On the night of Halloween, the first of a series of murders is committed by a psychotic serial killer – The Riddler (Paul Dano). This leads Batman (Robert Pattinson) on a dangerous race against time to bring him to justice.
The Batman is excellent whenever it brings something new to the table. Gritty live-action adaptations of the character have typically made little of his title as “The World’s Greatest Detective”. Until now. Director Matt Reeves’ decision to make this a film noir first and an action film second is inspired, especially because it is so fitting to the character’s DNA. After all, DC Comics stands for “Detective Comics”.
Because of this focus on detection, Robert Pattinson’s Batman feels fresh. Though he is suitably spectral, he remains rather grounded in comparison to previous Batmen. Even though he still beats criminals to a pulp, he uses his brain more than his body. His fighting style is messy, his equipment unspectacular and his voice more of a soft growl than a manic roar. Pattinson plays all of these attributes convincingly and with subtlety. As advertised, this Bruce Wayne is more Kurt Cobain than Howard Hughes – emo, reclusive and indistinguishable from his alter-ego. Gone is the carefully constructed playboy persona. Though this approach removes the usual thrill of seeing Wayne transform into The Caped Crusader, it intelligently emphasises the fact that Batman really is the real Bruce Wayne.
Making The Riddler a Zodiac-style serial killer is also a clever way of bringing a typically cartoonish character into Reeves’ grounded world, as well as being another key component of the film’s detective focus. Unfortunately Paul Dano’s performance is pretty overcooked, but his Riddler is scary for a while. The murders are genuinely grisly, as are the accompanying riddles. Other villains like Colin Farrell’s Penguin and John Turturro’s Carmine Falcone also get significant appearances, and both are great whenever they are on screen.
Gotham is wonderfully rendered by cinematographer Greig Fraser, who drenches the city in torrential rain and oppressive darkness. Almost all of the action takes place at night. The lack of light is extreme, but it is always condusive to the atmosphere rather than obstructive to the viewer. Whereas Christopher Nolan’s Gotham basically feels like New York/Chicago, Fraser and Reeves’s creation stands alone as a unique environment rather than an imitation of a recognisable metropolis. So much of the joy of The Batman lies in the immersion this creates. For three hours you simply are in Gotham – no previous Bat outing has achieved this so comprehensively.
The problem with The Batman, though, is its narrative. At three hours long, it has a lot going on. Most of it is entertaining enough, but the lengthy run time is unearned. With its litany of characters and sub-plots, Reeves and Peter Craig’s script trades in efficiency for immersion. Whilst the main mystery unfolds we are introduced to Penguin, Catwoman, Falcone and are given a reworking (kind of) of the Batman origin. Kravitz is a fine Catwoman, but she is confusingly written – the character’s typical battle between callousness and heroism is never really resolved. Reeves focuses on Gotham’s corruption more than previous films, but in the end there is simply too much going on for this to be satisfyingly explored. Many of his ideas are fleetingly engaging, but the narrative is too cluttered for any of them to really hit the mark.
The Batman also fails to make a deep impact because crucial elements of the story are poorly resolved. Certain key revelations are left unexplained and/or go nowhere. The central mystery sets up provocative possibilities but devolves into a generic, action-led conclusion that is far less exciting than the initial search for answers. This underwhelming finale betrays the detection-based tone set by the rest of the film, a feeling which is cemented by a cartoonish, straight-outta-Marvel cameo that feels jarringly out of step with the otherwise self-contained nature of the film.
This outing will inevitably be compared to The Nolan Trilogy, which remains the gold standard of gritty Batman on film. Reeves’s version is great when it adds its own spin, but it shoots itself in the foot whenever it follows Nolan’s footsteps too closely. This could be an unfair comparison to make, were it not for the fact that the film invites it so forthrightly. The main confrontation between Batman and Riddler is a pale imitation of the interrogation scene in The Dark Knight and a reminder of the comparative inferiority of Reeves’s script.
Reeves, Fraser and Pattinson have crafted a unique take on Batman and Gotham City. With a better story, this could be special.
The Batman is in cinemas everywhere now.