The theater goes cold as the lights dim. Following the disturbing sight of a political figure being taken away from his family by a vicious serial killer, we are introduced to the seedy, damp and dreary landscapes of Gotham City, accompanied by deeply introspective narration by an eyeliner-clad, incognito Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson), and the sight of muggings, robberies and vandalism, acts that have too comfortably acquainted themselves with a city that’s slowly eating itself from the inside out. These opening 8 minutes set the stage for The Batman, a gritty, grim and harrowing film from director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In, Planet of the Apes films) revolving around its titular protagonist attempting to track the enigmatic, murderous Riddler, whose actions subsequently unearth a long-hidden depth of corruption that directly has ties to the history of the seemingly wealthy and philanthropic Wayne family. Using such a premise where nobody is to be trusted and where Batman himself may be in the position of a not-too-reliable narrator, the film seeks to psychoanalyze not just Bruce Wayne, but the environment from which he was produced.
Despite its namesake originating from the pages of Detective Comics dating back to 1939, Reeves and co. haven’t as much derived from just the pages initially illustrated by writer/artist Bill Finger, as they have turned towards staples of the New Hollywood era and beyond, particularly film noir classics such as Chinatown, The French Connection and the works of David Fincher such as Zodiac and Se7en. The biggest impression this film makes as the latest in a long line of comic book-based media, is that despite its unwavering faithfulness to said source material, the film itself seems more interested in homaging the film noir greats of yesteryear. Gotham City is the best it’s ever looked in live action; a murky, labyrinthine metropolis that’s almost exclusively shown during the peak of nightfall or just as a new day dawns, yet never loses its toxic color palette, an almost nauseating and hypnotic mixture of deep oranges, melancholic blues and bloody reds. It’s similarly populated by a diversely colorful cast of heroes and rogues that in of themselves, imply a lengthy history of corruption and moral divide within its fractured society.
At the center of this murder mystery is fittingly, The Batman, who has perhaps received his best adapted characterization outside of animated works in this particular film. In favor of toning down the street brawling and high-octane chases in the Batmobile, this iteration of the character derives considerably more from the source material’s early roots in noir and pulp fiction, particularly drawing inspiration from quintessential Batman stories such as Frank Miller’s seminal Batman: Year One, the similarly structured murder mystery and police procedural drama found in Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween & Dark Victory, and the psychological deconstruction present in Darwyn Cooke’s Batman: Ego & Other Tails, whose respective narratives were less about the fisticuffs and instead emphasized the forensics and investigative elements of their crime scenes. Matt Reeves opts to display the character’s psyche and calculating demeanor through an emphasis on physical movement. Multiple scenes featuring the Caped Crusader are punctured with simple actions such as Batman himself pacing around crime scenes, examining relevant objects, and only saying but a few words to advance an ongoing investigation. The film eschews depicting the famous origin story of Bruce Wayne losing his parents to a low-life mugger in Crime Alley, instead exploring how those events have had a deep effect on Bruce’s mental state and neverending devotion to eradicating Gotham’s criminal element, a mission at risk of turning into an unhealthy obsession with an unachievable goal. Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne has been a subject of mild divisiveness, particularly for being considered too “emo” of an interpretation for a character otherwise associated with the facade of a careless, irresponsible and charismatic socialite. However, the film’s timeline and specific character progression commits to this deviation in a way that not only owns the direction taken with Wayne himself, but by the end of the film, justifies it by presenting a story of a man learning to break out of a poisonous cycle of blind vengeance, and his compulsion to invoke fear within the general populace, maturing on his first step to becoming the respected hero he is at present in the comics. Pattinson’s performance is remarkably reserved if not outright silent, yet simple motions such as staring directly at an orphaned child to share in and relate to his anguish, or looking onto the city skyline as the Bat-Signal pierces the clouds once more, are just some minor examples of how captivating his take on the “World’s Greatest Detective” is, and how visually and directorially distinct it is from prior cinematic interpretations. It’s a perfect template for showing as much as possible without outright telling.
