Saturday 5 March 2022

Film Review: The Batman

Robert Pattinson dons the iconic cowl of the Caped Crusader in Matt Reeves' stellar reboot, The Batman.

From Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher to Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder, Batman has taken many forms over the years; quirky and Gothic, garish and cheesy, gritty and modern. And now, Batman gets his moodiest, grimiest movie yet.

A decade on from his last solo outing in The Dark Knight Rises, and with a couple of misguided cameos and costarring roles in-between, Batman is back on the big screen once again, this time with former teen heartthrob and indie darling Robert Pattinson in the lead role, and American filmmaker Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) behind the camera.

The Batman picks up billionaire Bruce Wayne towards the start of his caped crusade, yet to lock horns with many of Batman's iconic rogues gallery. Gotham, on the eve of a mayoral election, is rocked by the death of the incumbent – murdered in his own home with cryptic messages, codes and question marks scrawled across the room. 

And the killings don't stop there. The culprit – who calls himself The Riddler (Paul Dano) – leaves a trail of clues in his wake, stringing Batman and his allies in the police department (namely Jim Gordon, played here by Jeffrey Wright) along as he targets Gotham's one percent. Soon enough, Batman crosses paths with slinky cat burglar Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz), and the two discover they share a common enemy in John Turturro's powerful mobster, Carmine Falcone.

Take away the capes, and The Batman is a film noir through and through. Reeves and his cowriter Peter Craig have honed in on the genre's trappings, eschewing flamboyant fights and propulsive pacing in favour of something much more melancholic and deliberate. 

Taking on the role of the hard-boiled is detective is Batman himself, striding through pouring rain, shadowy streets and grisly crime scenes, narrating his own misery and grappling with his own inner demons. Thematically, The Batman is grappling with Gotham's rotten core: politicians, city officials and dirty cops who take their cues from the mob. And there's even a femme fatale in the form of feline friend (or foe?) Selina Kyle.

Clocking in at nearly three hours, The Batman isn't here to please all audiences; your mileage may vary on the lengthy runtime, the dark colour palette and sombre, emo tone. For me, it worked a charm. Everything gelled to form something special, in my opinion, from the visuals – between this and Dune, Greig Fraser is the man of the hour – to the romantic Michael Giacchino score, which is loaded top to bottom with memorable leitmotifs for Batman, Catwoman and The Riddler. 

The Bat and the Cat: Robert Pattinson and Zoe Kravitz in The Batman.

Pattinson is a brilliant Batman and Bruce Wayne too, both muscular and emotional in equal measure. He's simmering with rage under that mask, and when he takes it off, it comes to the surface. There's an edge to this version of Bruce Wayne that is slightly scary and unpredictable, and Pattinson embodies that frustration and fury. 

Most importantly, the film never loses sight of Bruce and his story; other Batman stories have strayed away from Bruce in favour of his foes, like Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight or Danny DeVito's Penguin in Batman Returns. But The Batman keeps the focus firmly on Bruce; his doubts, his inner turmoil.

Meanwhile, Kravitz is sublime as Selina Kyle. This film takes its time to establish Selina in ways that we haven't seen before, and the result is a terrific lead duo that click with chemistry. Selina is sultry and using her sexuality to project an air of security; Batman is commanding and confident, but freezes when faced with Selina's advances. The Bat and the Cat have featured in two films before (Batman Returns and The Dark Knight Rises) but this is far and away the best version of that dynamic. 

The only weak link, in my opinion, is Colin Farrell's iteration of The Penguin. Farrell is a talented actor, there's no question about that, but buried underneath six inches of prosthetics and barely recognisable vocally, his inclusion in this cast is baffling to say the least.   

Don't underestimate how far The Batman pushes the limits of its M rating; while there's very little blood and the fight scenes are par for the course, there's something deeply unsettling about its overall mood. Dano's Riddler, clad in a green gimp mask and camouflage anorak, is a deeply creepy and unhinged take on a typically whimsical character. There are shades of Saw in his methods, which include bomb collars and liberal use of duct tape; his crazed scribblings and inscrutable ciphers lifted from Seven or Zodiac.

In fact, this is probably as close as we'll ever get to a David Fincher Batman film. There's no denying that Reeves' team have taken inspiration from Fincher's serial killer classics in shaping Riddler's MO – and it really works, with the macabre mood permeating every nook and cranny of this film. 

Gotham itself has never looked better; from the litter-strewn subway stations to the rain-soaked streets teeming with lowlives, the city feels like an authentic, ugly marriage of Gothic grandiosity and contemporary urbanism. 

The Verdict: 10/10

What impresses me about The Batman isn't its gorgeous visuals, its casting, its production design or its riveting plot packed with murder, intrigue and deception. It's its ambition. Reeves could've played it safe and phoned in a Batman reboot that ticked boxes and sold tickets, but instead we've been treated to something that is weird, gruesome and just so damn bleak. We're so used to seeing superhero films – and let's face it, most blockbuster films – play it safe, that when something truly ambitious comes along, it just blows the rest out of the water. That's The Batman down to a tee.

The Batman is in cinemas across Australia now.

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