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Review: The Batman – “Scenes of fantastic cinematic spectacle.”

The Batman is back.  Solid, at times stunning, if not as bold as we may have hoped.  Reeves and Pattinson are safe hands to guide the future of this beloved hero.

We’ve avoided spoilers as much as possible in this review, but caution advised as always.

The Batman movie franchise is a poisoned chalice.

Anyone creating a film featuring the Dark Knight must do so in the colossal shadow of The Greatest Superhero Film Ever MadeTM.  While Bruce Wayne has appeared briefly in films by David Ayer and Todd Phillips since 2012, the director most strongly associated with the character since Christopher Nolan gave up the reins is Zack Snyder.  Reactions were… polarized.  We’re not getting into that debate here.

Now, ten years A.N.  (After Nolan), Matt Reeves, best known for his entries in the renewed Planet of the Apes franchise, has picked up the Bat-gauntlet, with Robert Pattinson, formerly a spangly vampire, as his leading man.  It was a controversial choice, but it’s become a running joke that the public never likes who gets cast as the Bat.  Even Christian Bale was controversial at the time in some quarters, as this (paywalled) article demonstrates.  This character is 83 years old.  Everyone has an opinion.

Early trailers for The Batman gave rise to mixed feelings.  It was a long time coming, with Ben Affleck originally writing and directing before leaving or being bumped for Reeves.  The talk was always about leaning into ‘The World’s Greatest Detective’ angle of this Detective Comics (DC) character and while trailers supported that, they were also so dark they bordered on muddiness, and they used a remix of Nirvana’s ‘Something in the Way’ as the soundtrack, following an irritating tradition of remixes or covers of favourite songs started by The Social Network trailer and done to death ever since.  While the fact that Pattinson’s eyes were blacked with makeup made perfect sense (every Batman must have done it, guys) some jumped on it as a sign we were getting ‘The Emo Batman.’

Well, that’s silly.  Say what you like about shiny vampires, but anyone who’s seen Good Time, or The Lighthouse knows Pattinson is a talented, courageous actor.  Seeing him beat a thug into a broken, whimpering puddle before growling, ‘I’m vengeance,’ should have convinced.  It also shone a bright Bat-Signal illuminating respect for cherished canon .

He’s joined by a great cast: Zoe Kravitz, Paul Dano, Jeffrey Wright, Andy Serkis, Colin Farrell, and John Turturro among others.  The story does emphasise his detective skills, although it’s debatable how successfully.  Dano, as a darkly deranged take on the Riddler, sets traps in the style of Seven or the Saw series and taunts Batman to solve his twisted clues.  This leads into a much bigger story involving Gotham’s organised criminals (including one Oswald Cobblepot, aka The Penguin, played by an unrecognisable Farrell channelling Robert DeNiro), endemic corruption, Catwoman and a deeply personal journey for Bat-Bruce.

Comic wise, it takes its clearest direction from Zero Year or Year One (despite being explicitly set in year two), which is refreshing.  Both the origin story and The Dark Knight Returns have been overused at this point.  Visually it recalls both the Arkham games series in its visualisation of Gotham and The Animated Series in some of its cinematography choices, particularly around the action scenes.  There are a lot of facial close-ups and blurring and dissolving, which also succeeds in giving it a comic book feel.  Cinematographer Greig Fraser is Hollywood’s go-to guy right now, having also been DoP on Dune.  Misgivings about the look of the trailer were misplaced.  Visuals are strikingly different from rival superhero efforts.  The nights shown in this film belong, unmistakably, to the Bat.

This visual sense of manic danger is amplified by the sound and music.  Michael Giacchino’s tolling score pulses with menace and dread and feels destined to become as iconic as those of Hans Zimmer and Danny Elfman.  Batman’s footsteps crash with the relentless, unstoppable intensity of a classic movie monster.  Much of this is a street-level story, and we’re left in no doubt of the vast cloak of panic surrounding the vigilante.  Bad men are rightly terrified of the violently unhinged shadow stalking them through the night.

One other note on the score, the Nirvana track is used diegetically.  Since we’re told it’s been 20 years since Bruce’s parents were murdered, it makes sense that a ten-year-old would have been listening to Nevermind back in 2002.  In any case, Giacchino has been quoted as saying how well the rhythm of the track matched his score.

Fear is in the DNA of this film, from the opening to the chilling climax. Where The Batman is strongest is understanding that fear is both the driver and the tool of its hero.  Of course, this was the theme of Batman Begins back in 2005 but there it was more on the nose.  There are moments here when it feels like the most authentic movie take on the character yet.

However, the similarity to Nolan’s films is also the movie’s greatest weakness.  It seems likely that some reviews are going to write this off as a Nolan clone, or at least an overcorrection from Snyder.  There is a lot here which echoes the Dark Knight trilogy.  Riddler’s crazed videos are like the Joker’s in The Dark Knight itself.  The emphasis on organised crime is another big similarity, and while the comic inspiration and the arc of the character require it, many viewers have no interest in that and will be there only as cinemagoers.  The earnest setting of the film in an appreciably ‘real’ world was another Nolan trademark.  Kravitz’s Selina Kyle could be the best screen version so far, but from her safe cracking to her young charge, many will find it hard to draw a line between her and Anne Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises.  Similarly, an explosive plot echoes Bane in that film.   Worst of all, a final reel choice feels like a major, hackneyed misstep.

This is also very much Batman’s movie, not Bruce Wayne’s, who barely figures.  At one point, it felt like we might be getting a kind of Bruce Wayne origin story, and while that was not to be, there are certainly hints that a sequel may take that path.  And yes, it’s long.  Five minutes short of three hours.  That will concern some more than others, and taken together, these two facts summarise the second great strength and weakness of the movie.

To paraphrase the League of Gentlemen, this is a Batman movie for Batman people.  The more immersed in this character you are, the more comics you have read, the more series and films you’ve watched, the more you are likely to love this.  More casual viewers are likely to be put off by a lot of it.  Reeves and Pattinson have worked hard to give the hardcore fans a treat.  Some will walk out of this elated, and since every generation deserves a new Batman, some may even claim this as the finest live-action Batman to date.  Neutrals may well find the whole thing a bit of a bum-numbing ‘meh.’

There are absolutely scenes of fantastic cinematic spectacle here.  One fight, where a Terminator-like Batman relentlessly rips his way through a group of gunmen lit only by the muzzle flash of their hopeless attempts to stop him, is spectacular.  Moreover, the new Batmobile is a thing of beauty, cleaving closer to the adored Batman ’66 version than any since.

Does it step out of the towering shadow of The Dark Knight trilogy?  No.  Does it do enough to earn a sequel?  Definitely.  But here’s where the poisoned chalice becomes even more lethal.

Pattinson is keen to bring The Court of Owls to the screen in a sequel, but whatever he and Reeves choose to do, they’ll be going toe to toe with The Dark Knight at that point, so they damned well better bring their A-game.

This is The Batman we need right now.  The sequel may well give us the one we, and this wonderful character, deserve.

The Batman is released in cinemas on Friday March 4th.

Check out Geek Graffiti for more of my work.

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