Joining him in the new Gotham is Zoë Kravitz (Dope, Kimi), succeeding celebrated actresses such as Michelle Pfeiffer and Anne Hathaway in portraying Selina Kyle, depicted in the film as still on the path of growing out her claws and becoming the feline femme fatale, Catwoman. Kravitz brings a seductively charismatic and playful energy to the role, displaying excellent on-screen chemistry with the comparatively unphased and emotionally closed-off Batman portrayed by Pattinson, yet slowly begins to reconnect with her vulnerability and compassion as the film progresses, coupled with well-threaded revelations regarding her history. The cast is further complemented by its showcasing of the formative rogues gallery, this time spearheaded by the sadistically calculating serial killer the Riddler, played by Paul Dano (Prisoners, Wildlife). Dano’s take on the character presents a considerably more disturbed and conniving vision for the green-clad genius contrasted with the highly animated, eccentric, Golden Age-esque version of the character portrayed by Jim Carrey in Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever. This interpretation derives more closely from the character’s contemporary characterizations, depicting a man distressed by the city’s fall into corrupted hands, being manipulated and puppeteered by people in positions of power. Thus, donning an attire evocative of the real life Zodiac Killer, he seeks to eliminate everyone with a name to their ethically questionable actions, including targeting Bruce Wayne himself, for whom he has particular distaste given his family’s history. Dano lends a commanding presence, often unpredictable in his mannerisms, as he bounces from methodically menacing, to vocally assertive and jittery, breathing life into the character’s insecurity and mental instability. He perfectly captures the core essence of Riddler’s ultimate objective: vying to be the smartest man in the room, and ultimately folding when he’s faced with the reality of being in over his head. Joining Pattinson, Kravitz and Dano are several supporting characters from the comics, including the smoothly spoken crime lord Carmine Falcone and his second-in command, the physically disfigured, rising mob boss Oswald “Oz” Cobblepot, a few waddles away from becoming the monocle-adorned weapons dealer, the Penguin. Both respective performances from John Turturro and Colin Farrell are on top form with the rest of the cast, with Farrell in particular being a source for the film’s organically applied use of dark humor, as well as some of the more exaggerated theatricality that evokes the essence of the source material, definitely helped by the jaw-dropping makeup and prosthetics application on the actor from the top-class makeup team.
The cast’s performance and accompanying narrative are tied together with vibrant cinematography from the recently Academy Award-winning Greig Fraser (Dune), who paints a picture of seediness and despair behind the camera, with shot compositions that look like they could’ve been penciled and inked within the pages of a DC graphic novel from the mid-late 1990’s, joined by a mesmerizingly atmospheric and haunting score from Michael Giacchino (Up, Ratatouille, various Marvel Cinematic Universe films), whose Batman theme has instantly joined the iconic greats of Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer’s scores for their respective Caped Crusaders. There is but a single, extremely minimal complaint I have with an otherwise superbly paced film. Despite its absolute best effort to remain self-contained and standalone, a single scene placed near the end of the film did come off as out of place, and sudden in its execution. It may not be a post-credits scene, as the movie doesn’t actually have one, but if it were any other comic book-based movie, it probably would’ve served that function. Otherwise however, these characters are all expertly placed in a gripping, engaging noir tale that takes surprising liberties with what the more seasoned veteran fans will come to expect given the conventions associated with the character, further helped by the engrossing set and costume design which bring to life a Gotham City that both feels down-to-earth and tangible, but also iconically gothic and heightened in its presentation, making it as much of a character as the people who inhabit it.
Overall, it is admittedly very hard to find elements of the film to actively dislike, or qualms to nitpick. This is an excellent first step into a new Batman world, one that is stripped of the grounded, symbolic and cerebral aesthetics present in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy, or the uber-gothic architecture of Tim Burton’s Gotham City. As someone who’s been more partial to a sizable amount of the character’s animated filmography due to hewing closer towards the core elements of the comics compared to the live-action adaptations, I am personally satisfied that I can confidently say that The Batman is as close to a definitive live-action Batman film as I could’ve possibly hoped for. It may lack the prestige that came with Christopher Nolan’s more cognitive and spiritual exploration of the character, but it makes up for it ten-fold by being the first theatrically released film since 1993’s Mask of the Phantasm to truly capture every minute aspect of what I liked reading on the page, without skimming out on finer details. The Batman is certainly fitting, because it did do its namesake justice.