REVIEW – ‘The Batman’ lays the foundations for the bright future of this franchise

Less than six years since Ben Affleck inherited the mantle from Christian Bale, the time has already come for another actor to don the infamous Batman cowl. After the disappointing critical and commercial reaction to both Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League, Warner Bros. struck gold with Todd Phillips’ bitterly divisive but hugely successful Joker spin-off. They’re clearly chasing that lightning in a bottle again with Matt Reeves‘ dark detective drama The Batman. And, just like Joker, the response is bound to be incongruous. Brace yourself, folks.

As with every Batman incarnation, all is not well in Gotham City. Corruption is rife in the city’s executive and judicial systems. The streets aren’t safe to walk at night. And a sadistic serial killer calling himself the Riddler (a completely unhinged Paul Dano) has emerged to impart his own brand of bloody justice on a selection of prominent Gotham citizens. The only man standing in his way is Bruce Wayne/Batman (a typically impressive Robert Pattinson), who we meet two years into the reign of vigilante vengeance he’s entitled “The Gotham Project.”

In a short space of time, Batman has built a name for himself as Gotham’s “nocturnal animal” whose menacing presence strikes fear into the hearts of the city’s nefarious criminals. Working closely with GCPD Lieutenant James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), Batman is drawn into the Riddler’s murderous game when mysterious cryptic messages are found at his crime scenes including riddles addressed directly to the caped crusader.

In need of assistance infiltrating the city’s seedy underbelly, Batman turns to nightclub waitress/cat burglar Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), whose connections to crime lord Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) and his right-hand man Oswald “Oz” Cobblepot (Colin Farrell) may prove vital in uncovering the possible connection between Riddler’s growing number of victims. But when Batman begins to realise the Wayne family is also linked to Riddler’s elaborate game, he’ll have to confront the sins of the past to put a stop to this madman’s reign of terror.

Co-written by Reeves with Peter Craig, The Batman features the most complex narrative this three-decade-old franchise has ever seen. Whether that’s a positive element likely depends on your tastes. There’s a tonne of moving parts to set in motion here (maybe too many), which may explain why this film unnecessarily stretches out to its much-publicised running time of almost three hours. This is not your typical superhero film, and that will likely rub many viewers the wrong way. The classic bombastic blockbuster elements are still occasionally there, but this is ultimately a slow-moving noir detective thriller in a similar vein to David Fincher’s Zodiac and Se7en.

In that regard, The Batman was not the film I was expecting at all, which is always rather wonderful. This is truly unlike any other Batman film we’ve ever seen. And that has to be admired and appreciated. It’s sitting somewhere closer to the darker adaptations of Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan but with far less interest in obeying the tried-and-true comic book adaptation formula even those films couldn’t avoid following. Reeves is making his own unique mark on this franchise. He’s almost refusing to chase a mainstream audience. He’s harkening back to Batman’s detective sensibilities of the original comic books. Frankly, this is the new direction this franchise so desperately needed, but it may not appease those seeking something more in line with superhero films of late.

In saying that, The Batman can’t avoid covering ground we’ve seen before. While we’re thankfully not subjected to watching the Thomas and Martha Wayne murders for the umpteenth time, the themes of this film feel achingly similar to those covered by Phillips in Joker. Once again, Gotham is a city on the precipice of anarchy that’s tipped over the edge by the crimes of a psychopath with a vendetta against the corrupted souls of the rich and powerful. The people take to the streets brandishing his iconography. They chant his mantra. They retaliate with violence. Sounds familiar, right? You almost expect Joaquin Phoenix to dance by at some point and join the chaos.

In other adaptations (notably Jim Carrey’s camp portrayal in 1994’s Batman Forever), the Riddler is a mischievous trickster whose ultimate goal is to prove his intellectual superiority over everyone around him. While there’s a mild element of that here, Reeves and Dano take the same vastly different maniacal murderer approach seen in Geoff Johns’ graphic novel Batman: Earth One. His actions echo those of the Saw franchise’s Jigsaw with elaborate traps that will either expose the corrupted crimes of those he’s kidnapped or lead them to their doom. He’s an incel terrorist with an online forum of followers who spur his every move. Yes, this film can’t help but get a little “woke” every now and then.

Much like Joker, Reeves and Craig attempt social commentary by virtue of its villain feeling like someone ripped straight from the headlines. The Riddler is ultimately a lone wolf anarchist with a grudge against the world and the internet as the fuel to start his fire. Right from the unnerving opening scene, Reeves doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the Riddler’s crimes. We’re still in PG-13 territory, so the violence is toned down to a degree, but it’s abundantly clear after the first five minutes this is not a film for younger audiences. Dano is perfectly cast as this psychotic menace, even if his performance occasionally tiptoes a little too far into farce. His line delivery is menacing and methodical and the Riddler’s short temper offers Dano the chance to explode at any moment. You’re never quite sure what Dano will do next, and that’s rather exhilarating to watch.

