Darker turns in the city of nightmares
The habit of adding a definite article to Bob Kane’s indestructible crime fighter dates back to the character’s origins at the start of World War II. In recent years, however, it has acted as an indicator that current Guardians want us to take a Batman particularly seriously. Indeed, Matt Reeves the Batman mourns the recreational nihilism — driving rain, dimly lit alleys, rumbling dialogue — that never goes out of style with less cuddly teenagers. If only staying in school was so cool. Amirite, mom and dad?
Robert Pattinson adapts well to the swing towards adolescent existentialism. RPatz is actually older than Christian Bale when that actor took over the role in 2005, but, with his dark eyeshadow and rattail bangs, the current Bruce Wayne looks like a youngster by comparison. It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that he relaxes playing bass for Cauldron of Spit or My Stygian Afternoons.
The Batman is almost entirely joke-free, but even its staunchest proponents will find themselves snickering at all the smugness at times. That’s not to say, however, that Reeves’ film doesn’t own and occupy its chosen environment. Indeed, it’s the most thoughtful outing for the caped crusader since Christopher Nolan’s enduring The Dark Knight from 2008.
It helps that, rather than bothering with origin stories, Reeves and Peter Craig’s screenplay imagines a corrupt Gotham City already awash with allies and familiar villains. The film could not be described as vaguely naturalistic. The villains are further removed from the chic of the big top, however, than in any previous big-screen incarnation. The Riddler (Paul Dano) is a dirty conspiracy theorist in a combat jacket. Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz) has sleek glamour, but she hides her features with a modified balaclava rather than a peek-a-boo fetish mask. As you probably already know, the unrecognizable Colin Farrell plays the Penguin as a violent, deformed slob in an everyday costume. It’s unclear why Reeves hired Farrell rather than a proper out-of-form slob, but no one could fault his performance or the effectiveness of the prosthetics.
The Batman differs from previous film incarnations in its commitment to a more traditional mystery plot and its engagement with contemporary cynicism about power structures. The vision of society in Nolan’s films was hardly sunny, but here the crazed villains and flawed heroes seem to agree on the system’s irremediable poison. Catwoman, still Selina Kyle by day, dabbles in drugs and burglary. The Riddler sits somewhere between the urban terrorist and the Zodiac Killer. The Batman seems constantly tormented by his own addiction to revenge. There are no big ideas, but there is, at least, an acknowledgment that many potential viewers will now see the Wayne Dynasty as – the phrase actually appears – “white privileged assholes”. These themes unfold as Batman and Lt. James Gordon (the ever-sounding Jeffrey Wright could hardly be a better fit) expand the search for a serial killer into an investigation into widespread corruption.
Reeves and his collaborators have mastered their aesthetics perfectly. Using red neon as an accompanying motif to the endless nocturnal black, cinematographer Greig Fraser, currently Oscar-nominated for Dune, alludes to the most intriguing nightmares of Gaspar Noé’s films. There’s been some talk beforehand about the relentlessness of the violence, but, for the most part, the fights lean towards ballet and bloodless. Michael Giacchino’s score in no way lightens the tone by working in variations on Gounod’s Ave Maria.
Despite all that confidence, The Batman ends up losing the race on his own. Bulking the runtime by almost three hours, the story, while well-crafted, has ideas above its humble station. We want the strings to be taut. We aspire to just a bit of lightness. There is every reason to believe, however, that the definitive article version will work and will work.
Released March 4