The Caped Crusader returns, but Gotham City ain’t what it used to be; Matt Reeves’ film shakes off the ennui of The Dark Knight Rises and reboots Batman as a three-hour hardboiled detective noir. The results may not sell many toys, but should appeal to an adult audience who yearn for a less kid-friendly superhero franchise than the MCU offers. From the campy 60’s Adam West version to the Gothic, poppy Tim Burton incarnation, the lamentable Joel Schumacher travesties and the dour, muscular Chris Nolan films, Batman movies have reflected the times; Reeves has realised the darkest vision yet, very much in line with DC’s on-going ‘deranged criminals with masks’ vibe. The experiment is largely successful in recasting Batman as a more vulnerable, more mortal agent of good against evil; everything from the Batcycle to the Batmobile is scaled down into something cool but realistic, and for once, the human drama is played up to good effect.
‘Is Bruce Wayne making an appearance?’ asks butler Alfred, and it’s a good question; there’s actually much more Batman than Bruce Wayne here, although Robert Pattinson is terrific in both roles. The usual tired formula, in which Batman is the sparingly-used special effect that catches the baddies for Wayne, is mercifully forsaken; Pattinson is front and centre in an artfully designed Batsuit that never drowns out the performer. Without too much ado, Batman works in alliance with Commissioner Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) to figure out what secret The Riddler (Paul Dano) is leading him to; Gotham City corruption is at the centre of the mystery. There’s encounters with Catwoman (Zoe Kravitz), the Penguin (Colin Farrell, unrecognisable) and a few other familiar faces, but like Batman’s tech toys, radical underplaying is the key. These don’t feel like guest stars in funny-costume cameos, but well-integrated characters in a complex crime story that also features such reliable performers as John Turturro and Peter Sarsgaard. In short, this is a deep noir Batman, short of crowd-pleasing circus action for families, long on glowering looks and tortured backstories.
A few aspects go astray; Andy Serkis feels like a downgrade as Batman’s batman Alfred, some of the backstory is way too convoluted, and the crucial blockbuster element of humour is largely posted missing. But Pattinson excels as the protagonist, full of pent-up, nervy energy, while some of the set-pieces, notable a fiery, explosive motorway chase in pursuit of the Penguin, are pumped-up bursts of adrenaline that elevate this genre piece to real heights. And keeping our spoilers vague, the villain’s torn-from-the-headlines plan, to raise an army of losers to disrupt the free and fair elections of Gotham city, marks The Batman as the first super-hero movie to draw parallels with the January 6th insurrection, even though it was originally written long before.
With some magnificently moody shots of Glasgow’s Necropolis for the final scenes, Matt Reeves’ The Batman is probably the most coherent Batman movie to date; yes, there’s countdowns and last-minute rescues, but not presented in the silly way we’ve seen before, and the results feel dark and more dangerous than the PG-13 certificate would suggest. There’s a key line with relation to the Bat-symbol; it’s usually just a means of communication between Gordon and Batman, but here it’s also a deliberately oppressive warning to all manner of assorted low-lives that their days of freedom are numbered. So, this isn’t quite like any previous version of Batman, and that’s a good thing; Reeves and Pattinson have fashioned a grim, desperate super-hero that’s largely in line with today’s hardscrabble times. Usually, the heart sinks at the thought of further spin-off movies or tv shows, but The Batman’s Runyonesque world of gritty crime and visceral punishment certainly has room for some expansion.
The Batman is on general release from March 4th 2022 in US and UK cinemas.
Thanks to Warner Bros UK for advance big-screen access.