VOD film review: The Batman
James R | On 20, Apr 2022
Director: Matt Reeves
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Paul Dano, Zoe Kravitz, Colin Farrell, John Turturro, Jeffrey Wright, Andy Serkis
“They think I’m hiding in the shadows, but I am the shadows.” That’s the sound of The Batman returning to our screens, the definite article only adding to the brooding weight of being Gotham’s hero. The idea of yet another serious take on the Caped Crusader might not sound particularly original, but the casting of Robert Pattinson in the lead role gives you an idea of where director Matt Reeves is headed with his unusual blockbuster – and the end result certainly delivers on that prospect.
The end result, crucially, is far from what Batman is – when we meet him, he’s been swooping about at night for two years, which takes us refreshingly past the origins story zone but still gives us a hero who’s still finding his Bat-feet. He’s leaned into the idea of striking fear into criminals, allowing his reputation to do part of the job for him – “I can’t be everywhere,” he adds in his gravelly narration, “but they don’t know where I am.” – but that’s less because he’s a formidable success and more because he knows his own limits. We’re also repeatedly reminded of them; in one set piece, he tries to use a parachute only to wind up almost killing himself.
That feeling of genuine peril is echoed by the city around him, which Matt Reeves presents as a hotbed of rain-soaked corruption. The main villain of the piece is the Riddler (Paul Dano), but he’s far from Jim Carrey’s playful prankster from Batman Forever, instead presenting himself as a vigilante on a crusade to clean up Gotham by taking out its bent authorities. Leaving cryptic clues at each murder scene, he’s a sociopath with more than a hint of the Zodiac killer about him; this is a Batman film influenced by David Fincher as much as The Long Dark Halloween, and what unfolds is part crime thriller, part serial killer horror, right down the unsettling mask and cling film that the Riddler wears when posting messages on social media.
That means lots of time for detective procedural drama, and the script excels at treating things like a grounded, gritty mystery, anchored by Jeffrey Wright’s gruffly honourable policeman James Gordon and bolstered by Andy Serkis as former-spook-turned-butler Alfred. Batman’s investigations rely on diving into the shady underbelly of the city as much as high-tech gadgets, and some of the best scenes are when we’re following him, or Zoe Kravitz’s charismatic cat-burglar-slash-cocktail-waitress Selena Kyle, through nightclubs looking for mob boss Carmine Falcone (an unnerving, softly spoken John Turturro), his slimy sidekick Oswald Cobblepot (an unrecognisable, entertaining Colin Farrell) or the dodgy DA Gil Colson (a brilliantly sleazy, pathetic and desperate Peter Sarsgaard).
The resulting gangster flick is undoubtedly too long, but the neo-noir stylings are frequently jaw-dropping, with Dune DoP Greig Fraser making striking use of colour and lighting to depict Gotham as a city on the edge. One visually stunning moment sees Batman leading a crowd with an emergency flare through the darkness, a beautifully serene contrast to a visceral chase in which the camera is stuck on the side of the Batmobile so we can feel the car’s muscle in action. The plot, meanwhile, twists and turns into alarmingly topical territory, as Dano’s manic figure sits somewhere between Trump-era rabble-rousing and the chilling radicalisation of incels online.
Amid the burning carnage emerges an interesting question about whether Bruce’s withdrawal from society has stopped him being able to help Gotham more legitimately through financial aid rather than personal physical sacrifice. And that’s where The Batman packs its punch, as the excellent Pattinson sinks his jaw into the portrait of a slight, frail figure who turns his body into a brick that he repeatedly lobs at the problem without stopping – a vulnerable, confused young man filled with anger, guilt and self-loathing.
Thrumming underneath his determined attempts to do good, Michael Giacchino’s evocative soundtrack inverts Hans Zimmer’s more hopeful motif of brooding redemption from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy – this is a daring descent into grim shadows, with every bust of frenetic percussion and apocalyptic bell-tolling shaking off any suggestion of inner peace. Cruising around town to the sound of Nirvana, this is a lost man hollowed out by his shadowy purpose – and it’s only as things are dragged out into the daylight in the final act that Batman begins to find the title’s definite article for himself. A tease near the end gives us a glimpse of a familiar villain on the horizon, but it’s Robert Pattinson’s haunted Batman that will leave you eager for more.