It’s been ten years since Batman’s last solo adventure in The Dark Knight Rises, with the character since being integrated into the DC Extended Universe as part of the Justice League. The Batman returns him to his Detective Comics roots as more sleuth than superhero and is set during an earlier period, when he’s still a relative rookie and considered a mere vigilante by the Gotham City PD.
The assassination of Gotham’s mayor and other high profile figures provides him with a meaty mystery to solve and a killer to catch – a masked psychopath we all know as The Riddler (Paul Dano), who leaves cryptic cyphers for the Batman pinned to the bodies of his victims.
With the help of Lt. Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), a slinky stranger named Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), and underworld figure Oz (Colin Farrell) – aka the Penguin – the Batman’s investigation sets him on a collision course with his past and the revelation of who really controls the corrupt cesspit that is Gotham City.
“Anyone can be Batman,” notes Christian Bale in The Dark Knight Rises, and this time he’s Robert Pattinson – an initially unpopular choice that led to an online backlash over his Twilight history. Fortunately, Pattinson has since rinsed off the vampire glitter with a series of edgy roles in indie films, and proves a surprisingly good choice.
Director Matt Reeves envisioned Bruce Wayne as possessing “a reclusive rock ‘n’ roll vibe, a cross between Kurt Cobain and Howard Hughes”, and Pattinson certainly fits the Cobain part of the brief – a fact underscored by the inclusion of Nirvana’s Something in the Way on the soundtrack. His Bruce Wayne is a haunted loner who doesn’t really come alive until he puts on the Bat suit, and appears a lot more vulnerable than prior versions of the character.
It could be said that any new Batman is only as good as the villains that surround him, and The Batman delivers the triple threat of Catwoman, The Penguin and The Riddler in new incarnations. But unlike prior films, it manages to avoid being bogged down by the weight of multiple adversaries.
While Kravitz’s Selina Kyle follows a similar arc to Anne Hathaway’s Cat in The Dark Knight Rises, the Penguin has been reimagined as a pockmarked mobster and relegated to a minor role. It’s a makeover that’s far removed from Danny Devito’s flippered grotesque in Batman Returns, although Farrell is also buried under pounds of prosthetics. The movie’s prime antagonist is Dano’s creepy Riddler, who practically steals the film with a twitchy performance that’s part internet nerd, part Zodiac Killer.
From the carnivalesque Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher films to the gravitas of Christopher Nolan, filmmakers continue to put their own stamp on Batman and Reeves conjures a bleak, rain-drenched milieu that evokes both Todd Phillips’ Joker and David Fincher’s Seven (the Riddler’s MO also echoing that film). With a perpetually gloomy, nocturnal sensibility and very few shots in broad daylight, The Batman is literally The Darkest Knight, and it’s a stylistic choice that suits the film’s aspirations.
This isn’t a showy superhero spectacle but rather a slow burn crime-thriller that unfolds over an indulgent three hours. There’s only really one massive special effects set piece, and even staples like the gadgets and Batmobile feel almost incidental – the latter resembling a pimped up Charger with a V8 Interceptor engine.
The Batman may not be the definitive article that the title suggests, but it’s still a gripping and weighty reinvention that pulls the audience into a world that’s simultaneously familiar and fresh, adding footnotes to Batman lore and a cool new incarnation of the iconic hero in Robert Pattinson’s brooding, atypical portrayal.
In cinemas: March 3, 2022
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano
Directed by: Matt Reeves