Synopsis: Two years after Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) first donned the cape and cowl of Batman, little seems to have improved in Gotham City, with crime and corruption still rampant despite the best efforts of Wayne and his allies Lieutenant Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) and Alfred Pennyworth (Andy Serkis). However, Gotham is soon shaken up by an enigmatic serial killer calling himself The Riddler (Paul Dano), who leads Batman into a conspiracy involving crime lord Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), his right hand man Oswald ‘The Penguin’ Cobblepot (Colin Farrell), cat burglar Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), and seemingly all of Gotham’s elite, including his own deceased parents.
1. The short version – It’s good. Really, really good. If it were two hours and twenty minutes long, it would be spectacular. But it’s three hours. And now for the long version.
2. The Batman is a singular object in today’s saturated superhero film landscape. It’s a vision. I mean, honestly, when was the last time you saw that in this genre? Even the auteurs who operate in this space like James Gunn or Taika Waititi have had to conform to some degree to established continuity or a certain house style, and this is not even considering the tropes that superhero movies are expected to include. In general, it’s been the Batman franchise that has had the most space for creative interpretation, from Tim Burton’s gothic expressionism to Joel Schumacher’s neon cartoon confectionary to Christopher Nolan’s sleek realism to Zack Snyder’s operatic grandiosity. Quality aside, (1) it is inarguable that there is just something elemental about the Caped Crusader that allows for such a wide variety of portrayals. To that list we now add Matt Reeves’s The Batman, a rain-drenched neo-noir steeped in 70s grime (with Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) as key touchstones) and 90s angst (thanks to Nirvana’s ‘Something In The Way’ serving as a leitmotif of sorts). Of course, The Batman‘s biggest forbearer is that most exacting of craftsman, David Fincher, and a glib elevator pitch could describe it as ‘Se7en (1995) meets Zodiac (2007)’. Still, as much as Reeves has cribbed from these great crime epics of the past, he deserves immense credit for distilling all his influences into a single cohesive whole, and creating a superhero (and Batman) movie that is truly like no other.
3. The best (only) place to start with The Batman is its production design and cinematography. I’m not the biggest fan of the ‘One Perfect Shot’ club on film Internet, thanks to their propensity to prioritise aesthetics over narrative. However, they are going to dine out on this film, and I have to agree with them in this case. There are multiple shots in this thing that are so beautifully shot and composed, one would imagine that they will be hung up on dorm room walls for years. The film’s trailer ended with a jaw-dropping point-of-view shot of Batman, upside-down, slowly walking to camera, framed by rain and fire, and it pleases me to say that there are so many more like it. Pattinson and Kravitz (two astoundingly beautiful people, by the way) on a half-constructed building, silhouetted by the sunset. Batman, bearing a red flare, leading Gotham’s citizens to safety. The first reveal of the Batmobile. The ruined beauty of the Batcave, here interpreted as a decrepit train station. Yet the thing that truly makes these gorgeous shots count for something is how the aesthetics are so interwoven into the narrative, how they portray a Gotham that is falling apart due to decay. This is the best Gotham since Batman: The Animated Series, a city that feels real and alive, even as the film does not shy away from its pulpier roots. The Nolan series always made Gotham seem overly sterile and anonymous (with the exception of Batman Begins (2005)), while the Burton and Schumacher movies edged too far in the other direction, with the blatant unreality of the city sapping it of any sense of life and making them seem only like playgrounds for the costumed adventurers within. (2) Reeves strikes a perfect balance, with the Gothic opulence of Wayne Manor juxtaposed nicely with the contemporary exposed-ventilation and whitewash design of the Penguin’s Iceberg Lounge. Yet it all feels cohesive, all part of a greater whole in establishing a setting that not only feels real, but does a great deal to convey the film’s themes of corruption and graft.
