Ever since Christopher Nolan broke the bank with 2008’s The Dark Knight, the onscreen Batman story has struggled. Nolan’s sweeping, post-9/11 crime drama redefined what superhero cinema could be, and subsequent attempts to envision the character have failed to live up to the hype. In the past ten years, three different directors have helmed cinema of the Batman mythos, from Zack Snyder (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) to Joss Whedon (taking over for Snyder on Justice League) to Todd Philips (Joker), all of whom have failed in their attempts. The results ranged from Snyder’s incoherent mess of a film to Phillips’ morally disreputable trash heap — all have failed to live up to Nolan’s grandeur.
With The Batman, a grimy, action-packed detective story, director Matt Reeves has thankfully brought the character back to earth. Featuring a brilliant cast of Hollywood stars, a well-spent $200-million budget, and actual ideas to bring to the table, The Batman is one of the best superhero movies of recent years. Despite being a bit overlong, Reeves has delivered a captivating neo-noir for the ages, and possibly the most essential Batman movie ever put to celluloid.
Set two years into his crimefighting career, Robert Pattinson’s Batman is fresh on the job, and filled with more rage than any Batman to date. In a rain-drenched Gotham City that oozes putridity at every turn, such an attitude only makes sense. The atmosphere is stunningly filthy, crammed with crooked cops, sleazy clubs, and violent thugs every which way. Never before has the existence of a terrorizing vigilante in a bat costume felt so authentic.
Pattinson and his emo hairstyle bring a genuinely fresh take to the billionaire superhero, with the high-tech gadgetry of earlier films replaced by fists of fury. At several instances, the Batman beats down thugs to the brink of death. His punches are harsh, the results squirm-inducing. Yet where the Batman’s presence explodes through brick walls, the character of Bruce Wayne hardly exists. Barely any screen time is given to the wealthy playboy, revealing a Bruce Wayne who has yet to develop a functioning public image for himself—his identity is, in the meantime, trapped behind his mask of terror.
Paul Dano’s Riddler — a disenfranchised Twitch-streamer with a penchant for Trumpian rhetoric — matches the Dark Knight’s brutality with his own intricately-planned murders, à la David Fincher’s Seven. Most of the film follows the Batman’s investigations in classic detective fashion, aided by a front-and-center Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright, bringing welcome integrity). Zoë Kravitz’ Catwoman soon gets caught up in the mix, reluctantly working with the Batman with a personal vendetta against Gotham’s criminal underworld. A sprawling narrative soon emerges involving The Penguin (an unrecognizable Colin Farrell) and Carmine Falcone (John Turturro playing Don Vito Corleone with an evil laugh). Gotham City’s endemic corruption eventually ties back to these characters, as does the source of The Riddler’s fury. “No More Lies,” he writes on the duct-taped mouths of his corrupt victims.
Excepting Andy Serkis, who is horribly underutilized as Bruce Wayne’s trusted butler Alfred, every star receives due screen time and characterization, even as the plot points are sometimes muddled. At two hours and fifty-six minutes, The Batman could have done with some trimming. But even so, at no point does the film feel as long as it actually is, largely due to the cat-and-mouse duet between Batman and the Riddler.
Reeves, for his part, is engaging in impressively relevant commentary about the radicalizing processes of the internet, loss of trust in state authorities, and the emasculated disenfranchisement of white men. Just as The Dark Knight did in 2008, exploring terrorist paranoia in the age of the War on Terror, The Batman knows the foremost political anxieties of its own time.
While The Dark Knight remains a superior film, The Batman may very well be the better Batman story. Its shadowy, rank, and decrepit Gotham City feels far more connected to its comic book roots than any Batman film ever has. With a twist ending that makes rather brave comments about the dangers of alienated, rifle-bearing young men, Reeves has succeeded in making a superhero film that is attuned to both comic-book ridiculousness and contemporary social concerns. A substantial achievement, indeed.
The Batman is currently in Cinemas across Edinburgh.
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