REVIEW: The Batman
written by Auden Chamberlain
After Ben Affleck stepped aside both in front and behind the camera, director Matt Reeves was left with the great challenge of completely rebooting Batman for the third time in twenty years. He’s opted for a darker and more realistic interpretation – in line with his work on the new Planet of the Apes films. It is worth noting that Reeves took over those films in the second entry after groundwork had been laid, so his ability to create a new iteration and universe from scratch wasn’t a sure thing; and whilst his films are visually stunning, the screenplays can sometimes tip over to the wrong side of sentimental and formulaic. But the biggest challenge facing Reeves is creating a fresh, dark, and more realistic interpretation of Batman when Christopher Nolan did the very same thing to revolutionary results. ‘Daunting’ feels like an understatement if your point of comparison is The Dark Knight, the most acclaimed superhero film ever made, let alone Batman.
Reeves’ response is to make a worthy serial-killer thriller that features Batman rather than the other way around. The Dark Knight owes more to crime thrillers like Michael Mann’s Heat than comic-books, and a similar point of comparison could be made between The Batman and David Fincher’s ouvre. The Riddler is on villain duties, but in contrast to spandex clad Jim Carrey he’s portrayed by character actor Paul Dano as a masked serial killer, brutally murdering corrupt members of Gotham’s elite on a moral crusade. Reeves makes a real statement of intent with the opening, depicting the Riddler beating the Mayor of Gotham to death in a home invasion. Paul Dano pushes the insanity with darting eyes, heavy breathing and unpredictable screaming, but grounds his performance before veering into the ridiculous. Clearly inspired by Zodiac, but with the plot and stylistic qualities entirely reminiscent of Se7en. Working with Dune cinematographer Grieg Frieser, Reeves is meticulous, with tight framing and dingy lighting resembling a horror more than the superhero genre. His Gotham is rain-soaked; a decaying city with shadows in every corner – emblematic to the corrupt politicians and powerful gangsters that inhabit it. It’s the perfect setting for Robert Pattinson’s new Batman to emerge, introducing himself by narrating the true fear that instils criminals when the bat symbol lights up the dark sky.
Although still best known by the general audience for his roles in Twilight and Harry Potter, Robert Pattinson returns to blockbuster acting after a relative hiatus. His portrayal of Batman simultaneously presents threatening physicality and intellect with the vulnerability and insecurity of a tortured symbol still unsure of his place in the societal landscape. Having spent the past few years cultivating critical attention and credibility in independent films, Pattinson combines commanding and often unpredictable tendencies found in Good Time or The Lighthouse with the assurance of an experienced blockbuster lead. His Bruce Wayne is far more insular and restrained than Keaton or Bale with their fake extroversion – not even making the effort to put on the charismatic billionaire front, he is borderline vampiric. The uncomplicated brutality of his Batman presents a physical outlet for someone constantly teetering on the edge. The traditional martial arts training of Bale is contrasted with an unrestrained force of punching and hitting. He’s been fight-trained by Andy Serkis’ gruff Alfred – who’s history in the Le Carre style “circus” is emphasised more than the wise butler side of Michael Caine – rather than ninjas in the mountains. There’s a DIY quality, with heavy boots trunching along and a Batmobile that resembles an armoured muscle car. Whilst in control of every scene, his Batman is clearly at the beginning of his career and haunted by his past.
Differentiating from other Batman films by emphasising the detective angle, the mystery is entangled with Gotham’s criminal underworld. Colin Farrell, inhabiting heavy make-up with fantastic energy and charisma, walks with a waddle as The Penguin, who is portrayed as a Scarface style up-and-coming gangster. His boss is the brutal and smarmy Carmine Falcone, with John Turturro performing as if he’s in Goodfellas. The focus on building a contaminated and corrupt system emphasises Reeves’ intention of making a genuinely serious film. However, as the audience must accept the film on those terms, you are left with a plot without much depth despite committing to darker themes. Batman and Jeffrey Wright’s relentlessly honourable Gordon involve themselves in Riddler’s mysterious clues, but said clues are not particularly involving and often sillier than the film portrays. One particular “Eureka!” moment involving a URL requires you to be particularly forgiving. That isn’t to say the detective beats are poorly written, but they aren’t up to the standard of the L.A. Confidential levels of intrigue and realism that Reeves strives for. Ultimately the film devolves into a standard doomsday scenario involving large-scale disaster, nameless henchmen and superficial fighting – well filmed, but perhaps conceptually disappointing.
The film does not quite manage to enter the same realm of credibility as The Dark Knight, which had a real emotional depth and feel of genuine astonishment, and this in some ways mirrors Reeves’ extremely admirable but thematically obvious Planet of the Apes entries. But Reeves delves far enough into themes of corruption, and presents violence and threat often to an uncomfortable level, that The Batman reaches a level of respectability on its own terms but more importantly feels truly different to any Batman entry that has come before. Three hours spent building a believable Gotham that surrounds its characters with dirt and deceit allows for truly immersive interactions between characters – as one example fire, lights up when Pattinson and a stirring, magnetic Zoe Kravitz as Selina Kyle share the screen. This world can be setting to many more stories, but aside from one unnecessary cameo, the film focuses entirely on one. The impending rise of Colin Farrell’s Penguin aids the overall narrative rather than being superficial set-up, and in the age of Marvel style referencing and post-credits scene, perhaps the most successful piece of Reeves’ vision is the intention of making one, singular Batman entry that makes a genuine attempt to explore something different.
Auden Chamberlain is a first-year Politics and Sociology student. As well as writing film reviews, he enjoys playing guitar and is secretary for Band and Gig Society. For more film related writing, you can follow him on Letterboxd: @arjchamberlain.
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