One of the most common criticisms of the DCEU is that they lean too hard into the dark, mature themes of comic book films, making joyless affairs that are often to be endured rather than enjoyed. The Zach Snyder adaptations are often held up as examples of this, but the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy is certainly no picnic, though those are an excellent example of what can be done with a darker tone in defter hands. This brings us to The Batman, the latest iteration of the Dark Knight, this time directed by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Rise of and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), who also co-wrote it with Matt Bomback (who worked with Reeves on the Apes scripts).
Much like the comic books, this is yet another takes on Batman (played here by Robert Pattinson) and Gotham City and its varied and often complex rogues gallery, this time featuring crime kingpin Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), The Penguin (an unrecognizable Colin Farrell), and Selena Kyle/Catwoman (Zoe Kravitz). If you’ve taken issue with the grim, dark tones of the prior Batman films, I’ve got some bad news for you — The Batman takes it to whole new levels. Without even getting to the story, we know right away that this is a lost, hopeless Gotham, beset by criminals and rampant drug problems, festering with corruption so deep that it reaches the marrow. This is a Gotham that seems like it never sees that sun, but instead it’s a fetid, dour monster built of concrete and shadows. This is a Batman who goes out night after night, feeling like nothing gets better, but doing it because he doesn’t know what else to do. This is a Bruce Wayne who spends so much time in his violent nightly endeavors that the daylight itself has started to hurt his eyes.
And it’s absolutely fantastic. The Batman is a rough, brutal gut-punch of a film, scraping by its PG-13 rating just barely (my choice to not bring my nine-year-old son was a very, very good one). It’s gripping and chilling and shrouded in the kind of mystery that keeps its audience riveted to the very end of its (admittedly excessive) three-hour running time. The Batman works in many ways, but in no small part because it’s just that — a mystery. There is bona fide detective work being done and it’s the mystery, not the action, which takes a front seat. Prominent civic leaders have been found murdered throughout the city, their corruptions exposed, and at each scene is a new note, a riddle, for the Batman. And as the film progresses, he — with the either reluctant help of Selina or the resigned help of Detective Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) — hunt down the psychotic Riddler (Paul Dano), while uncovering more and more secrets of the shadowy rulers behind Gotham City.
Perhaps the best part of The Batman is that it’s wholly its own, building on the foundations of writers like Frank Miller and Jeph Loeb, but separating itself from the rest by casting a unique spin on its characters. Bruce Wayne is barely seen in part because he spends so much time as Batman that he no longer has time to be Bruce Wayne. Pattinson is remarkable as the titular Batman, narrating the film with a weighty intensity that is a nice tip of the cap to its comic book roots. He’s tired yet restless, exhausted yet driven, and refuses to quit on a city that seems to have quit on itself. As a somewhat pleasant surprise, this Batman is surprisingly low-tech — sure, he’s got a bulletproof suit and contact lenses that record his every sight, but he’s more often than not on a motorcycle in civvies and a backpack. Because, you see, this Batman doesn’t want to be seen. He lives in the shadows, and it’s that darkness that makes him effective.
The film is a wicked mashup that’s pure, gorgeously rendered pulp. It’s beautifully shot, capturing every sharp angle and plane of the brutalist city and its landscape. Its noirish flourishes are frequent and welcome, feeling like the bastard love child of David Fincher and James Ellroy. This Gotham is dying, but it feels alive on the screen thanks to careful, meticulous set design. It’s compounded by some amazing lighting and an absolute stunner of a soundtrack that is curiously and marvelously intertwined with Nirvana’s “Something In The Way,” a moody, tragic piece that is both played over key scenes and inspires the Michael Giacchino’s engrossingly lush score.
All of this creates an amazing backdrop for some terrific performances. We’ve covered Pattinson, but Kravitz is right there next to him, holding her own as an embittered woman working within the dirty guts of the city, with her own mysteries to solve. Farrell is, if anything, underused, but remarkable physical transformation aside, he shines as the sneering, venal Penguin. Other supporting veterans like Wright (channeling his Felix Leiter vibe here) and Andy Serkis gives an inimitably lovely performance as Alfred. As for Paul Dano’s masked, deranged take on the Riddler, it’s a bracing, terrifying depiction that’s far from anything we’ve seen before, but more than welcome.
Are there flaws? Sure. It doesn’t need to be three hours long, but I confess I didn’t find myself checking my watch, either. Are Pattinson’s long, emo locks of hair distracting? Most definitely. Is it wholly unbelievable — as always — that no one makes the connection between Wayne and Batman? Sure, especially here because seriously, who the hell else has those cheekbones? But that’s truly the worst I can say of The Batman. It’s a hellish fusion of ideas and genres, built on the foundations of some of the best comic book stories but still wholly its own creation, brimming with emotion and angst and tragedy — and yet, this is not a film to be endured. It’s to be enjoyed, for us to relish in its darkness and ride along as it digs deeper into the bloody heart of a broken city, hoping to somehow find life at the end.
Header Image Source: Warner Brothers