4. Beyond that, I love what Reeves has done with the design of Batman himself. There is a sense of grounded pragmatism to every design decision that was made, from how his cape is essentially a long trenchcoat (that can easily be removed to blend in) to his heavy combat boots to the metal Bat-symbol that doubles up as a cutting device. Even the Batmobile is nothing more than a roided-up muscle car. Again, these aesthetic choices are also narrative choices, as this is a more isolated and withdrawn Batman than his predecessors, without a Lucius Fox or even a Wayne Enterprises to concoct elaborate gadgetry, so it just makes a great deal of sense that everything he uses has a certain handmade, cobbled together quality. As with the design of Gotham, this film threads the needle between the practical and the aesthetic for its costuming, creating a grungy stripped down look for its characters that also happens to make practical sense. Selina Kyle’s costume is simply a leather catsuit and a balaclava with two pointed tips, and the DIY nature of the Riddler’s getup (gas mask, military coat, duct tape and cling wrap) is even lampshaded by, of all things, a video comments thread where his fans discuss how to get the look right. All these little touches make The Batman‘s world feel all the more real and authentic, even with its more overt stylisation. (3)
5. But beyond the way it looks, we also have to consider the way it feels. As established, the setting and production design do a great deal to establish the unrelentingly grim tone, but so does the camera work and Michael Giacchino’s spectacular score. Regarding the camera, Reeves favours an interesting locked-in approach for the action, eschewing Nolan’s quick cutting or Snyder’s CGI-sweetened fluid camera movements for a camera that barely moves, either because it is nailed down to a static position (like in the fantastic scene where Batman disarms Penguin’s guards in total darkness, lit only by muzzle flares) or mounted on a car in the midst of the centrepiece Batmobile chase. It is an interesting approach, no doubt, that lends a real sense of ‘you are there’ immediacy to these scenes, but at the cost of clarity, with the geography of the car chase in particular being very hard to keep track of due to the lack of master or wide shots. However, the action is surprisingly quite sparse in The Batman, with the film focusing more on the procedural nature of Batman and Gordon’s investigative work rather than the intense action sequences of the Nolan or Snyder movies. These scenes are quite a refreshing change of pace from most superhero cinema though, and it’s genuinely enjoyable to watch the ‘World’s Greatest Detective’ actually do some, y’know, detecting. Still, this doesn’t stop the action sequences from being a mixed bag. The opening scene of Batman’s first emergence is quite possibly the best ever Batman scene in this franchise (4), structured and filmed like a horror movie with Batman as the monster stepping out from the shadows to that magnificent blaring score, before brutally taking out an entire gang of thugs. Then in contrast, we have the final action scene, which feels a little limp in contrast thanks to the uninspiring setting and the meh-at-best editing (aside from one sweet lateral tracking shot).
6. The performances in this movie are also uniformly excellent. The standout is Zoë Kravitz, bringing toughness, vulnerability, and sultriness as Selina Kyle/Catwoman. This is of course a role that has been dominated by Michelle Pfeiffer’s iconic performance (with Anne Hathaway also doing a fine job), and Kravitz more than fills those big dominatrix boots. Selina is almost the co-protagonist of the film, and Kravitz finds just the right balance between silk and steel in her portrayal of the character. Colin Farrell does an excellent job in his few scenes, entirely disappearing (partially thanks to some excellent prosthetic and makeup work) beneath the skin of the slimy, venal Penguin. Jeffrey Wright and Andy Serkis are reliably great as usual, though the latter has disappointingly few scenes (which also lessens the emotional impact of a vital scene in the middle of the film). As for Paul Dano … well, the man can basically do a squealing unhinged nutjob in his sleep, and his Riddler is another in a line of excellent performances in that vein. Most of Dano’s performance takes place behind a full face mask, but he has one major scene with Batman where he can go full Dano, which he takes full advantage of. And as for Pat-man, I’ll just refer you to my Spencer review, because everything I said about Stewart applies to Pattinson as well. Of course, Pattinson has had much more respect post-Twilight than his erstwhile co-star, thanks in part to good old-fashioned sexism, but also due to his very clever choice of directorial partners, (5) who have provided him with both a critical sheen and a platform to exhibit his inimitable talents. Pattinson reminds me very much of Brad Pitt, a character actor’s soul in a leading man’s body, and his ability to go weird is second to none right now. As such, his Bruce Wayne takes the character into a place that no other actor has been to. Gone is the suave surface-level charm of Bale, Keaton, Affleck, or even Clooney, replaced by a brooding, isolated aloofness. This Bruce Wayne cannot even pretend to make eye contact with people trying to talk to him, a man so completely consumed by the mission that he is always one bad day from snapping entirely. Does it work though? Not fully – the memes of ’emo Batman’ are not far off the mark, and Wayne’s angst sometimes crosses the line into a childish petulance, which I’m not sure was fully intended. Nonetheless, Pattinson fully commits to the role (even if at times he looks ridiculous with that eye makeup), lending the character his signature Big Weirdo Energy, and really selling the emotional arc of the movie. This is the first Batman movie in a very long time where the title character himself is the focus of the story, and Pattinson is vital in conveying the core narrative of a callow Batman slowly learning that he has to be more than a shadowy vigilante and grow into being (in the words of the best film in this franchise) the hero Gotham deserves.
