The Batman Is A Distinctive, If Not Wholly Effective Take On A Familiar Figure

The Batman avoids the two pitfalls of modern blockbusters — the quick-cut fight scenes of action movies and the bland sexlessness of superhero films
The Batman Is A Distinctive, If Not Wholly Effective Take On A Familiar Figure

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
Greig Fraser 
William Hoy, Tyler Nelson

Bruce Wayne misses his parents. That simple truth forms the cornerstone of the Batman mythos, no matter how many times the story is interpreted and reinterpreted for the screen. Their death — his failure to save them, really — creates a vortex of guilt and shame he spends the rest of his life trying to assuage by assuming the role of a protector, radiating strength to make up for the one moment of his life he felt utterly powerless. The Batman, Matt Reeves's rain-soaked, noir-flecked take on a familiar superhero, doesn't recreate the murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne in flashback the way so many adaptations before it have, and it doesn't need to. The spectre of that singular, life-shattering night haunts Batman through the entire film, which thrums with a palpable undercurrent of pathos. One of its most thoughtful touches lies in how it refashions his highly specific personal experience into a recurring theme, depicting several of its characters as lost children in search of answers. A father refuses to acknowledge his daughter as his. A woman's nickname for her abducted friend is 'baby'. An orphanage is the site of a major plot reveal. As the film progresses, Gotham itself is framed as a neglected child, in desperate need of a guardian, abused by the same people meant to nurture it. 

This Gotham is perpetually rain-slicked, its orange streetlights giving it a sickly, jaundiced appearance. It's a city where the rumbling of a passing overhead train drowns out the sound of a man being brutally murdered below it. Recurring scenes depict Batman (Robert Pattinson) driving home just as the dawn breaks, giving the city the appearance of a world that has light on its fringes, just within its grasp, but still far from reach. 

When the film begins, Batman is in his second year of vigilantism, his inability to curb crime in Gotham turning him into an Ouroboros of frustration and self-loathing. When his nightly excursions blur into one long fog, he forces himself to relive and remember specific details in the mornings, fixating not the people he saves, but the ones he fails to. Wayne Manor looks more like Wayne Mausoleum. This city's decay seems to have seeped into Batman's soul, reflecting in his skillset. While his father, the philanthropic Thomas Wayne, is referenced as being a surgeon who once sutured a man back to life on their living room table, Bruce is more of a forensic expert, arriving at crime scenes to examine corpses and determine their cause of death. 

The masked man is frightening enough that Gotham police have been able to channel even the idea of him into an effective psychological tool, striking fear into criminals through the power of suggestion alone. The Batman adopts this technique too, reveling in building anticipation. The hero's entrance is long-drawn-out, the metallic clanking of his boots audible for what seems like a full minute before he finally emerges in full Batman garb. The same applies to the film's antagonist, a chillingly opaque Riddler (Paul Dano). Audiences glimpse the masked intruder in the dark long before his intended victim does, which makes the long wait for him to strike agonising in its slowness. 

Despite its serial killer plot, however, The Batman is curiously bloodless, choosing not to zoom into the murders, but merely the exertions of the murderer. Each time someone is killed, the camera focuses on the perpetrator's face, rather than the victims' body. Sounds of a fist striking flesh convey the idea well enough, but a more brutal excursion into the heart of darkness might've gone all the way. 

Cinematographer Greig Fraser frequently puts the audience in the position of mistaking Batman for The Riddler, and vice versa, his visual blurring of the lines an effective way of communicating the thin divide between hero and villain in a city that turns kind men cruel. The film opens with a view as seen through a pair of binoculars, their user's heavy muffled breathing and knack for surveillance seemingly distinctly Batman-like, until it's revealed to be the Riddler. Fraser frames both characters' approaching boots from the same floor-level POV and heightens their frightening ability to conceal themselves among the shadows. Towards the end, the two talk with only a glass separating them, their reflections overlapping. Mirrors become a recurring motif in the film, underlining the characters' distorted perspectives and shapeshifting identities. Though several characters in the film lead dual lives, it's ironically Batman himself who's the most certain who he wants to be. As Batman, he's all coiled muscle, imposing stature. As Bruce, he's twitchy, unnerved, grimacing away from the sunlight as though it might burn him. 

The Batman avoids the two pitfalls of modern blockbusters — the quick-cut fight scenes of action movies and the bland sexlessness of superhero films. A thrilling chase sequence is set to some of composer Michael Giacchino's finest work yet. The relationship between Batman and Catwoman (Zoe Kravitz) is erotic, fiery and tender, all encapsulated through a closeup of their hands intertwined over a gun. The heart of this movie is still the relationship between Batman and his butler Alfred Pennyworth (Andy Serkis), who serves as his last tie to the Bruce persona, and only hope of salvaging it.

The film deploys moments of cinematic symmetry with relish. A story about masks and dual identities begins on Halloween. The Riddler, whose appearance is scored to Schubert's 'Ave Maria', a Latin song derived from a prayer to Mother Mary, hatches a plot that involves a cleansing of Biblical proportions. Batman is accused of looking down at the people of Gotham from a position of privilege, only for a literal fall from a height into the grit and grime to spark his sense of purpose towards the end. All of these are nice touches in a film that doesn't quite come together in a cohesive whole, however, becoming a drag towards the end, wrapping up its convoluted central puzzle a little too neatly and culminating in a 'nightmare-to-new-hope' transformation that feels borrowed from the Christopher Nolan franchise, even if it's in keeping with Reeves's search for notes of optimism in the bleakest of environments, a theme that recurs across his filmography.

The word 'legacy' is repeated often in the 176-minute-long film. A son grapples with the sins of a father he thought he knew better. A daughter, robbed of her birthright by a distant father, discovers she's inherited the strength of her mother. Fresh scars are inflicted on a city that still hasn't healed from its past. That the idea of a legacy looms so large over this film isn't that surprising — it features the latest iteration of a character whose previous cinematic outings have become cultural behemoths. At its best, The Batman cuts its own winding path through the Gotham fog, its bleak journey sustained by visual flair, striking performances and the intriguing idea that placing someone on a pedestal only ensures that they look down on you. At its worst, the film lumbers ahead, bogged down by the weight of its runtime and air of grim self-seriousness. 'Renewal' is another word that recurs, and while The Batman might tread familiar ground, even throwing in a cameo from a character that's hit peak saturation, there's enough that's distinctive here to ensure it makes good on its promise.

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