Review: The Batman

Director: Matt Reeves

Stars: Colin Farrell, Zoë Kravitz, Robert Pattinson

Somewhere in Los Angeles, in between all the traffic, smog and pitch meetings, there’s a courier driving to David Fincher’s house. Their cargo? Two hundred bouquets of red roses. Dozens of dozens. Enough to fill a van. Has someone made a mistake? Valentine’s Day was last month. No. By way of cryptic explanation, in the middle of this bountiful gift, is a single card. On it – in shaky childlike handwriting, no doubt – are just two words. ‘Thank you’. Though unsigned, the gift is from Matt Reeves.

Or maybe not. Maybe such a gesture would be moot at this point. Matt Reeves’ gratitude to David Fincher is writ large on cinema screens across the globe this weekend. His 3 hour opus The Batman so brazenly adores the likes of Se7enThe Game and Zodiac that even taking these paragraphs to point it out feels egregious. The Batman loves these movies the way Todd Philips’ Joker loves Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Although Reeves seems to understand his crushes a little better.

Mercifully dispensing with the origin story (although not really), The Batman plays out as a brooding neo-noir. It almost wholly takes place at night. Rain is as ubiquitous as in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Shadows run tall and deep. Bruce Wayne (a broody, bolshie Robert Pattinson) has been doing his vigilante bit – the “Gotham project” – for two years already, and has made in-roads in the police force with Lt. James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright). It is in this capacity that he is invited onto a crime scene. A mayoral candidate has been killed in his own home, and a card has been left… addressed to the Batman.

From here Reeves’ film patiently, methodically world-builds, creating a sense of Gotham City’s own eco-system of fear, violent crime and corruption. This last is the obsession of chief antagonist The Riddler (Paul Dano), drawn here as a murderous internet troll, who has taken grim inspiration from Batman; cleaning up the city in his own nefarious ways. Screen villains in this universe have a habit of highlighting their kinship with Gotham’s Dark Knight, but The Batman plays with this like a preoccupation, examining the ways a message of hope and defiance can become distorted. It is one of the film’s more earnest attempts at social commentary. It’s final act, meanwhile, boldly kindles memories of recent disasters in American history – both natural and man-made.

This isn’t the only pitch toward relevancy, however, not by a long-shot. As it goes on, The Batman feels keenly aware of an entire generation let down by the one that preceded it. Sins of the fathers are writ large. Popular cinema reflects the zeitgeist of the times. If any modern blockbuster expresses gloom about the world we’ve been handed, it’s this one.

Heath Ledger’s Joker famously chided, “Why so serious?” but even he’d have blanched at Reeves’ dour depiction of Gotham. It’s not only the shadow play. Shallow focus eagerly blurs background and gloom, and that ceaseless rainfall becomes it’s own kind of screen, blotting out deep focus. There’s an oiliness to The Batman. It feels smeared. Old. Dirty.

Pattinson’s take on Wayne is the most interesting in memory. He hasn’t the bland cleanliness of Christian Bale, or the bored weariness of Ben Affleck. He’s more reclusive, feels smaller. Pattinson seems keen to indulge Wayne’s inner freak, but the script tempers this, focusing instead on the mystery.

These three hours could have been trimmed. The story takes a detour into Wayne’s troubled past that hobbles the middle hour considerably. It’s perhaps necessary character work, but it feels more beholden to Bruce Wayne’s already-understood mythology than the meatier hook of Riddler’s violence. One stifles the urge to yell, “Get on with it”.

And while Pattinson impresses he is also occasionally upstaged. Chiefly, Zoë Kravitz seems to be singing from a completely different hymn sheet than everyone else, and church wasn’t ever this sexy and sultry. But hell, these are Selina Kyle prerequisites. Kravitz’s take on the character is marked by impatience and impetuousness that can’t help but make her stand out from the crowd. Where’s her movie? Elsewhere, caked in make-up, Colin Farrell’s Penguin provides a number of unexpected laughs, and the actor seems to be using this opportunity to audition for a Robert De Niro biopic that’s yet to find a studio. And then there’s Dano. But the less spoiled about his contribution the better.

Still, Pattinson does good. The biggest asset he brings to this superhero is humanity. Wayne has no special powers, just money and gumption. Reeves’ The Batman isn’t afraid of exposing this. This Bruce Wayne might walk into the path of a bullet or jump off an overpass but he isn’t guaranteed to stick the landing. It adds a very real sense of threat and recklessness that folds back into the psychological excavation of the character.

Reeves extends this outward to the film, embracing imperfection and a sense of messiness. Sometimes this works well for him. Sometimes it doesn’t. The inevitable car chase that tears up the middle of the picture is a case in point. It is intended as chaotic, fast, close-to-the-ground, raw. What Reeves ends up with, however, is an editorial nightmare, lacking coherence or even a basic sense of geography.

Pushing for such po-faced seriousness is risky, too. The film wrestles with the inherent sense of theatricality and camp in Batman, and doesn’t quite know what to do with it. Early on it addresses it admirably – Halloween thugs scoff at the emergence of Batman and quickly regret it – but silly things like Selina’s stupidly worn balaclava just become distracting.

In a time of weightless comic book movies, this one feels refreshingly earthen, even if it is also drawn out, miserable and bum-numbingly paced. Emo but wholly averse to having fun with it, The Batman is a strangely conflicted beast. Still, it makes a change from the endless quipping and cheesy American sass that now dominates elsewhere in the genre.

A faulty film, but one made more interesting and human because of it’s faults. In that respect, while Reeves may have been trying to make his Se7en or Zodiac, he may have inadvertently made his Alien³. That’s no criticism, by the way. An increasing number of people will passionately go to bat (hehe) for that movie. The same will be true of this moody blockbuster. As with Fincher’s xenomorph movie, it’s a little misshapen and defiantly joyless, but I’m rather glad that it’s there.

6 of 10

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