Review: The Batman

Be they criminals or cinephiles, nobody can escape Batman – DC’s celebrated hero has become a constant fixture of movie theatres, to the point where he is now leading his third reboot in less than two decades. Yet the nocturnal vigilante’s latest turn is no mere cash-grab on the part of Warner Bros. Pictures, since this film is as much a triumph as any other to bear his name.

Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) is two years into his crusade against crime in Gotham City, having struck fear into the hearts of felons with a masked alter-ego he dubs “Vengeance”. Presently, his focus is on a sequence of violent, sadistic murders committed by a figure known only as The Riddler (Paul Dano) who has been leaving cryptic poems at the scenes of his crimes – puzzles hinting at a shocking conspiracy that may involve Bruce himself.

Unlike its DC counterparts – and most other blockbusters, for that matter – The Batman finds itself in the unique position of bearing no connection to a shared universe of any kind. Instead, it’s a standalone narrative, taking great strides to discern itself from the plethora of Batman media that already exists, in movie form or otherwise. Such a move is most refreshing in an era where studios are arbitrarily kickstarting franchises and spin-offs that never eventuate, and should hopefully pave the way for similar pictures with other superheroes in the years ahead.

This newfound tactic is most likely due to the studio’s choice of director, that being Matt Reeves. As helmsman of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and its sequel, War, Reeves demonstrated his ability to balance nuanced, thoughtful storylines with thrilling action scenes, state-of-the-art effects and admirable stunt-work, drawing the acclaim of cinemagoers and critics – yours truly included. From there, Reeves was able to draw the attention of the bigwigs at Warner, given a directorial role in their long-gestating Batman project and gifted with limitless freedom, which is more than apparent in the final product.

Robert Pattinson as “Vengeance” in The Batman

Although The Batman is distinct from previous feature-length adaptations, its world remains familiar to anybody with a passing interest in the Caped Crusader. The architecture and mise-en-scene are a melange of Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan’s visions for the character, fusing the gothic artistry of the 1989 Batman and Batman Returns with the contemporary aesthetics of the Dark Knight trilogy, and adding the real-world grittiness of Joker for good measure. Hence, the setting is much like reality, only with a modest touch of fantasy to help placate the viewer.

Another connection to be drawn with The Batman and its forebears is the roster of iconic characters that Bruce Wayne interacts with. In addition to the aforesaid Riddler, there’s law-enforcement ally Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), here yet to assume his duties as Commissioner of Gotham’s Police Department; the cat-burgling anti-heroine Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz); criminal honcho Carmine Falcone (John Turturro); eccentric crook Oswald “Penguin” Cobblepot (Colin Farrell); and Bruce’s loyal butler and confidant Alfred Pennyworth (Andy Serkis).

The performances of the above are fantastic all-round, but special mention must go to Colin Farrell for his portrayal of the Penguin. The Irish actor plays the role with a relentless energy, seemingly uninhibited by the fat suit and heavy make-up he wears to disguise himself, and at times demonstrates an unhinged lunacy that evokes the spirit of a young Robert De Niro or Al Pacino, complete with Italian-American accent. As for the secondary highlight, that honour falls to Andy Serkis, whose turn as Alfred is less distinguished and more tender than any previous iteration.

Oswald Cobblepot (Colin Farrell) a.k.a the Penguin in The Batman

Although the supporting cast astounds more than the lead, Robert Pattinson is just as worthy of commendation. His portrayal of Bruce Wayne is the most withdrawn, tormented and vulnerable version of the character seen to date – and, ironically, the most human. Having forged his acting chops on the indie scene these past few years, it comes as no surprise to see Pattinson inhabiting his lead role with the fullest conviction, superbly conveying the veiled emotions of the titular hero, and oftentimes doing so when hidden behind a mask with his eyes being the only means of expression.

The cast is not the only striking aspect of The Batman, since it also impresses from a visual standpoint. Much of the film’s artistry is owed to Aussie cinematographer Greig Fraser, who recently, impressively applied his craft to Dune and operates with the same level of care and consideration here. Fraser’s gorgeous images are distinguished by his clever use of light, shadows and colour – note how he often bathes sequences in a particular, single hue – that not only sets the picture apart from previous Batman flicks, but from pretty much all of its contemporaries.

Equally remarkable are the action sequences, providing high-octane thrills that more than suffice viewers. The choreography of the hand-to-hand combat is unlike that of any other Hollywood movie, with Batman’s fights appearing haphazard and unstructured rather than seamlessly arranged, with some very heavy blows copped – it’s almost like witnessing a real fracas. The most exhilarating of all these scenes is an explosive highway pursuit featuring a rudimentary, yet no less menacing Batmobile, indubitably the best car chase to be placed in a superhero film ever. 

Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz) in The Batman

That level of brilliance is matched by Michael Giacchino, who has composed a soundtrack that rivals the exceptional work of Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer, or otherwise outmatches them. Utilising a simple four-note motif borrowed from Nirvana’s “Something in the Way”, Giacchino has created a distinctive theme that remains stuck in the viewer’s head for days, and works effectively in both the loud, intense scenes and the quieter, more serene moments. Every composition is masterful, and if they don’t validate Giacchino as one of the all-time great composers, then they at least ought to certify him as the finest of his generation.

While all of this provides the impression of an exciting blockbuster crammed with pulsating fun, truth is that The Batman is a more subdued affair than most. The pacing is gradual and methodical, and with a length of three hours, the film often relies heavily on atmosphere to hold the attention of its observers. Doing so assists in lending a gravitas to the picture’s quieter, character-driven moments, such as those between Bruce and Alfred, or Batman and Selina; but this approach also makes for a test of patience, being enough to wish for the occasional scene to be trimmed, or even removed altogether.

The weakest element of all though, is the screenplay, co-written by Reeves and Peter Craig. Despite leaning heavily into the mystery element, the plot does not compel in the slightest, with a succession of so-called twists and revelations that appear with an underwhelming predictability. The result is a picture that lacks the weighty narrative of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, neither providing the analytical insight into Bruce’s past, nor the philosophical discussions to engage the more discerning mind. With that said, blockbusters are meant to be spectacles rather than intellectual stimuli, and it’s as a spectacle that The Batman is best appreciated.

By borrowing from past interpretations of the franchise and combining them with his own fresh spin, Matt Reeves has found an angle for DC’s brooding superhero that will have audiences talking for months and years to come. The Batman is quite the accomplishment, made extraordinary by the music, action, cinematography and cast to become an early contender for the best blockbuster of 2022.

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