4 out of 5 stars

Matt Reeves directed the excellent Cloverfield (2008), but J.J Abrams’ name was evoked more often for the marketing, meaning Reeves had to cement his own reputation with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) and War for the Planet of the Apes (2017), which capped a sci-fi trilogy few expected to work so brilliantly. And now he’s been handed the keys to the Batmobile, which feels like a mixed blessing. Audiences aren’t exactly hungering for more Batman, as Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021) was released only last year and Christopher Nolan already pivoted away from the camp excesses of Batman & Robin (1997) with his Dark Knight trilogy. Is there anything left to say about an orphaned multi-millionaire who dresses as a bat to fight crime? Has society moved on enough for a fresh take to become apparent? Or is The Batman something of a reheated meal?

The Batman again drops us into the familiar Gotham City, with a few tweaks and hybridisation of past styles. The shadow of Batman Begins (2005) still looms large over the character’s interpretation, in many ways, and The Batman feels like the fourth movie Nolan didn’t make— only with enough of a clean slate to improve on a few things. Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattison) is already a few years into his vigilantism here—so ‘Batman’s Begun’—and he’s made a firm ally with Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) while instilling fear over his mere presence in the criminal underworld. That’s something Batman Begins also tapped into, but The Batman follows through more clearly and makes you feel like robbers and muggers would notice the Bat Signal is on and go scurrying home rather than risk encountering the Caped Crusader.

A more grounded take on the character continues — is it ever going away at this point? — but Reeves brings things to an even more “realistic” level compared to Nolan, who couldn’t resist a certain element of blockbuster fantasy with Bruce having access to high-tech gadgets and prototype vehicles. Here, Batman’s primarily a guy in bullet-proof armour and a cape, with a muscle-car he’s strapped a jet engine to the rear of. Having the fantastical elements reigned in is either refreshing because it gives Batman a stronger connection to “our world”, or a shame because the heightened reality of this universe has been dulled somewhat. It depends on your taste. Personally, I enjoyed seeing a stripped-back version of the character, who’s more often just walking around crime scenes surrounded by suspicious cops who think he’s a lunatic. And he kind of is!

The story itself is perhaps the biggest difference for Batman films, as it has a depth of plotting even the Nolan films didn’t quite reach. When you break down even The Dark Knight (2008), it’s deceptively simple stuff and rather implausible at points, whereas The Batman is more in the vein of David Fincher’s Seven (1995) and Zodiac (2007), with elements of Jigsaw from the Saw franchise thrown in for good measure. Gotham itself even seems to be in a permanent state of rainfall, just like the anonymous city from Seven, which is ironic considering The Penguin (Colin Farrell) never once opens an umbrella.

The headlining villain is The Riddler (Paul Dano), here reimagined as a Zodiac Killer-esque mastermind targeting various Gotham VIPs in the government and police, for unknown reasons, beginning with the mayor. Riddler was rumoured to appear in The Dark Knight Rises (2012), with much the same update away from the cane-twirling goofball of Batman Forever (1995), which is another reason The Batman feels like Reeves simply wanted to see more of those films — and if Nolan wasn’t going to make them, he’d have to.

The mystery fuelling the story is more complex than any previous Batman film, and thus makes excellent use of Batman’s reputation as “the world’s greatest detective” from the comic-books. DC does stand for Detective Comics, lest we forget! Most of the riddles aren’t exactly mind-bending, but the addition of ciphers and the slow reveal about why Riddler is killing certain people, and how it connects to the Wayne family’s legacy, is deftly done. It effectively involves Penguin —who’s a little underserved and it’s not established why he has that nickname —and Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz) as a waitress at the Penguin’s infamous nightclub the Iceberg Lounge. The idea of making Selina a “cat burglar” and Penguin a fat mobster isn’t fresh, but they do give Selina’s a different backstory here, and presumably the announced HBO TV series about The Penguin will flesh out that character better. If The Batman has one unequivocal flaw it’s that a few of the characters are given short shrift, even with a runtime nudging three hours.

Robert Pattison is the most important part of this movie, as everything rests on his portrayal of the eponymous character. And he finds a take on the character that feels different enough from what’s come before. Echoing Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), his Bruce Wayne is more of an oddball recluse who rarely appears in public these days, and grief’s warped his mind so badly that he favours being The Batman and Bruce has become the “mask” he wears to get around in daylight hours. Alfred (Andy Serkis) has raised him to fight and helps with his nightly vigilantism, but there’s a sense he knows he can never be the father figure Bruce lost as a boy, and worries he’s done nothing but enable a damaged young man to act out a dangerous fantasy. Pattison does well as both personas; effectively imposing and physically capable as Batman (with the best cowl yet), and believably weird and socially distant as Bruce. This is certainly the first take on the character where I believe Bruce Wayne needs professional help, and that being Batman is taking a mental toll. I also enjoyed the progression his character goes on here, starting off as a symbol of “vengeance” only interested in striking fear into the hearts of low-life criminals, and ending it as a symbol of hope to help the ordinary citizens of Gotham in their time of need.

The Batman looks fantastic if you don’t mind feeling most scenes were shot through rain-soaked panes of glass, the fights are more brutal than anything Nolan put together, but with a story so fundamentally built around a mystery I’m curious to see what the repeat-value of The Batman will be. A significant part of this movie is just a straightforward crime thriller, with a man dressed up as Batman in many scenes, and there’s less concessions to traditional crowd-pleasing blockbuster action. There’s a Batmobile chase halfway through which is fairly good, even if the geography of what’s happening isn’t crystal clear, and the final act wisely transitions into a disaster scenario Batman’s somewhat powerless to fix — which offers something different.

But most of the best shots or sequences were spoiled in the trailers, and while I can see myself often returning to The Dark Knight trilogy for decades, The Batman feels like something best enjoyed a couple of times and then once you know the story inside-out I’m not sure there’s much else to savour. Pattison is certainly great in this part, but he’s in the same gear all the way through; Alfred is wasted; Penguin didn’t really need to be here (and I’m still confused why the character screamed Colin Farrell to anyone on the page); and Paul Dano was presumably hired to provide some Heath Ledger-esque alchemy as Riddler… but they augment his voice and only show his eyes for most of the film, which does him no favours. The one scene where he’s entirely himself is wonderfully creepy and compelling, too, but that only made me wish the design of Riddler had been adjusted so Dano could’ve brought that type of unhinged performance all the way through. As it stands, he’s intentionally kept an enigma for too long.

Overall, The Batman is certainly a good movie that’s entertaining and involving because of an engrossing mystery. It doesn’t rewrite the rulebook on superhero cinema like Batman managed to, or feel like a breath of fresh air like Batman Begins did, but it takes what worked about Nolan’s iconic trilogy and repackages it into a more stylised Gotham City with a more psychologically scarred Bruce Wayne at its core. Things drag a little in the middle, mainly because the film finds its groove early and doesn’t push to the next level until a climactic sequence that’s over too quickly, but I’m certainly interested to see the inevitable sequels. 

USA | 2022 | 176 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Matt Reeves.
writers: Matt Reeves & Peter Craig (based on characters created from DC).
starring: Robert Pattison, Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano, Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro, Peter Sarsgaard, Andy Serkis & Colin Farrell.