7. So it’s a great movie, right? My answer to that is that it’s a great two-and-a-half hour movie. The problem is that this thing is three fucking hours long, which very few movies deserve to be (6) I get that there is a lot of plot in the movie, and there is a real sense of ambition in the way that Reeves has chosen to tell a story of widespread corruption and graft rather than just ‘Batman go punch’, but there is just far too much bagginess in the movie. Part of the problem is that Reeves goes full tilt in almost every single scene, including those that should get to the point much quicker. Yes, you can draw out Batman’s first appearance in the subway, or have the Batmobile rev up for ages while everyone stares in awe. These sequences make sense to stretch out as a means of heightening the drama, but did we really need to show Batman pulling a letter out of a cage for a whole minute? Not only is it pointless, but it lessens the impact of the really important scenes, because if every scene is shot and structured with that same grandiose, deliberate pace, then what really separates the key ones from the others? Beyond that, there are entire sequences that could have been cut out entirely. Batman and Gordon going to the orphanage feels like an entirely pointless detour that exists just to show off a cool location. The car chase, as gripping as it is, ultimately ends in anticlimax, with a revelation of ‘oops sorry, you got the wrong guy’. When The Riddler is first apprehended, the characters go to his apartment, only to find that he escaped, only to then immediately be told that he is in another location which they then capture him in. What’s the point? Why have that extra scene of them going to the empty apartment? If it was simply to show his John Doe-esque evil lair, then just have Batman go there immediately after the Riddler’s arrest … which the film does anyway! It is this combination of pointless, repetitive scenes and minor sequences that are treated with the same gravitas as major moments that stretches this film out to a frankly unforgiveable length. The fact that I did not really feel its length until the end speaks to how well planned and executed everything else is, but I cannot help thinking that had The Batman been edited with a more judicious eye, there might have been a real conversation to be had about what the best Batman film is. (7).
8. To end things off, I go back to the short version of this review. This would have been a spectacular two-and-a-half hour film, but as things stand, is ‘simply’ a very good (probably excellent) three-hour film. There are multiple scenes that are stretched out for no good reason, and more than a few pointless ones that could have been excised for a smoother viewing experience. However, even with that fairly major flaw, I am pleased to say that The Batman is one of the best and, more importantly, most interesting superhero movies in recent memory. Director Matt Reeves’ presentation of Gotham City takes all its influences (a little Taxi Driver, a little Chinatown, a little Se7en) and mixes them into a vision that somehow manages to feel both baroque and realistic, mixing grandiosity with practicality while still managing to remain coherent. With assists from excellent performances, gorgeous cinematography from Greig Fraser, and an (I cannot stress this enough) amazing score from Michael Giacchino, The Batman stands as a stunning counterpoint to the overly cookie-cutter anonymous assembly line products (cough MCU cough) of the other works in this genre, and stands out simply by how completely it commits to its vision. Yet, with its story of overcoming both individual and collective trauma, it is a surprisingly hopeful film, presenting a protagonist that eventually chooses to rise above his dark and corrupt world to be more than just vengeance. In that regard, The Batman does its iconic character justice.
- Yay to Burton and Nolan, nay to Schumacher and Snyder.
- The less said about Snyder’s empty husk of a ghost town, the better.
- Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy essentially did the same in reverse, selling its more implausible elements like the James Bond-style gadgets and the whole evil shadow ninja plot through a more grounded and realistic aesthetic.
- Because let’s face it, the best scenes are all the villain ones.
- Cronenberg, Michôd, the Safdies, Gray, Denis, Eggers – a veritable who’s who of film-geek darlings, and I haven’t even included Nolan in that list.
- In the blockbuster realm, the only one that fully earns its running time is The Fellowship of the Ring. No, not Avengers: Endgame. No, not Titanic. No, not even the other Lord of the Rings movies. Just Fellowship.
- I know we are dealing with hypotheticals, but it still would have been The Dark Knight. The Batman has the edge of a more stylised and totalising aesthetic vision, but The Dark Knight has a propulsive momentum that very few movies not directed by Steven Spielberg have. Every single scene in it crackles with energy. Also, Ledger.