Director: Matt Reeves
Writers: Matt Reeves, Peter Craig
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano, Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro, Peter Sarsgaard, Jayme Lawson, Andy Serkis, Colin Farrell
Cinematographer: Greig Fraser
Editors: William Hoy, Tyler Nelson
The first thing you should know about The Batman is that it’s a standalone film, operating in its own continuity. Which means that even if you aren’t a comic book and superhero film connoisseur, and I’m certainly not, you can still wholly savour its dark, broody brilliance. With this film, director Matt Reeves, who earlier made Cloverfield and two of the rebooted Planet of the Apes films, accomplishes something rare. He takes a character and a world that has been in circulation since the 1940s – the first Batman film was released in 1943 – and he refashions it into something new and thrilling.
This Batman is an emotional, noir, David Fincher-esque take on the iconic character. The story, written by Matt and Peter Craig, positions Batman as a broken, tortured man struggling to clean up Gotham. But the city, overrun by corruption, greed and violence, is proving to be an insurmountable cesspit. As Batman says: the city is eating itself. Into Gotham’s murky depths arrives a chilling psychopath – the Riddler. Like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, the Riddler is hell bent on cleaning up. His version of this includes blunt instruments, severed limbs and even rats.
Now Bruce Wayne, who has only been battling criminals as Batman for two years, must turn detective and find and stop the Riddler. The film is partially a police procedural with Batman racing against time to solve riddles that are left with each body and to stop the next killing. But it is also a disturbing and gripping portrait of a collapsing world. The government, police force, law enforcement agencies – all the good guys – are compromised. Like in Todd Phillips’ Joker, here too the filth is literal – the streets of Gotham are as grimy as they are dangerous. The darkness is also literal – most of the action takes place at night. I don’t recall one frame in which the sun is shining.
DOP Greig Fraser, who also shot the visually stunning Dune, imagines Gotham as a stylized, Gothic hellscape. He imbues the city with a grim beauty, bathed in reds, blacks and greys. At one point, Batman says: I am the shadows. This plays out through the film with the Batman stepping out of the shadows in several scenes, like a phantom protector of the city. There are also several close-ups of his thumping, heavy-set boots, which announce his arrival, working like a more frightening version of a drumroll before a heroic entry.
Yes, even the hero is frightening. Because Bruce Wayne and by extension Batman, seems also to be also hovering on the edge of a psychological precipice. The film wisely doesn’t delve much into the backstory of his parents’ murder but there is little doubt that Bruce is deeply damaged. Matt said in an interview that he wrote the part specifically for Robert Pattinson. The actor brings to the character a singular mix of strength and scarring. When Batman removes his cowl, there is black make-up around his eyes – a choice which could have come off as dainty and hollow – but Robert makes it feel organic. This is a man shrouded in pain. Even his hair, artfully arranged to fall over his eyes, seems to be in agony.
The other casting choices are equally good. Zoë Kravitz makes for a slinky but strong Catwoman. The frisson between her and Batman is exactly enough to make us want more. Colin Farrell, unrecognisable under prosthetics, is a marvellous Penguin. Paul Dano as the Riddler, John Turturro as the crime boss Carmine Falcone, Andy Serkis as Alfred and Jeffrey Wright as Lieutenant James Gordon, Batman’s only ally, are all terrific.
The Batman runs for nearly three hours but the storytelling is so nimble that the duration doesn’t weigh down the film. Neither does the action. The centerpiece is a superbly staged chase sequence in which Batman pursues Penguin. There’s also a shoot-out which takes place in the dark – the only light source is guns firing. It’s dazzling.
In 2019, Martin Scorsese, in response to a question by Empire magazine, said that Marvel movies seemed closer to theme parks than cinema. Which set off a heated global debate with artists weighing in on both sides. Most recently, Tom Holland argued the case that this wasn’t so. They are, he told The Hollywood Reporter, real art.
I think The Batman might work as valuable ammunition in this argument.
You can watch the film in a theatre near you. Don’t forget to wear a mask.