When I first heard Warner Brothers was making another Batman movie, my reaction was, shall we say, not overwhelmingly positive. The Christopher Nolan trilogy rightly stands as the pinnacle in the super-hero genre, and the recent incarnation of the character by Ben Affleck was less than thrilling. While Robert Pattinson has gotten good reviews for movies like Good Time and The Lighthouse, there’s still the concern that a major special-effects film will bring back the sparkly vampire of his Twilight days. Hearing that the run time for the new film was almost three hours made me wonder how much of it would just be taken up with shots of Pattinson brooding. So I wasn’t chomping at the bit to see The Batman.
Now, having seen it, I have to say I was wrong. I’ll still put the Nolan trilogy as the best adaptation, but The Batman is a very close second. I should have had more trust in director/screenwriter Matt Reeves. I’ve been impressed with his work since Cloverfield burst into movie theaters and rewrote the playbook for movie marketing. He followed that up with Let Me In, the English version of the Swedish horror flick Let The Right One In, where Reeves managed to match the dark intensity of the original. Next came the second and third instalments in the Planet of the Apes remakes that were stunningly powerful. Reeves has made The Batman into an essential entry not just in the super-hero genre, but also neo noir.
It’s the second year that Bruce Wayne (Pattinson) has operated as the vigilante Batman in Gotham City. When GCPD Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) brings him to a crime scene, the resentment of the rank-and-file officers is palpable. But this is no ordinary crime scene. The mayor of Gotham has been brutally murdered by a serial killer who calls himself the Riddler, who has left a card addressed to Batman. When the police commissioner arrives on the scene, he orders Gordon to get Batman off the premises. While leaving, Batman sees the mayor’s son and learns it was the boy who found his father, spurring memories in Bruce of his own parents’ murder years earlier. He returns to his Batcave, where Alfred (Andy Serkis) is waiting to try and get Bruce to engage with the business empire left to him by his father. The commissioner is soon dead himself, the second victim of the Riddler.
Batman and Gordon follow the riddle in the card to discover a thumb drive hidden in one of the mayor’s cars. When they check it, they discover multiple pictures of the mayor with a woman not his wife. For good measure, the Riddler has set the pictures to be emailed to media outlets the moment the drive is accessed. Batman recognizes the location as the Iceberg Club, operated by the Penguin (Colin Farrell) who is second-in-command to the mob boss of Gotham, Falcone (John Turturro). Penguin feigns ignorance when questioned by Batman, but while they’re talking, a waitress comes in to deliver a drink to the Penguin, and Batman realizes she recognizes the mystery woman’s picture. Batman follows the waitress home, learning her name is Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz) and the woman in the picture, Anika, is her roommate.
Different from most of the adaptations of Batman, we don’t get to truly meet the Riddler (Paul Dano) until the third act of the film. Instead, Reeves follows the Jaws playbook of having the beast rarely seen as he works his mayhem. The casting of Dano is a wise choice, since he is utterly normal and unassuming to look at, which makes his anarchistic Riddler a perfect metaphor for today, when so much damage is done by little men at their computer keyboards.
Pattinson captures the haunted nature of the Batman. The origin story is merely hinted at rather than retold; since it’s been a part of movie culture for over 30 years, there’s no need to retread that path. As often happens in a superhero flick, one wonders how the hero can recover from major beatings, crashes, and being blown up with no obvious trauma, but overall Pattinson handles the physicality of the character well. There’s no trouble believing Zoe Kravitz as the leather-suited Catwoman, and she gives the most believable interpretation of the character that we’ve seen on film.
If I have any critique of Reeves’ film, it’s that it takes the term Dark Knight and goes heavy on the dark. Everything is either set at night or on rainy, dark days. Even in homes where you’d expect regular lighting, it’s like no one’s paid the power bill in years. Still, that’s a minor quibble. On the other hand, you usually can’t compliment a nearly three-hour film on its tight construction and good pacing.
Everything considered, though, if you like dark films (not just physically but emotionally and psychologically) then The Batman is definitely worth watching.