With continuity in the DC Extended Universe having become so messy that it’s difficult to keep track, Matt Reeves’s new film The Batman keeps things refreshingly simple by steering clear of any connections to the DCEU and – for now, at least – standing alone as another reboot for the Dark Knight. So, after so many other live-action Batman films, what does Reeves bring to the Bat-Table?
When this film begins, Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) has been active as Batman for two years, long enough to become a source of fear for Gotham City’s criminals, and form a tense alliance with police lieutenant Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright). Now he has a new case to deal with, when the mayor of Gotham is murdered by a masked man calling himself the Riddler (Paul Dano), who appears determined to draw Batman into some sort of twisted game. As the Riddler continues to target other city officials, Batman follows the clues and is led deeper and deeper into a complex web of corruption and painful truths.
Clearly trusting that the audience don’t need to see Bruce Wayne’s parents being gunned down for the umpteenth time, Reeves drops us into a point in Batman’s career where he’s established enough to have gained a reputation, but not so established that he’s fully found his feet; the police and public’s general mistrust of him makes for some extra conflict, and he occasionally questions whether he’s really making a difference for the better. The overall plot – Batman’s pursuit of the Riddler and the deeper revelations that this leads to – takes the form of an intriguing crime thriller which grows increasingly complicated as the film progresses, though it’s not too difficult to keep track of the main threads. It’s a long film at nearly three hours, but most of the time it keeps moving at a satisfactory pace. It differs from the likes of The Dark Knight in that it’s very plot-driven and any character exploration or development is kept to a minimum – for the most part, it’s just Batman doing his thing. With this approach, the film is still mostly fulfilling, just not as much as it could have been; maybe Reeves wasn’t sure if he could contribute much new material in terms of exploring who Batman is at his core.
In terms of aesthetics, this film gets live-action Batman just right; there’s no rubber suit or chain-smoker voice here. The Batsuit looks like effective armour, while still retaining the recognisable Batman look. This version makes me think of the Batman from the Arkham video games more than anything else; not just in terms of appearance, but also the array of interesting gadgets that Batman employs specifically for detective work. Gotham City itself appears to be a balance between the modern look of Christopher Nolan and the run-down cesspool of Joker, with a dash of more gothic architecture here and there. The city generates its own grim atmosphere, with the most of the film taking place in the dark, though thankfully it’s never so dark that we struggle to see what’s going on – unless the director intends it that way. I particularly liked one of the early scenes where we see a series of criminals going about their business in Gotham, then fearfully staring into the shadows, half-convinced that Batman could emerge from any of them.
Beforehand, I did have my doubts about Robert Pattinson; as versatile as he undoubtedly is, I wasn’t sure he had the look for Batman or Bruce Wayne. In the event, the latter hardly matters, as Pattinson spends most of his time onscreen in costume (this film is the opposite of The Dark Knight Rises in that regard). He is at least able to pull off Bruce Wayne the brooding recluse well enough, but I’d like to see what he does with Bruce the playboy in future films. In the meantime, Pattinson fits into the Batsuit very nicely, and delivers everything that we expect from Batman as a character: stoic, intimidating, unwilling to let his emotional walls down, and determined to deliver justice whatever the cost to himself.
Paul Dano is a far cry from the traditional green-suited Riddler who lives to fuel his own ego; instead, he’s more of an emotionally unstable basement-dweller, and is certainly volatile and dangerous enough to make for an effective villain. True crime buffs – or fans of David Fincher – will easily recognise the influence of the real-life Zodiac Killer on this version of the Riddler, from his costume to his love of ciphers and cryptically taunting the authorities. All of the side characters play their parts very well: Zoe Kravitz as a cynical and combative Selina Kyle, Jeffrey Wright as a Jim Gordon who is prepared to work with Batman without being able to fully trust him, and Colin Farrell being practically unrecognisable as the Penguin, who manages to be a highlight as one of the side villains.
The Batman is definitely one of the better Batman films – certainly on par with Batman Begins, if not The Dark Knight – and I look forward to seeing what comes next for this version of the character. Rating: 4.5/5.