Review By Tim Robins
Batman ventures into Gotham City’s underworld when a sadistic killer leaves behind a trail of cryptic clues. As the evidence begins to lead closer to home and the scale of the perpetrator’s plans become clear, he must forge new relationships, unmask the culprit and bring justice to the abuse of power and corruption that has long plagued the metropolis…
POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD…
I must admit that I wasn’t caught up in the bat flap around director Matt Reeves’ The Batman. It’s a poor state of affairs when the best thing about the build up to the movie’s release has been a punning internet meme, courtesy of Mr Sunday Movies, nicknaming lead actor Robert Patterson “Rob Bat Battin’ Bat”!
Frankly, the bane of Batman’s cinematic life has been Warner Brothers’ previous steaming-poo takes on the character and just contemplating nearly three hours hanging out in a murky, rain-sodden Gotham by night left me feeling exhausted. Little did I suspect that I was about to watch the best Batman films in his entire cinematic canon.
The Batman is set early in the caped crusader’s career and follows his development from a cold, embodiment of vengeance, feared by Gotham’s underworld, to a more emotionally available, heroic figure capable of inspiring Gotham’s citizens. Along this developmental journey, The Batman crosses paths with The Riddler (Paul Dano), a similarly vengeance-inspired product of Gotham’s dark past and The Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz), who is on a mission to rescue her best friend from the clutches of gangster-ish Penguin (Colin Farrell) and his boss, Carmine Falcone (excellently realised by John Turturro).
As ever, Batman is assisted by Commissioner Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), another outsider to Gotham’s corrupt political underbelly; and the redoubtable Alfred (Andy Serkis), here a war-torn former soldier and protector to the Wayne family, who seem to have been involved in corruption among the political.
But just when you think it is going all “Court of Owls” – it doesn’t. The Batman thrives on misdirection. Just who is acting on whose behalf is a mystery that circles around different answers to a riddle about a “rat with wings”- could it refer to The Penguin, a stool pigeon, or The Batman himself?
The new movie has plenty of nods to specific comic-book stories and any well-versed reader will spot inspiration from tales such as Batman: Year One, The Long Halloween and Batman: Zero Year (For a fuller account of comic influences on the film, I can unequivocally recommend the YouTube channel, Owen Likes Comics).
Various on-screen Batmen movies also contribute much to the film, even the 1960’s TV show. There’s no way to take entirely seriously a cape n’ cowled man, surrounded by police detectives, solving riddles that are pinned to a dead body. I half expected “The” Batman to punch his fist into his hand. A scene with Batman hanging off a stadium advertising board couldn’t escape recalling the 1960’s movie’s shark attack sequence. In another scene we watch a hand and leg cuffed Penguin being left to waddle off into the night, Burgess-Meredith-style. So there is humour, but The Batman is not for the young. (In the UK, it is rated 15, so expect disappointed kids in the cinema’s foyer).
The film borrowed much from David Fincher’s Seven, but The Batman patiently draws you into its own, specific noir-ish world. Reeves’ Gotham is the most convincing take on the city to date. Much of the setting is illuminated by “neon” light, refracted through the pouring rain, often refracted through glass. Greig Fraser’s cinematography observes the city through the natural boka of rain on car windshields. The design of Wayne Tower is borderline bats, and there’s an intentional nod to Universal’s Black and White Monster Movies of the 1930s to 50s.
Robert Pattinson is a hero for the early 21st Century – a sallow faced goth guy, cut from the same cloth as Timothée Chalamet. He convinces as Batman, but Michael Keaton is still my favourite playboy millionaire (surely by now billionaire) Bruce Wayne.
The supporting cast are also all up to the mark. Farrell steals the screen as The Penguin, an otherwise derivative gangster character, and Dano’s Riddler is turned from Jim Carrey’s prancing ninny into a plausible serial killer with a legion of internet followers.
Kravitz finds her character’s centre among her many on-screen guises: ; she is sometimes a cat burglar, sometimes an action hero and sometimes nightclub bottle girl – “half a stripper and a half a pimp” to quote one, real world 26 year-old bottle service waitress. Most of the time, she’s the best friend that you really want in your life.
I don’t normally nit-pick at a film’s internal continuity but two moments struck me as odd:
There is a puzzling moment in which the imprisoned Riddler says to Batman “Your mask is amazing. I wish you could have seen me in mine.” But the Riddler has spent the movie doing nothing but releasing recordings of himself in his costume, recordings particularly intended to be seen by Batman.
There is also a scene where Alfred, the supposed battle trained soldier, opens a mysterious package addressed to Bruce Wayne that, under the circumstances, I would have expected to have been opened remotely, with Alfred behind sandbags at the very least.
The Batman is Batman Returns on downers, a less frenetic, pantomime-ish affair, in which Batman as an unlikely gumshoe and a Shadow-esque vigilante “I am the Shadows” he intones while giving a gang of joker wannabes a right ol’ thumping. At last, we have an adaptation where style doesn’t win out over content, both complement each other and the three hours flies by.
The film ends with hints of further stuff to come but I’m not sure I want it. Director Reeves has certainly made his mark on Batman. He has done what he wanted to do and, as much as I enjoyed this movie, I didn’t come away feeling the need for him to do it again.
This just in: Warner Brothers announces second movie.
The Batman is in cinemas across the UK now
A freelance journalist and Doctor Who fanzine editor since 1978, Tim Robins has written on comics, films, books and TV programmes for a wide range of publications including Starburst, Interzone, Primetime and TV Guide.
His brief flirtation with comics includes ghost inking a 2000AD strip and co-writing a Doctor Who strip with Mike Collins. Since 1990 he worked at the University of Glamorgan where he was a Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Media Studies and the social sciences. Academically, he has published on the animation industry in Wales and approaches to social memory. He claims to be a card carrying member of the Politically Correct, a secret cadre bent on ruling the entire world and all human thought.