As easy as it is to wax lyrical on the fact that we have yet another iteration of the Dark Knight, The Batman, from director Matt Reeves, is unlike any we have experienced on screen thus far. Sure, the fact that Reeves has adopted a dark temperament to lace his narrative may not be viewed as entirely original, but the tenebrosity that both Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan adopted with their respective films still ultimately adhered to certain mainstream theatrics. Here, Reeves presents his titular creation by way of a David Fincher-inspired turn of mind – the similarities between this and his serial killer thriller Se7en are eerie – delivering a Batman effort that has no desire to appeal to a blockbuster-ready audience.
The Batman of Reeves’ universe, as played so intimidatingly stoic by Robert Pattinson, has seemed to have embraced the vigilante moniker that has been bestowed upon him by the Gotham City police force, with only detective James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) serving as his sole ally. Reeves and Peter Craig‘s script sets up his timeline under the cowl as “The Gotham Project”, presenting this as his second year of fighting crime, creating a reputation for himself as a violent, unpredictable enforcer whose shadowy movements strike fear into the criminal underbelly of his city; this plotting choice proving wise to further distance the film from any origin story mentality it may have been tempted to flirt with.
When Gotham’s mayor is murdered, it’s Gordon who brings Batman into the fray, earning the ire of fellow officers in the process, though the seeming intimate connection Batman unknowingly has to the case allows Gordon to operate this partnership with a certain confidence. Each subsequent crime scene leaves a message – a riddle, if you will – for Batman, sending him on a downward spiral through the seedy underworld of the city as the sins of Gotham’s elite come to light.
The harsh, grimy atmosphere that Reeves has created leans further in to the noirish disposition his narrative delights in entertaining, with his dangerous, violently-minded Gotham serving as the perfect hunting ground for Pattinson’s Batman. Whilst previous embodiments haven’t necessarily shied away from the suggestively brutal nature of Batman as a suited persona, he’s often balanced by the humanistic portrayal of Bruce Wayne. Here, Bruce is broken, a more reclusive figure who isn’t defined by his wealth. The mental, physical, and emotional scars he bears spur his inquisitive nature pertaining to his latest case, seemingly fuelled by the trauma of his past.
It’s because of this downtrodden portrayal of both Batman and Bruce that I can imagine some may want to actively reject Pattinson’s manifestation; there’s no playboy reprieve or cocksure wit to speak of. His lack of charm ultimately works in favour of the film though, as there’s clear intention from Reeves that his Batman exists in a harsher reality, a world that doesn’t play nice or fair, where the literal beatings aren’t cast aside in favour of flashy, spectacle-driven set-pieces; though there are elements of action throughout, most of the film’s physical sequences stay grounded with a more combative energy.
Though so much of The Batman goes against the grain of superhero specifics, its villain quota, however, continues the tradition of leaving an impression that extends far beyond the expansive running time; in case you hadn’t heard, this clocks in around 175 minutes. John Turturro‘s crime lord Carmine Falcone and Colin Farrell‘s Oswald Cobblepot, his right-hand man, are the closest the film comes to indulging in the traditional archetype, with the latter, entirely unrecognisable under appearance-altering prosthetics, enjoying his time as a criminal on the rise whose Penguin alter-ego earns subtle references throughout. Then there’s Zoë Kravitz‘s Catwoman. Undoubtedly one of the easiest villains to give way to camp theatrics, she too manages to ground the character with her own tortured psyche. Those that know me well will be entirely aware that Michelle Pfeiffer’s iconic psycho-sexual take on the character in Burton’s Batman Returns remains my personal epitome of representation, but there’s a desperation to Kravtiz’s realisation that sets her in her own league; here’s a woman whose thieving tendencies were born from her need to survive a city that evidently disrespects her gender.
If anyone is walking away from The Batman as its most memorable character though, it’s Paul Dano as The Riddler. A serial killer moulded in the same clay as Saw‘s Jigsaw or the Zodiac Killer, not since Heath Ledger’s now-defining performance as the Joker has the genre been so unnerved by a singular turn. The political agenda he violently thrusts upon an unsuspecting city has terrorist-like connotations, and though the riddles left at each crime scene are slightly heightened in their intricacies, Dano is unmatched in his ability to centre someone who could so easily have been crafted artificially; his first appearance in the film is sure to discomfit even the most stilted of viewers.
Given that Reeves has proven in the past that he’s able to take potentially silly narratives and present them in a way that’s inherently natural – the vampiric love story Let Me In and both his Dawn of and War for the Planet of the Apes films being cited as an example – it should really be no ultimate surprise that he’s found the reality in the arc of a billionaire dressing up in a bat-inspired suit to fight crime. The world he has created here, enhanced by the at once vastly stunning yet claustrophobic cinematography of Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty, Dune), feels so lived in. There’s both a familiarity and an uncertainty to Reeves’ Gotham City, serving as a type of physical representation of our own feelings towards Pattinson’s Batman, a character that feels so studied yet so undiscovered in these particular hands.
Continuing the trajectory of DC’s bold branding of its staple characters, The Batman, for better or worse, is a film more in line with the violently polarising Joker than that of Justice League or The Suicide Squad. Thematically unsettling and finally embracing the detective grit that so much of the original comics alluded to, Reeves’ unapologetic nature is unlikely to satisfy those expecting traditional genre thrills, but for the many who have witnessed the Bat’s evolution, this hardened, adult-minded actualisation is the Dark Knight we have been waiting for.
FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Batman is screening in Australian theatres from March 3rd, 2022.