There probably isn’t a comic-book character in movie history that’s been reinvented more than Batman. The camp Adam West version of the 1960s TV show, via the Hollywood heroics of Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney, to the more intense incarnation played by Christian Bale for Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Most recently, it’s been Ben Affleck — whose square jaw worked well under the Gotham City crime-fighter’s mask, even if Zack Snyder’s messy films (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League) left the character in the lurch.
Now it’s the turn of Robert Pattinson. The British actor has been on a fascinating arthouse detour since his last blockbuster series, the Twilight vampire chronicles. Films such as High Life for Claire Denis and Good Time for the Safdie Brothers have shown what a fine actor he is.
In Matt Reeves’s The Batman, he nails the character: the physicality, the brooding introspection, the rage, that all turned millionaire orphan Bruce Wayne into Gotham’s costume-wearing crusader. Here, Reeves fashions him like an anonymous antihero, recording his thoughts in a journal.
“The city’s eating itself — maybe it’s beyond saving,” he voiceovers, as a story that spans just a few days cranks into gear on Halloween. Set 20 years on from when Wayne’s parents were murdered, Reeves dispenses with the done-to-death origin story that’s plagued Batman films in the past, though constructs a narrative that winds around Wayne’s own family history in a highly satisfying way.
In a city where the rain rarely stops tumbling, the obvious predecessor is David Fincher’s Se7en, where a morally righteous serial killer looks for vengeance on the sins of the world.
Here, Batman is dragged into a murder case when the body of Gotham’s mayor is discovered bludgeoned to death. As will become revealed, it’s The Riddler (Paul Dano) who killed him — but don’t expect the cartoonish incarnation from the West TV show, when Frank Gorshin wore a suit emblazoned with question marks. Dano’s character does have his own distinct costume, however, a mask with creepy S&M overtones that goes hand-in-hand with his very unhinged performance. His Riddler seems intent on punishing the corrupt officials of Gotham — repeating the mantra “No more lies.”
Leaving Batman handwritten envelopes with greetings cards full of ciphers, it draws him — along with police department staple Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) — into a story that slithers into the Gotham underworld. The mayor’s murder leads them into the path of Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz), who works at The Iceberg Lounge, a nightclub/mob hangout run by The Penguin (Colin Farrell) and his ruthless boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro). There, you’ll find District Attorney Gil Colson (Peter Sarsgaard) high on drugs or narcotics officers on the take.
Kyle, of course, is better known in Batman lore as Catwoman — and while Kravitz’s agile, athletic take on the character carries some of the traits associated with this slinky cat burglar, like so many in this film, Reeves has put a hugely fresh spin on her. While you won’t find her licking Batman’s face, as Michelle Pfeiffer did with Keaton in Batman Returns, she does at least own cats.
“I have a thing about strays,” she tells Batman, hinting that she and him — two loners in the city — are not so different.
No doubt, the best reinterpretation of a familiar character is Farrell, entirely unrecognisable under prosthetics as he gives off the East Coast gangster vibe to The Penguin (no top hat, no cigar, though in a very sly nod to the character, in one scene, he finds his wrists and ankles bound and is left to waddle off screen — like the creature he’s named after). He also takes centre stage in the best action scene — a vividly filmed car chase, filled with tension, that finally sees the emergence of the Batmobile.
Curiously, The Batman leaves little room for alter ego Bruce Wayne, although the few scenes he has are shared with his faithful butler Alfred (Andy Serkis). Reeves is clearly drawing from Frank Miller’s 1987 graphic novel Batman: Year One, on some level — the rookie vigilante who is arguably every bit as terrifying to the Gotham public as the criminals.
“They think I’m hiding in the shadows — but I am the shadows,” he mumbles, in one of dozens of lines that feel ripped out of a 1940s film noir.
Superbly scripted by Reeves (Cloverfield) and Peter Craig, even if you have no interest in Batman, the film works as a satisfying murder-mystery, playing on the original idea from the comics of the character as the “World’s Greatest Detective”. Evocatively scored by composer Michael Giacchino — who is having a hell of a year after Spider-Man: No Way Home — this is a Batman film that puts an indelible stamp on the character.
The result is a triumph: one of the darkest and most compelling comic-book movies of the modern era.
The Batman is in UAE cinemas from March 3