by Jordan King
In his preface to the seminal graphic novel, Batman: Year One, Frank Miller shared with readers his own first experience with the Caped Crusader as a young boy. A stark contrast to the campy, quip-filled Adam West and Burt Ward adventures that lit up TV screens in the 60s, the Batman Miller found wasn’t funny at all. He existed in a rain-sodden Gotham City he likened to a stone rat’s maze, a place where gunfire, shattered glass, and the cackling of madmen met the looming shadow of the Dark Knight as the moonlight fell on his back. It was a Gotham – and a Batman – defined by darkness and danger, a comic book creation with all the seedy yet seductive qualities of a Raymond Chandler novel.
Miller’s book and the Batman it harkens back to, along with several revered others – The Long Halloween, Hush, and Ego to name but a few – form the foundation of Matt Reeves’ long-awaited The Batman, a brooding, beautiful, and uncompromisingly brutal noir thriller that comes clad in shoulder pads, dripping in a distinctly grungy brand of dread, and driven by scintillating work both behind and in front of the camera. Reeves’ film takes us to a Gotham and introduces us to a Dark Knight that we simply haven’t seen before on the big screen. And my God what a remarkable thing it is to behold, all 175 minutes of it.
Ducking the poisoned chalice of yet another Crime Alley origin story, at the start of Reeves’ film Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) is in the second year of his Gotham Project. No more the boy crying at his dead parents’ feet, not yet the man schmoozing the glitterati by day while indulging in multi-billion dollar cosplay at night, here we find instead a young man holed up in a home calcified by childhood trauma – Wayne Manor is a stunningly designed Gormenghast-esque visage of cobwebs, chandeliers, and locked doors concealing repressed memories – shirking his family’s fortune and legacy to stalk the night, chasing demons roaming Gotham City’s streets to stave off the ones he can’t fight inside his own head.
As Bruce Wayne, Pattinson superbly portrays a son ravaged by years of lost sleep and denied closure. Playing the inverse of the slew of external explosions that is Connie in Good Time, Pattinson’s Bruce is an equally driven man but finds himself constantly on the brink of internal combustion. Forget cocksure Keaton, vision of suavity Kilmer, shit-eating grinner Clooney, po-faced Bale, or indeed grizzled Affleck, Pattinson’s punky Master Wayne (inspired by Kurt Cobain, whose Nirvana track ‘Something in the Way’ is given anthemic purpose here) is someone so incapable of reckoning with his grief and rebuilding his own life that he’s created an alter ego he himself calls Vengeance. His terse exchanges with Andy Serkis’ Alfred – charged by mutually intense survivor’s guilt but underpinned by genuine affection – build to some of the most affecting scenes out of the suit that any Batman has offered to date, while Reeves’ use of another child’s loss to act as a lingering reminder of Bruce’s own suffering poetically haunts the film.
When the cowl is on however and Pattinson goes full R-Batz, the fear that haunts Bruce becomes the terror of Gotham’s criminal population. In his Batman’s introduction, we see thieves and thugs scarper at the sight of the Bat Signal as a near-baritone Pattinson narrates the scene – “They think I’m hiding in the shadows, but I am the shadows” he snarls like a PI in a pulp fiction novella. As we move from the lugubriously lit, sodden Gotham streets (DP Greig Fraser takes Glasgow, Liverpool, and London and finds the decaying metropolis of Bruce Wayne’s hometown somewhere in the liminal spaces between austere Gothic architecture and the towering verticality of the modern world) to a rooftop mugging, Michael Giacchino’s thunderous score welcomes the Dark Knight’s arrival on the scene. Stepping out from the dark, R-Batz – caked from worker boots to thick eye make-up (a vain attempt to hide the window to his soul) in black – beats the crooks to within an inch of their lives, breaking without destroying them as his rage threatens to swallow him whole. The first fight carries the same wallop as Affleck’s infamous warehouse face-off from Batman v Superman – subsequent ones, each more intense, more dynamically lit, more tightly choreographed than the last, make that Snyder tussle look like a playground scrap.
