By Charlie Arbuckle
Matt Reeves’ take on the caped crusader had a lot to live up to, the Batman IP has consistently been a front runner in showing the quality of what a superhero-based film could be.
From the militaristic anarchy of the Dark Knight franchise, to the evocative, Scorsese infused charm of Joker, the franchise has never shied away from visceral, edgy, and disturbing plots, which is far more than can be said for the more watered-down marvel franchise.
The film opens with a brooding monologue from Robert Pattinson’s Batman, explicitly deciding to skip the origin story. This decision immediately sets apart this story from the rest, plunging us into Batman’s Gotham with an epic montage of petty criminals cowering at the vague prospect of the Batman skulking in the shadows.
This scene concludes with a group of face-painted joker fanatics being given the stereotypical Bat-beatdown and tells us that this is a world where villains and heroes are already established.
An all-star cast joins the show, Pattinson riding the wave of smash hit after smash hit with haunting avant-garde films and huge blockbusters. Paul Dano, one of the only actors to ever outshine Daniel Day Lewis, and Zoe Kravitz, despite this being one of her first lead roles, stands tall alongside the others, bringing sleek charisma into the role of Catwoman.
R-Pat gives a unique take on the Batman: An angry, eyeshadow-wearing, grunge-listening basement-dwelling weirdo, spending hours obsessively hunched over a computer. This iteration of the Batman feels distinctly human, contrasting his omnipresent stylings in the opening montage with a Batman who fumbles, crashes, and takes punches almost as much as he gives them. While he still kicks ass with the best of them, gone are the days of Christian Bale’s militaristic, unstoppable Batman.
This sets up a perfect rival in the form of Paul Dano’s Riddler, taking cues from the discomforting nature of his character in Denis Villenueve’s flick Prisoners and turning them up to the max in a spectacular performance. His slightly whiny voice shifting to terrifying, rage-fuelled roars is a masterclass in keeping an audience on its toes. Heath Ledger’s brilliant Joker is evoked, but never mindlessly aped as the characters set out to accomplish a similar goal but remain unique against each other in motivations and stylings.
The Riddler in this interpretation is a terrorist, and when not executing brutal acts of violence on Gotham’s ruling class he is posting online to a forum of other internet-poisoned radicals, who feed him bomb-building advice and plan mass shootings. The character feels darkly contemporary, and evokes the fear of America’s alt-right in the process.
In the process of the investigation, Batman crosses paths with Zoe Kravitz’s Catwoman, a vengeful and sleek character who gradually emerges as a central character to the narrative, and Kravitz’s performance brilliantly conveys the tension of balancing her own personal vendetta, and Batman’s overbearing pressure on her to help him achieve his.
A final key character is Gotham city itself, explicitly shown to be the enemy of the Riddler, the city takes on a life of its own, neon billboards show adverts for energy drinks alongside news reports of killings, the city feels sickly and dystopian, and as the Riddler’s motivations are explored you learn that it truly is.
As for the filmmaking itself, the movie is a gem, practical effects prove that they are crucial for action sequences, as the car chases and fights have a visceral and brutal nature that few other recent superhero films even come close to.
There are countless incredible frames scattered throughout the movie, but one that consistently comes to mind is an upside down, slightly askew shot of Batman making his way towards a crashed villain’s car, the flames in the background forming the bat symbol as the bombastic theme crescendos around him.
The violence in this film occupies two dimensions, the conventional beat-em-ups of the Batman, and the terrifying, Saw inspired traps of the Riddler. While no graphic content is shown particularly, it isn’t hard to imagine that the glass, rat-filled head cage is an unpleasant way to go out. As a result of this indirect approach, the film hints at horrific deaths but remains palatable to the majority of people, edging surprisingly close to a family friendly Se7en, even occupying similar story beats.
Perhaps this is why the final, biblically apocalyptic act, feels slightly jarring. The Riddler’s plans are, until the last third of the movie, quite small scale, a murder here, a bombing there; a plot that wouldn’t feel out of place in a grounded detective story. Except this isn’t a grounded detective story, and as the Riddler blows up most of the city’s flood defences and literally washes away huge swathes of Gotham I found myself a tad confounded. The film does a lot up until then to remain grounded in its story.
This isn’t to say the final act is bad, it really isn’t, and nor does the tone shift, it remains dark and brooding. The scale just tips way off and the weight applied to the Riddler’s prior murder of a sleazy district attorney feels trivial compared to the havoc now caused.
In all, The Batman illustrates further the strengths that DC has, the ability to have director-driven movies with unique influences and stylings that can exist alone amongst other blockbusters, with no need to crutch on the success of other films (ahem, Marvel).
Magnificent casting, beautiful set pieces and excellent action all coalesce to form a brilliant film, that despite slight troubles in the final act, will stand proud as another success in the Batman IP.