But you’re likely here to learn about Pattinson’s performance, whose casting saw the typical mixed fan reaction of every Batman since Michael Keaton bowed out 30 years ago. Breathe a sigh of relief. Pattinson is terrific. As always, Bruce is a broken, tormented figure whose grief and trauma fuel his desire for vengeance and justice. But there’s no cocky alter ego here. He’s not a charming, smooth-talking billionaire who juxtaposes his violent Batman persona with a playboy lifestyle. Bruce is a brooding recluse who spends his days hiding in the abandoned Wayne Terminal subway station that serves as this film’s reimagining of the Batcave. Pattinson actually spends far more time as Batman than he does as Bruce. For me, that’s to the film’s detriment.

It’s not that Pattinson isn’t adept at playing these dual roles with aplomb. He’s talented enough to capture both Bruce’s fractured soul and Batman’s pure rage. And Batman’s intellectual ability at solving the Riddler’s clues feels completely authentic to Pattinson’s wily, slick performance. But Reeves and Craig’s screenplay doesn’t give enough focus to exploring Bruce’s character in the same deep ways as Nolan and Burton. The duality is just not really there. You’re unlikely to walk away from The Batman feeling like you weren’t truly able to “get to know” this version of Bruce. Perhaps that’s entirely intentional and Reeves is seeking to dig further in future chapters, but Pattinson can handle more than just Batman’s anger and this film simply doesn’t give it to him.

In an unexpected (and pleasing) turn of events, Selina is actually a more fleshed-out character than anyone else in this film. Kravitz wisely avoids replicating the slinky, vampy Catwoman performance of Michelle Pfeiffer in 1992’s Batman Returns and makes the character completely her own. It’s a grounded take on a woman with plenty of emotional and physical scars of her own. Selina is not a thief for pleasure or fun. She’s doing what she needs to survive Gotham with a mission of vengeance of her own to enact. It’s a fascinating and engaging character arc that’s incredibly well written. Kravitz leans heavily into Selina’s femme fatale qualities and steals focus at every turn with her wildly charismatic performance.

Farrell chews the scenery in an outlandish supporting performance that, for better or worse, feels reminiscent of Jared Leto’s ridiculous turn in last year’s House of Gucci. Under a cavalcade of prosthetics and elaborate makeup and hairstyling, Farrell is completely unrecognisable as the scheming opportunist whose path the true villainry is really only just beginning. He brings some much-needed levity to the film, even if his performance often feels like it’s from a completely different movie altogether. Farrell understands the assignment and goes for it. If he’s the intended major villain for the inevitable sequel, I’m all in.

It’s the technical elements of The Batman where this film truly soars. Reeves has sought to craft a more realistic grounded approach and he achieves his goal with minimal CGI and physically crafted set pieces that are genuinely incredible. The fight choreography is swift, brutal, and natural, feeling entirely comparable to the frenetic style of the Batman: Arkham City video games. Reeves stages the fight scenes in spectacular fashion, particularly one remarkable scene that takes place entirely in the dark with only the flash of machine gunfire to light Batman’s ferocious assaults. And there’s one balls-to-the-wall thrilling car chase sequence that would make William Friedkin proud. It may just be one of the best of all time, especially when you learn it was created almost entirely physically.

But it’s the Oscar-worthy work of composer Michael Giacchino and cinematographer Greig Fraser that really left me in awe. Giacchino’s stellar score might just end up being my favourite composition of the year. He’s crafted an immediately iconic new Batman theme that perfectly compliments Pattinson’s performance. His score is loud and booming, but also elegant and haunting. Much like the dichotomy between Bruce and Batman, Giacchino’s score is a contradiction in itself. Yes, the Batman theme is played rather repetitively, but one could say the same of Danny Elfman’s theme in the original Batman quadrilogy. This is how you craft a score that will become entirely synonymous with a tentpole character. And Giacchino knocks it out of the park.

As for two-time Oscar nominee Fraser, well, it should come as no surprise that he delivers another stunning array of visual delights. From utilising POV shots to put us directly in the Riddler’s voyeuristic gaze to allowing us to glide through Gotham City with Batman when he utilises the wingsuit for the first time, Fraser digs into a whole bag of tricks to ingeniously capture everything Reeves has created. The way he utilises lighting to play with shadows is wildly impressive, particularly the wicked introduction to our new Batmobile that will likely cause audiences to burst into applause. Fraser has an eye for making the Gotham look radiantly beautiful, even in the midst of its rapid erosion.

At the end of the day, The Batman may not be the movie you’re anticipating, but it just might be precisely what this franchise needs. Like its titular hero, it’s flawed, well-intentioned, and maybe has a few kinks to iron out to progress to true greatness. It’s the birth of a new era for this franchise, and this saga is safely in good hands. Batman Begins walked so that The Dark Knight could run. And that’s happening again here. Reeves is laying the foundations for the bright future of this franchise, and I can’t wait to see what he produces next.

Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano, Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro, Peter Sarsgaard, Andy Serkis, Colin Farrell
Director: Matt Reeves
Producers: Dylan Clark, Matt Reeves
Screenplay: Matt Reeves, Peter Craig
Cinematography: Greig Fraser
Production Design: James Chinlund
Costume Design: Jacqueline Durran
Music: Michael Giacchino
Editor: William Hoy, Tyler Nelson
Running Time: 176 minutes
Release Date: 3rd March 2022 (Australia)