Director – Matt Reeves – 2022 – US – Cert. 15 – 175m
A reinvention of the popular superhero alongside his iconic villain adversaries in a Gotham City run by corrupt elites and gangsters – out in cinemas on Friday, March 4th; home premiere available to rent from Tuesday, April 19th
The posters for Warner Bros.’ second Batman movie Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1992) announced it with the names of three iconic characters: The Bat, The Cat, The Penguin. They could have done similar here, although The Bat, The Cat, The Penguin, The Riddler doesn’t quite work as an animal-themed slogan. However, The Batman is a very different movie – and not just because of the addition of the Riddler.
Of all the superheroes, Batman is arguably the richest in terms of raw material and its potential for reinvention. This new film is quite unlike the Nolan films which preceded it which in turn is quite unlike the Burton films which preceded them which are quite unlike the art deco animated Batman TV series which in turn is quite unlike the sixties TV series which preceded that.
In movies as in comics, Batman, Gotham City and its accompanying cast of characters appear ripe for reinvention in a way that no other superhero and their world quite does. (A weaker case might arguably be made for Spider-Man, who has now been rebooted several times in the movies, but the difference between each reboot seem less profound than with Batman) In the comics, Batman has been reworked as, among other things, American Civil War combatant and even vampire, the latter in the superlative graphic novel Red Rain which is evoked by one of the posters for the new film with Batman in the rain against a red background. Not that the current film does anything quite so brave (or potentially foolhardy) as recast Batman as a vampire.
The Batman opens with a long, introductory monologue not so much about lurking in the shadows as being the shadows. That applies not only to the Batman but also to the sinister masked figure committing the murders, so the two appear to be linked. The first appearance of Batman (Robert Pattinson) has him step out of the shadows like a brooding, latter-day Harry Lime, rain falling, his heavy boots trudging with a sense of weight and power. The Batman’s first words, in response to a question about who he’s supposed to be: “I am vengeance.”
The whole movie, which runs the best part of three hours, is likewise slow and brooding. It’s not a Burton colourfest against a black backdrop nor is it a Nolan collection of Brutalist action sequences. It’s a detective story, something which resonates with Batman’s roots in Detective Comics (DC). The killer is bumping off the great and the good who turn out, in fact, to be neither: they are a corrupt elite creaming off a healthy take for themselves rather than genuinely serving Gotham City as they purport. They include the mayor, the D.A. (Peter Sarsgaard) and the chief of police (Alex Ferns).
Their lies consequently mark these corrupt characters out as targets for the killer. However, there are a few untainted members of the elite, among them Batman’s alter-ego Bruce Wayne (Pattinson again, with what must be a most irritating strand of hair in his face when the batmask is off), Lieutenant James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), one of the few cops who isn’t corrupt, and (with an election coming up and a lot further down the cast list) mayoral candidate Bella Réal (Jayme Lawson).
There’s a suggestion that Bruce Wayne’s philanthropist father may also have been corrupt, although the script grapples briefly with the moral complexities of this idea, allowing the weight of such things to rest on the shoulders of long serving Wayne butler Alfred Pennyworth (Andy Serkis).
Pattinson’s Wayne/Batman is a shadowy figure, in danger of burning out from a year or so of lurking in the shadows and fighting crime. And he has a third alter-ego, somewhere between the other two, a bike-rider whose garb conceals the Bat-costume beneath. Bruce Wayne familiar playboy socialite is now replaced by a recluse who hangs out in his biker persona looking to transform into Batman and beat up evil-doers on the street or else retreats to the basement of the towering Wayne building, the nearest this gets to a Batcave (although on Wayne’s first retreat there, the rafters throw in a flurry of bats which are, curiously, never seen again).
Perhaps the film’s finest achievement is Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), looking for a girlfriend who works at a nightclub and has gone missing. Kyle wears a tight-fitting, black outfit, carries out nighttime cat burglar exploits and befriends stray cats; the Catwoman in all but name. Outside of Pattinson, Kravitz probably gets the most screen time here and conjures up something of an enigma. She doesn’t fit easily into a clear-cut villain role, she’s considerably more complex.
Penguin (Colin Farrell, unrecognisable under a ton of convincing facial prosthetics) is not the familiar villain of yore but a gangster in a suit, while the Riddler (Paul Dano) dresses not in the traditional green costume adorned with black question marks but rather in something resembling a cross between a radiation suit and a strait-jacket without the restraints, a truly terrifying apparition. Indeed, on the occasions when these characters appear, even more than Selina Kyle, the iconic Gotham characters they represent are not immediately obvious. A wider supporting cast also includes, as a counterweight to the corrupt elites, such gangsters as Carmine Falcone (John Turturro in an extraordinary performance that for once doesn’t feel like the idiosyncratic Turturro we’re used to seeing, but a very different character).
The film arguably outstays its welcome somewhere around the 90 or 120 minute mark (although that may relate in part to the preview screening I attended where the heating was turned up ridiculously high) at which point, on first viewing at least, I found myself ceasing to care. There is however so much to admire here that it’s hard not to forgive it for such excess.
The Batman is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, March 4th;
home premiere available to rent from Tuesday, April 19th.
Trailer: The Bat And The Cat (you may need to turn off subtitles):
Trailer: currently in production: