“The Batman,” directed by Matt Reeves, is not a superhero film. No, not at all. The Batmobile, the tough suit, and the gadgets provided by reliable butler Alfred are all present. And, of course, at the heart of it all is the Caped Crusader himself: brooding, tortured, pursuing his own brand of nightly justice in a Gotham City descending into poverty and ruin.
But in Reeves’ capable hands, everything comes to life and seems fresh. As director and co-writer, he’s taken a familiar storey and turned it into something big, almost operatic. His “Batman” is more reminiscent of a grim 1970s criminal thriller than a soaring and transporting blockbuster. With its fast, unexpected action, it recalls flicks like “The Warriors” as well as one of the genre’s all-time greats, “The French Connection.” And, with a slew of high-profile killings propelling the storyline, it sometimes feels as though the Zodiac murderer is terrifying Gotham’s residents.
Despite these references, this is undeniably a Matt Reeves film.
It’s hard to deny that this is a Matt Reeves picture, despite these references. With “Planet of the Apes,” he succeeds in creating an exuberant, exciting spectacle grounded in true, emotional consequences, just as he did in prior instalments. Not in a satirical or wink-and-tell fashion, but rather by accepting the tradition of the comic book character and examining and reimagining it in a substantial and strong way, this Batman picture acknowledges its own place within pop culture. Writing by Reeves and Peter Craig makes this hero confront his history and his purpose, giving us as viewers a chance to reflect on the myths we believe about our own lives and experiences.
Now that Bruce Wayne has been entrusted to Robert Pattinson, we have a performer who is not only willing but eager to explore the odd and dark tendencies of this character. Nobody here looks like a millionaire’s son or daughter dressed to the nines. Disillusioned and alienated, Travis Bickle is dressed in the Batsuit. He’s been Batman for two years now, and he’s observing criminals from Wayne Tower, a break from the usual expanse of Wayne Manor, which suggests an even greater separation from the rest of the world than before. First voiceover: “They suppose I’m hiding in the shadows,” he adds. Even so, I’m nothing but shadows. In the bright daylight, Pattinson radiates an indie rock star hangover feel. Amidst all of his military gear and eye-black, you can still feel the thrill of his nighttime missions to exact his own form of justice on those who have wronged him.
Almost every role he’s had since “Twilight” made him famous in 2008 has shown that Pattinson is at his best when portraying characters that make you uncomfortable. He’s worked with directors as diverse as David Cronenberg, Claire Denis, and the Safdie siblings since becoming famous for “Twilight.” When it comes to portraying a character with angular features, Robert Pattinson outdoes Christian Bale. There’s a definite electricity in his eyes as he sees Zoe Kravitz as Selina Kyle, slinking down the fire escape in her leather motorcycle gear on her own quest for dark justice: Ooh. Like myself, she’s a bit of an oddball.
Pattinson and Kravitz have incredible chemistry together. Every step of the way, she is his equal, both physically and emotionally. This is no flirtatious, purring Catwoman: she’s a warrior and survivor with a devoted heart and a strong sense of right and wrong. Kravitz, who played the lead in Steven Soderbergh’s high-tech thriller “Kimi,” has continued to demonstrate a ferocious charm and quiet strength.
She’s one of a murderer’s posse of supporting players, all of whom receive hefty roles to play. As the future Commissioner Gordon, Jeffrey Wright is a rare voice of idealism and decency. Carmine Falcone, played by John Turturro, is a low-key terrifying character. As Alfred, Andy Serkis—Caesar in Reeves’ “Apes” films—brings a paternal wisdom and love. Colin Farrell plays the sleazy, diabolical Oswald Cobblepot, better known as The Penguin, and he is nearly unrecognisable. And Paul Dano is downright menacing as The Riddler, whose own need for revenge serves as the story’s backbone. He pushes himself to the limit here, in a manner reminiscent of his astonishing work in “There Will Be Blood.” His craziness is so profound that you may find yourself laughing unexpectedly merely to relieve the stress he causes. But his portrayal isn’t humorous; Dano makes you feel as though you’re seeing a man who’s actually, profoundly distressed.
This is not to argue that “The Batman” is a depressing film; far from it. Despite its over three-hour running duration, this is a picture that is continuously viscerally captivating. The coolest Batmobile yet—a muscular car right out of “Mad Max: Fury Road”—plays a key role in one of the film’s most thrilling moments. It’s an intricate vehicle pursuit and chain-reaction accident that culminates in an upside-down scene of ferocious rage that had me practically
clapping throughout my screening. You can feel every punch and kick during a fight at a thundering nightclub, highlighted by throbbing red lights. (One of the most intriguing aspects of witnessing this superhero in his early days is that he isn’t invincible.) A firefight in a pitch-black hallway lit only by shotgun bursts is both terrifying and dazzling. The soundtrack by experienced composer Michael Giacchino amplifies the intensity of passages like this. Best renowned for his work on Pixar films, he achieves something very different with “The Batman”: it’s percussive and horn-heavy, big and demanding, and you’ll feel it deep in your core.
Working with artists and craftsman at the pinnacle of their skill, Reeves has created a film that is both airy and hefty, solid and impressionistic. Greig Fraser, the Oscar-nominated cinematographer, does the same astounding magic trick he accomplished in Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune”: His vision has a gauziness and a heaviness to it, thanks to the pouring rain and neon lights. His use of shadow and silhouette is superb, conveying a feeling of foreboding and suspense. I could write a whole thesis on the film’s numerous uses of the colour red to convey energy, danger, and even hope. And the excellent Jacqueline Durran’s costume design—with Dave Crossman and Glyn Dillon creating Pattinson’s rough-and-tumble Batsuit—put the finishing touch on the film’s stylish, edgy mood.
Even though it’s not a Batman movie, this is the most beautiful Batman movie you’ve ever seen.