The great twist of this reboot of big-screen Bats however is how smartly Reeves skews away from the brawn of the modern comic book blockbuster formula to remind audiences that among Batman’s many monikers, The World’s Greatest Detective is a) one of his greatest, and b) one of his least represented on screen. Working within a procedural framework at different moments evocative of Chinatown, All The President’s Men, and Memories of Murder, Reeves partners Batman up with James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) – maybe the only cop left in the city who isn’t crooked – to investigate Gotham’s criminal underworld. As Batman cracks cyphers and follows clues from Paul Dano’s murderous Riddler – a genuinely terrifying amalgam of the Zodiac Killer, Jeffrey Dahmer, and the last half-decade in livestreamed, QAnon-type extremism – the battle of wills between the two deeply-scarred, differently-wounded individuals makes for a fascinating psychological study in manifestations of trauma and the necessity of villains bred by the existence of villains and vice-versa. When the two finally find themselves in a room together, their warped symmetry is framed fittingly fearfully by Reeves, four walls barely containing a raging tide of uncomfortable recognition and spewing resentment.
Alongside the intellectual battle Batman finds himself waging with The Riddler, his submersion in the underbelly of Gotham takes him to 44 Below, the inner sanctum of the infamous Iceberg Lounge. It’s here that we meet Zoë Kravitz’s Selina Kyle, whose search for her missing friend and moonlighting as a cat(woman) burglar throw her and Bruce Wayne together. The chemistry between Kravitz and Pattinson is electric, and the erotic charge of their first fight alone – a moonlit tango where high-kicks and sharpened claws promise hot blood no matter if they hit or miss – is a potent reminder of how grimly sexless blockbuster cinema has gotten in recent years. And as the duo form their own unlikely partnership, the Bat and the Cat, their sizzling interplay and subtly growing protectiveness over one another offers glimmers of light that give levity to the otherwise at times all-encompassing darkness of the film.
Elsewhere, we meet a few more familiar names with fresh faces as Reeves makes the most of a golden opportunity to write the opening chronicle in some of Batman’s greatest foes’ histories – this may well be not another Batman origin story, but it sure as shit relishes being some of DC’s rogues gallery’s. Chief among them is Colin Farrell’s Oz, AKA Oswald Cobblepot, AKA The Penguin. Delightfully over-the-top and totally camp (he literally waddles at one point and repeatedly calls Batman ‘sweetheart’ for Christ’s sake), a thoroughly unrecognisable Farrell gives himself to the overriding silliness of a world filled with silly-named villains in sillier costumes, acting like he’s turned up on the set of Batman & Robin rather than Reeves’ The Batman. His opportunism in the face of Carmine Falcone’s (a slick John Turturro) prospective downfall shows the endemic nature of greed and the slippery nature of the man they call Penguin. He also gets a starring role in the film’s best scene, a pulsating car chase that flies in the face of The Fast and Furious, sending Bats and Oz through the world’s most lethal game of chicken while introducing a Batmobile that may or may not be the reincarnation of Stephen King’s Christine – with a camera strapped to the wheel and the pedal to the metal, it’s one of the most invigorating, heart-pounding sustained car chases this side of Fury Road.
But therein lies the beauty of The Batman. Matt Reeves – unsurprisingly given the way he made the monumental scope of the Apes trilogy bend to his more intimately framed and elementally grounded designs – sweats the small stuff, the minutiae of character details and dynamics, the sense of a city where you don’t know if a gun or a man in a mask is waiting round the next corner, the thrust of proceduralism and the consequences of vigilantism, so that the spectacle never feels hollow. By the time the pawns have all been lined up for a grand third act blowout then, with figures emerging from the fringes and the fate of Gotham being decided, every fist-pumping, grin-inducing moment feels earned.
Matt Reeves’ The Batman is a truly accomplished piece of cinema that represents not only a thrilling ride from start to finish but also a work that is as good as Batman has ever been on page or on screen. Though many question marks will surely now hang over what comes next for R-Batz and co, of one thing we can be certain – the future is bright for this Dark Knight.
The Batman is out March 4th