Robert Pattinson presents a noirish Bat in Matt Reeves’ dark, moody vision
Director: Matt Reeves
Cast: Robert Pattinson (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Zoë Kravitz (Selina Kyle/Catwoman), Paul Dano (The Riddler), Jeffrey Wright (Lt James Gordon), John Turturro (Carmine Falcone), Peter Sarsgaard (DA Gil Colson), Andy Serkis (Alfred Pennyworth), Colin Farrell (Oswald Cobblepot/Penguin), Jayme Lawson Bella Réal) Rupert Penry-Jones (Mayor Don Mitchell Jnr), Barry Keoghan (Arkham Prisoner)
The rain pounds down on Gotham. In the shadows a masked man strikes terror into the hearts of wrong-doers. It could only be the start of a new Batman trilogy. At least that’s the intention, as DC Comics mines its strongest asset, in a dark, noirish version that positions Batman as a gumshoe pulp detective with fisticuffs. If Reeves film at times has more ambition than it knows what to do with, at least it is ambitious.
For two years Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) has been crusading on the streets of Gotham as Batman, trying to fix the city’s problems one criminal at a time. He’s formed an uneasy alliance with police Lt James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) and is just about tolerated by the official force. That starts to change when unhinged serial killer The Riddler (Paul Dano) begins a campaign of terror targeting Gotham’s elites, who he accuses of corruption. How far will the Riddler go? How do crime boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) and mysterious cat burglar Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz) fit in?
Reeves’ film is a grimy film-noir Batman. Pretty much the entire film is set at night-time, in seedy bars and filthy streets with barely a frame unaccompanied by the pounding of rain on the soundtrack. Atmospherically shot by Grieg Fraser, the film has a rain-sodden canvas with deep blacks and splashes of red. It’s sound design – and Michael Giacchino’s music – uses deep bases and reverbative sounds that give the film an intimidating rumble.
Reeves’ takes Fincher’s Seven and Zodiac as key inspirations, mixed with the shadowy darkness of Pakula and other 1970s filmmakers. Gotham is the hellish noir of Seven, where light is a stranger. The Riddler is radically re-interpreted as an ingenious psychopath, covering his crimes with cryptic clues, cultivating an online audience with videos where he conceals his face behind a sort of gimp mask and prominent spectacles – in methods and style he’s very similar to the Zodiac killer.
Batman is a tech-assisted private eye, working alongside the official forces, doing things they can’t do. Few other Batman films have zeroed in on the detective element of the character as much, but it’s possibly his main skill here: searching for clues, deftly cracking the Riddler’s cryptic clues, chasing down leads, utilising top-of-the-line surveillance equipment (a set of contact lenses that records everything he sees) and making connections from crime to crime. He’s a sort of miserable Sam Spade who punches lots of people.
Setting the film very early in Batman’s crusade allows for a rough and raw quality to Batman’s gear and approach, helped by Pattinson’s age. The suit has a homespun practicality to it, a hulking suit of armour that bullets bounce of, with various useful attachments. The batmobile is essentially a normal car with a massively souped-up engine. Batman often travels on a normal but powerful motorbike, and stakes out witnesses with his armour disguised under a hoodie. At times Bruce misjudges things: a fall from a building that almost goes horribly wrong, the odd fight where he bites of more than he can chew.
With an eemo look inspired by Kurt Cobain, Bruce Wayne is a surly recluse with serious emotional difficulties. He has a tense relationship with surrogate father Alfred (an effective Andy Serkis), who disapproves of how Bruce spends his evenings. The Batman has far less Bruce Wayne in it than almost any other Batman movie. This Bruce only feels comfortable behind the mask and has worked hard to crush all fear and emotion to find security in anonymity. He has cut himself off not only from the city, but from humanity, idealising his lost parents – and is a stern, humourless judge who describes his mission as one of vengeance.
There is a lot of vengeance needed in Reeve’s corrupt Gotham. The film bites off a huge chunk of content around corruption, class conflict and injustice. The Riddler’s crimes are all connected to corruption, people whose hands are actually filthy with drug money. His fury extends to the Wayne family – Gotham’s venerated philanthropists – and the film is at its best with this character when he functions as a sort of avenging angel of class war.
But it doesn’t quite manage to nail down exploring the morality of a serial killer, eliminating pernicious public figures. There is no discussion of the misguided merit in the twisted motives of the killer. He’s always presented as wicked and insane, with no scope given to understand or acknowledge the legitimate social points he makes. A late act reveal of his deeper plot comes from nowhere and (with its indiscriminate destruction) feels inconsistent with any point the film was trying to make earlier. It seems instead to exist to give us a big action set-piece. The film strains towards a coherent message about institutional, systemic corruption, but doesn’t quite give it the depth and shade it needs.
It’s all part of a film that isn’t quite smart enough, or a script that isn’t deft enough. Take a look at those riddles. Darkly fascinating as they are, their never quite strong or enigmatic enough. The film offers no ‘light-bulb moment’ when a hidden message is suddenly made clear. Batman cracks them all quickly, apart from one. Most audience members will quickly suss out that one and you suspect the only reason Batman doesn’t is that if he did the film would end quickly.
Ending quickly is something The Batman isn’t concerned about. At nearly three hours, it is far too long – particularly as it never quite works out what it is trying to say. There are too many sub-plots: an unrecognisable Colin Farrell is good value as The Penguin, but his entire presence is to set up future movies. The film drags out its ending with a sudden twists, which don’t feel like a wider plan playing out behind the scenes rather than slightly jarring extensions.
The Batman covers a lot, but none of it in enough depth. Very good as Robert Pattinson is, I don’t feel we learn a lot about Wayne. The Batman adds a romance with Selina Kyle (a dynamic Zoë Kravitz) and gives her a sub-plot of her own which largely just crowds the film. None of these plots are complex in themselves, but they all play out at the same time, reducing the focus on each of them. It’s all too much for you get to a handle on what the film is trying to be about.
Essentially, you feel Reeves had hundreds of ideas about what he wanted his Batman film to be – and didn’t have the heart to leave any of them out. But, even when over-ambitious, he’s an impressive and exciting film-maker. The Batman is crammed with great scenes (from action to disturbing splashes of horror). When the sequel comes, a clearer overall theme will help a great deal. But, with this dark but beautifully made film – and an impressive Batman from Robert Pattinson – I’ll be excited to see what Reeves does next.