The Batman (2022)
Director: Matt Reeves
Screenwriters: Matt Reeves, Peter Craig
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano, Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro, Peter Sarsgaard, Colin Farrell, Andy Serkis, Jayme Lawson, Alex Ferns
There’s no wrong take on a Batman film – a comic book superhero who has existed for over 80 years can be endlessly mutable after all – but there are many different views on what the lead character should be. He has been a highly moral surrogate father figure (Adam West), a sad outcast (Michael Keaton), a self-destructive martyr (Christian Bale) and a bitter crusader (Ben Affleck). Each new big screen iteration of the Dark Knight has to bring with it a new angle on him, cowl on and cowl off, and this task now falls to Dawn and War of the Planet of the Apes’ Matt Reeves to confidently guide his new Batman out of the dark.
Orphaned billionaire shut-in Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) has been the Batman for two years, venturing out night after night to keep Gotham City’s active criminal element under control. But his task becomes far more complicated with the arrival of the morally ambiguous Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz) and the Riddler (Paul Dano), a depraved serial killer who believes he is on a mission of justice and who threatens to reveal to the world a vast conspiracy implicating Gotham’s law enforcement and the city’s most rich and powerful citizens.
If you had to boil The Batman down to a single idea, you could say that it’s a film about perception; do you see what I see? In almost every scene we see lots of eyes and machines looking, constantly gathering information. While a lot of Batman’s gadgets in this iteration feel more hand-crafted and purely functional (no Lucius Fox to act as Batman’s problem-solving quartermaster here), one of the more useful tools he employs are high-tech contact lenses that allow him to peruse/obsess over all the evidence he has recently gathered at a later date. Batman, Riddler and Catwoman are always watching someone, waiting for their moment, and Pattinson actively builds it into his performance, eyes behind his cowl darting around his surroundings to gather precious intel for his investigation.
This is a compelling three-hander mystery for Bats, Catwoman and Lieutenant Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) to solve. The detective angle of Batman’s character usually gets the short shrift in the movies over his tendency to punch first and ask questions later, this aspect of his character having appeared far more prominently in video games like the ‘Arkham’ series, which makes sense as that medium makes you an active participant in the sleuthing and not just a passive observer waiting for Bats to work it all out. It’s refreshing to see Batman not have to go it completely alone in this story, utilising his associates’ various strengths to gain a distinct advantage over his prey, and it’s no real surprise that the trio of Pattinson, Kravitz and Wright are the performance highlights here, feeling like their characters stepped straight off the page to start disagreeing with each other’s methodologies.
If Pattinson goes low-key, almost disappearing into himself completely as he internalises Bruce Wayne’s pain, Paul Dano more than fills up his space on screen. Riddler is a villain for the times, the film asking what if the Jigsaw Killer dressed like the Zodiac Killer then started shilling for his morally questionable followers online? It’s not subtle who this unpleasant online personality is supposed to be an analogue for, his unhealthy obsession with certain topics and his unwavering view that the world should look and work a certain way is halfway between toxic fanboy and QAnon conspiracy theorist. Dano is really good at this kind of showy role and we’ve seen him do it before, his work here contrasting that of Colin Farrell, who is unrecognisable under seamless prosthetics and accent as the canny, wisecracking Penguin.
It doesn’t rain but it pours in Gotham City, the most atmospheric of weather reflecting sickly neon and drenching some of Glasgow’s (the new Gotham filming location’s) bleakest of Gothic architecture. We probably spend more time on the ground in the slum streets compared to any previous Batman movie, which gives ample time for the city to develop a character all its own and for the grime to really seep into your bones. The lensing of cinematographer Greig Fraser (Rogue One; Dune) is pristine here, his graphically striking shot construction incorporating illuminating light and impenetrable darkness to great thematic effect, especially during the big set pieces.
There is nothing slick or appealing about the fight scenes in this film; this is brutal, nasty violence with consequences, and you’re constantly on edge thinking that Batman may, however unintentionally, take things too far and finally cross that line. Pretty much the first thing we see him do in costume is beat a criminal to a pulp in front of said criminal’s gang, and he really leans into the intimidating aspect of his presence, his voiceover referencing the fact that in this universe, the Bat Signal isn’t just to alert him that he’s needed, but to warn criminals when he’s active – it’s a siren, or an alarm. Batman’s arc in The Batman is his journey from horror movie monster to later becoming a particularly theatrical first responder.
There are quite a few references, both subtle and explicit, to some big Batman stories from the last couple of decades in the comics and video games – everything from “The Long Halloween” to ‘Batman: The Telltale Series’ for fans to spot – but this isn’t a direct adaptation of any one of them. Reeves’ Batman is very much its own thing, taking influence from a variety of sources whether they be previous Batman stories, David Fincher features or noir films, Pattinson’s whispery voiceover even bringing to mind Zack Snyder’s Watchmen (though this is a far more positive portrayal of a superhero operating in a grounded universe).
There are surprises aplenty here, and not just from the plot turns, which perhaps result in at least one twist/setup too many in the final act. Lovers of a certain kind of Batmobile will have the biggest of grins etched on their faces during one of the film’s key action scenes, which goes a way to make up for the fact that the big finale maybe isn’t quite as exciting as it should be.
The famous line “I am vengeance” takes on a whole new and more powerful implication in Matt Reeves’ The Batman. It is used as a recurring gag by Selina Kyle and the Penguin, but it also carries a poignant new meaning for this reclusive, obsessive Bruce Wayne as he skirts the abyss. Between its well-judged performances, searing visuals and oppressive atmosphere, plus some of the richest, most nuanced and mature work in composer Michael Giacchino’s career to date, The Batman has emerged as a bold and distinct new vision of the Caped Crusader.