Matt Reeves’ take on Batman feels miles more personal, but not necessarily more engaging
Starring Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano, Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro, Peter Sarsgaard, Andy Serkis, and Colin Farrell
It is somewhat unbelievable that it has been an entire decade since a solo Batman film was released. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy was notable for presenting a more grounded, dark and serious Batman through Christian Bale’s incarnation, which stood in stark contrast to the campy energy that pervaded Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. Having parted ways with Ben Affleck’s cowled vigilante, Matt Reeves offers a noir-inspired psychological thriller, with the character of Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) placed front and centre. In fact, it hardly needs to be a superhero film at all, so heavily does it lean into the aspects of the unfolding mystery.
Gotham is on the brink of social collapse. Crime and drug use runs rampant, and corruption seeps through every brick, lurking on each street corner. The plot of The Batman picks up two years into Bruce Wayne’s moonlighting as the Caped Crusader, dogmatically searching for answers over the unsolved crime of his parent’s murder, propelled forwards by a dogmatic lust for vengeance. The sight of the Bat signal in the sky strikes fear into the heart of ne’er-do-wells, something which Bruce is only too cognisant of. In fact, he claims it as his greatest tool.
Batman’s latest case starts when the mayor Don Mitchell (Rupert Penry-Jones) is murdered in his own home. The killer leaves a note specifically addressed for Batman, containing a riddle and a cypher. Soon both Batman and James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) are on the trail of a serial killer targeting Gotham’s elite and ready to expose the depths of corruption at the heart of the city itself. The quest takes Bruce on a much needed journey of self discovery that leads him to reevaluate his role within the city.
It is undeniable that Reeves’ movie focuses far more upon Bruce than ever before. His pursuit of vengeance and the tremendous impact that it has upon the world around him is well portrayed. It is perhaps not uncommon for film to delve into the more horrific, ruthlessly violent side of Batman- after all, Batman vs Superman is principally about Ben Affleck’s Batman entirely throwing his ideals of justice out the window in order to take down Superman, but it is the first time that there has been such little overlap between Bruce Wayne and the Batman.
Robert Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne is a far cry from the philanthropic, charismatic millionaire playboy that audiences have become used to, instead being a recluse, enshrouded in his own trauma and propelled by his own torturous demons. He is withdrawn and antisocial, even towards father figure Alfred (Andy Serkis) and, though Reeves’ film thankfully does not go down the route of yet another origin story, the shadow of his status as an orphan looms large over the story as a whole.
Ultimately, the story is about Bruce learning to look outwards at the impact of his own actions and the influence that he has upon others and his community. It is about him learning his own moral code instead of giving in to his own darkness and how, by leading with ruthlessness, he is perpetuating and not solving the divided society he seeks to help.
The entire film almost exclusively follows the point of view of Bruce, allowing the audience to be as much in the dark about the Riddler’s (Paul Dano) machinations as Bruce is. There are also brilliant parallels drawn between the Riddler and Batman through similar shots of them looking out of their masks and observing the movements of others. The film leaves particular moments deliberately ambiguous as to whether it is Batman or the Riddler pursuing characters at key moments, and this only serves to highlight Reeves’ narrative trajectory as to the thin line that Bruce walks as a hero or a villain. Bruce also spends the vast majority of the film as Batman, demonstrating how he has given in to his vigilante identity and does not have an existence separate to this, almost as if he has been consumed by his own costume.
Surprisingly, however, Pattinson’s Batman is not the most notable thing about this movie. It is as much defined by the intimate nature of its shooting, by cinematographer Greig Fraser. Even within long action sequences, such as car chases, he keeps the film feeling personal. The camera sticks closely to the cars and hugs the actors’ faces. Within fight sequences, the audience feel every single blow. It feels impactful and visceral and bloody. When Bruce finishes, the viewers share his exhaustion.
Overall, the visual palette is sublime. The colour grading really leans into the noir elements, drawing out the browns, the greys and the reds and the score by Michael Giacchino is heavily dramatic, enhancing the darkness at the heart of the story – though, at times, the core theme sounded a little derivative of John William’s The Imperial March.
Another highlight is the performance of Zoë Kravitz as Selina Kyle / Catwoman, who holds herself throughout with an air of self-assured, elegant poise. Every move drips with sensuality, but this is not at the expense of depth. Kravitz, like Pattinson, plays a character with deep-rooted pain and it’s that vulnerability that really helps her iteration to feel real. Moreover, the chemistry between her and Pattinson is electrifying and infinitely watchable.
Yet, a superhero film on the whole is only as watchable as its villain. Fortunately, the Riddler is genuinely spinechilling. Based off the real life Zodiac Killer, his aesthetic and levels of sadism seem like something that would not look amiss within the Saw franchise. Paul Dano plays the transitions in the character’s mood with a wide-eyed, blood curdling assurance which never ceases being a harrowing watch.
Despite these draws, however, there still seems to be an emotional disconnect between the movie and the audience. The mystery that propels the plot doesn’t actually come across as all that tense, as there seem to be few stakes for the audience. Additionally, the riddles that The Riddler leaves behind are actually not all that challenging to solve. Characters are mostly introduced to the audience as victims of the Riddler, so there is not much time to develop a connection to bringing the Riddler to justice. Ultimately each of his victims prove to be another piece in the jigsaw of corruption that is Gotham, so the losses of these characters are not keenly mourned.
However, were this mystery to have affected Bruce more directly, or for he himself to have been personally targeted, with members of his own life being picked off, perhaps this would have more emotional impact with the audience, but with the mystery having such low stakes for the vast majority of the film, it mostly makes the unfathomably long runtime feel vaguely torturous, regardless of the gorgeous cinematography.
Does Reeves reinvent Batman? Not really. This iteration is not quite distinct enough from the similarly grainy, gritty and realistic Christopher Nolan trilogy to set the franchise alight. Is it decent enough? Yes. There are commendable performances and it is the most focal that Bruce Wayne himself has been to a Batman film. There are a vast number of elements to respect and appreciate about The Batman, but it still feels monumentally dour.
The Batman was released in UK cinemas 4th March 2022