overly busy final act. Reeves is evidently a filmmaker enamored with this character and his world, so much so that he’s failed to kill a few too many darlings. For a significant chunk of the film’s middle stretch The Riddler simply disappears from screens as the film explores its secondary crims, any momentum grinding to a halt ahead of a climactic sequence whose scale so vastly exceeds the character-driven investigation that precedes it that it seems to have been parachuted in from another franchise.
There’s also an unavoidable sense that Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig are drawing from much of the same material that Nolan and his collaborators were with the Dark Knight trilogy. At times The Batman feels more like a successor to that celebrated trifecta – darker and more violent, but more of an aesthetic and tonal evolution – than it does a ground-up reinvention. Compared to something like Joker – a divisive but undeniably daring exercise in recontextualizing a beloved comic-book character – The Batman can feel like it’s treading some familiar ground.
But when it treads such beloved bedrock so well it’s hard to complain too much. An outstanding return to form, The Batman delivers on the definitive article in that title – this is a long dark (k)night of the soul that keeps the caped crusader in the spotlight, and is better for it. Talk about a comeback.
The Batman is in cinemas from March 4. Check out our guide to all the upcoming superhero movies for more on what’s to come.
4 out of 5
The Batman review: “Exactly the fresh start needed”
A gripping, grimy and sensational street-level detective story, the Dark Knight’s triumphant return is exactly the fresh start needed after a decade of diminishing returns.