Robert Pattinson’s turn in the cape and cowl is dark, weighty and entrancing, in a sublimely shot blockbuster that makes all things 'Batman' feel new.
March 02, 2022
When The Batman begins (not to be confused with Batman Begins), it's with the slaying of a powerful Gotham figure. A shocking crime that scandalises the city, it leaves a traumatised boy behind, and couldn't be more influential in the detective-style tale of blood and vengeance that follows. But viewers haven't seen this story before, despite appearances. It isn't the start of pop culture's lonesome billionaire orphan's usual plight, although he's there, all dressed in black, and has an instant affinity for the sorrowful kid. Behold the first standout feat achieved by this excellent latest take on the Dark Knight (not to be confused with The Dark Knight): realising that no one needs to see Bruce Wayne's parents meet their end for what'd feel like the millionth time.
The elder Waynes are still dead, and have been for two decades. Bruce (Robert Pattinson, Tenet) still festers with pain over their loss. And the prince of Gotham still turns vigilante by night, cleaning up the lawless streets one no-good punk at a time with only trusty butler Alfred Pennyworth (Andy Serkis, Long Shot) in on his secret. As directed by Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and War for the Planet of the Apes' Matt Reeves, and co-scripted with The Unforgivable's Peter Craig, The Batman clocks something crucial about its namesake and the audiences that watch him, however. The caped crusader's every move stems from his inescapable grief as always, but no one has to witness its origins yet again to glean why he's become the conflicted protector of his anarchic city. Instead, here he's overtly anguished, upset, broken, broiling with hurt and working his way through those feelings in each affray — a suave, smooth and slick one-percenter playboy in his downtime, he isn't — and it's a more absorbing version of the character than seen in many of the past Bat flicks that've fluttered through cinemas.
Why so serious? That question is answered quickly. Also, badging Pattinson's turn in the cape and cowl 'emo Batman' is 100-percent accurate. It's meant to be, because violence isn't just about experiencing or inflicting pain, but also about processing the emotions stirred up. Apply the label to The Batman's unrelentingly dark and rainy aesthetic as well and, once again, it suits. Lensed with such an eye for the absence of light by Australian cinematographer Greig Fraser (a Dune Oscar-nominee) that he's painting with the shadowiest of shadows, this is a grimmer Batman than Christopher Nolan's trilogy, moodier than Ben Affleck's stint, and gloomier than the Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney-starring movies (not to mention the upbeat and campy 60s TV series that gave us the Batusi). Like teen shows, the tone of any given Batman entry reflects the surrounding times, and the tenor here is bleak, bruised and battered. Call the prevailing batmosphere cinema's own bat-signal and that's oh-so-fitting, too.
Batman is bruised and battered himself in The Batman. He flinches when jumping from skyscrapers in his winged batsuit, grimaces upon impact and sports contusions beneath his mask before that. In spurts of Taxi Driver-style narration — where he could be one of screenwriter Paul Schrader's lonely men wrestling with the world (see also: The Card Counter) — he seethes about his self-appointed task, past and the state of Gotham, exposing his psychological scars as well. That doesn't change when a serial killer who dubs himself The Riddler (Paul Dano, Okja) and must love David Fincher movies (Seven and Zodiac especially) commits The Batman's opening murder, the first in a chain targeting the city's elite. This other angry mask-wearing vigilante is also waging a war on Gotham's corruption, and leaving puzzles to be solved along the way — with Batman assisting police lieutenant Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright, The French Dispatch), and being aided by nightclub waiter-cum-cat burglar Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz, Kimi) in turn.
What makes one man's angst-riddled quest noble but the other's deranged? As The Batman broods over that conundrum, the line between its titular figure and The Riddler is the finest it has perhaps ever been. Reeves isn't interested in another hero-with-a-sob-story spin on Batman, but in surveying the tragedy that seeps through his grimy and dank rendering of Gotham — yes, even dimmer than in Joker — and plotting the choices that spirit its abandoned residents towards either improving or destroying the city. The longer he chases The Riddler, via altercations with crime kingpin Carmine Falcone (John Turturro, Severance) and club-owner Oswald 'The Penguin' Cobblepot (Colin Farrell, The North Water), the more that Bruce/Batman flies parallel to his new foe. Selina slinks along a similar route, too, as coloured by her own history — plus the missing friend she's desperate to find, which is what connects her with Batman to start with.
This many different Batman films and shows in, it isn't easy to make the Dark Knight an entrancing and surprising character again — Christian Bale did, Affleck didn't — but Pattinson's casting is exceptional. Since he stopped visibly sparkling in the Twilight saga, his role choices have been near-impeccable as Cosmopolis, The Rover, Maps to the Stars, The Lost City of Z, Good Time, High Life and The Lighthouse have shown, and The Batman slides seamlessly into his enviable recent resume. There's soulfulness and tension to his portrayal of the Gotham crusader's inner turmoil, not just matching the Nirvana's 'Something in the Way'-meets-'Ave Maria'-soundtracked mood of melancholy, but also rippling in every glance, glare, step, jump and thrown fist. There's also a deep-seated intensity; a willingness to play both Bruce and Batman as weird, awkward and unsettled; and a welcome lack of boundaries between his character's two personas.
Reeves hasn't just scored a pitch-perfect lead, though. At just a batwing's flap shy of three hours, his film comes packed more convenient plot developments than necessary, but it has time to cement the savvy Kravitz among the most memorable versions of Catwoman — and to refreshingly play up her sexual tension with Batman. It also ensures that the quietly commanding Wright, hypnotically unhinged Dano and prosthetics-laden Farrell all have room to shine, though The Penguin is hardly a big player. It gives the latest Batmobile a helluva revved-up entrance and breathlessly thrilling car chase, and lets wide-framed, rhythmically choreographed action scenes roll long so that viewers feel the toll they wage on the movie's main man. Spotting everything that influenced The Batman isn't an enigma, of course, and The Riddler would be thoroughly disappointed. But the way that everything is spliced and shaken together, and the mood — and it's definitely a mood — makes this weighty, heavy, sublimely shot, excellently cast, always-engaging blockbuster feel new, and all things Batman with it.