Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy has represented the high bar of comic book adaptation – it was epic, innovative, daringly dark blockbuster filmmaking. The lame Justice League/Ben Affleck efforts did nothing to alter the feeling that this was one superhero that need not be revisited. Batman could hang up his cowl.
But then again… Bruce Wayne/Batman is perhaps the most conflicted and nuanced of so-called superheroes. And what Matt Reeves (War of the Planet of the Apes, Cloverfield) has smartly identified and explored in his new iteration is the one aspect of the Batman comic books that hadn’t yet been sufficiently tapped, even by Nolan: noir.
With Robert Pattinson grabbing the bat by its ears, a terrific supporting cast and a viscerally reimagined Gotham landscape – all cloaked in the rainy, grey glory of film noir – Reeves offers an exhilaratingly original reboot, which probably heralds a whole new life for the Caped Crusader.
Reeves sets out his stall immediately. Rain pours. Crowds move through the city streets under a flotilla of umbrellas. A voice-over, Batman’s, sets the scene, as would any good noir detective. “Two years of night. I’ve turned into a nocturnal animal,” he growls, before reflecting that, “I must choose my targets carefully.”
At first, he doesn’t seem too bothered about who he pummels to pulp, as long as they’ve done something wrong. “I’m vengeance,” he tells one, giving the impression that he’s fuelling his inner demons as much as any conventional sense of justice. This would be confirmed by sightings of his alter ego, Bruce Wayne, who has the lank-haired pallor of a Gothic loner, annotates his vigilantism in a diary labelled The Gotham Project, and whose reverence of his dead father has a distinctly unhealthy air of obsession.
And yet, there’s hope for him. Reeves spares us yet another venture into origin story, skipping the murder of Wayne’s parents, and lands two years into his career as Gotham’s preeminent vigilante. In that time, he’s earned the trust of Lieutenant Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), a character who has always provided the series’ steadiest moral compass. Not only that, but the pair seem to act as fellow detectives, to the extent that Gordon allows the Batman onto his crime scenes, much to the consternation of his fellow cops, who see the intimidatingly clad stranger as a ‘goddam freak’.
All this Batman needs is a defining moment, nay a villain of substance, to smooth off the rough edges and clear his path. Enter The Riddler.
The lunatic with a grudge is murdering prominent people – the mayor, the police commissioner, the DA – in gruesome ways, using the media to promote his killing spree as a challenge to the lies that are making Gotham a cesspit of corruption and squalor. He’s also using his crime scenes to reach out to the Batman, leaving him puzzles (not unlike the real-life taunts of the Zodiac serial killer who terrorised California in the late Sixties) in a clear effort to bond.
Thus Reeves sets up his thematic exploration of the thin line between good and evil, hero and villain, justice and vengeance – all coated in ‘sins of the father’ headfuck. It’s dense, morally challenging and wholly absorbing.
The storytelling moves from that noirish detective work amid seedy streets and murky bars, to a number of spectacular set pieces that befit the genre. On the ground, Pattinson and Wright make a great double act, piecing together clues in whispers, fuelling each other’s paranoia; the action highlights include a breath-taking wingsuit leap from a skyscraper and a car chase that equals Nolan’s in The Dark Knight, the Batman’s pursuit of the Penguin against the freeway traffic in teeming rain, his roaringly turbo-charged car becoming preternatural as it flies through the fire and debris.
And then there’s Selena Kyle (Zoe Kravitz), before she becomes Catwoman, but already slinky, sexy and with an acrobatic skill set. The moment she and Batman cross paths, the sexual chemistry is off the charts. “You gotta a lot of cats,” he observes. “I’ve got a thing about strays.”
Pattinson steps into Christian Bale’s formidable shoes with no problem at all, bringing creepiness and torment to his portrayal, as well as the formidable presence that is a requisite for the role. Dano (below) is persuasively bonkers and terrifying as the Riddler, Colin Farrell a hoot as the Penguin, acting his socks off beneath the layers of make-up that create the villain’s pudgy and scarred features, while channelling some of Robert De Niro’s manic menace; Andy Serkis offers an Alfred with hints of an MI6 background, a steady, far-from-fawning rock who keeps the Wayne’s legacy going while the young heir plays crime fighter.
There are also standout contributions from cinematographer Greig Fraser (whose noirish shadows sometimes give way to beautiful, milky abstraction) and composer Michael Giacchino, whose score alternates between propulsion and romantic melancholy, the latter aided by a telling use of Nirvana’s ‘Something in the Way’.
The film is so visually, aurally, thematically impressive that it’s unfortunate that Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig don’t rein themselves in; at nearly three hours, this is far too long. In fact, it’s around two hours when the plot begins to revolve around itself, over-egg, and the climax (accompanied by the one element that seems culled from Nolan) is not only unnecessary, but feels as though it belongs to a different movie.
That said, it never becomes dull. This memorable Batman really does creep into the shadows of your mind, and stay there.