It’s amazing how much the movie franchise arcs of Marvel and DC have mirrored their storied histories on the comic book front. DC’s got the characters and the classic storylines, but misses the cohesive build-up of a connected universe. For years, Marvel struggled to find its footing with no substantial cinematic presence, while DC had its fits and starts of zeitgeist-grabbing films with 1978’s “Superman: The Movie” and 1989’s “Batman”, directed by Tim Burton. As the 2000s have led into the 2010s, Marvel/Disney has reigned supreme, with the exception of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy in the middle there. Now it seems DC/WB is embracing the disjointed nature of its “multiverse” by creating standalone features that bear the unique visions of their creative teams, like James Gunn’s “The Suicide Squad” and now Matt Reeves’ “The Batman”, starring Robert Pattinson in the titular role (maybe the secret is just putting a “The” before the title).
“The Batman” is a take on the character that has surprisingly never been realized on the big screen before, despite being deeply rooted in comics lore. Pattinson’s Batman is in his second year of crime fighting within a distinctive Gotham City mired in grime, crime, and corruption. The film opens effectively with a misdirect that thankfully eschews the typical origin story audiences have seen time and time again. It’s Halloween, raining, and the Bat signal lights the sky menacingly, coupled by a droning hard-boiled voiceover and a four bass note score that immediately puts one on edge. This is a brutal specter of vengeance and retribution, all but devoid of heroism in any traditional sense. The narrative moves through what amounts to a true detective story, a hunt for a serial killer, cribbing the visual and aural language of film noir through the years, along with some of the most memorable Batman tales like Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s “Year One” masterpiece. The surprises and performances only evolve from this auspicious beginning with a talented roster of stars and character actors.
Pattinson is surrounded by a coterie of players who enrich and elevate this particular iteration of the Batman. First and foremost is Zoe Kravitz’s Selina Kyle. Although she is never really referred to as Catwoman, she completely nails the essence of the oft-portrayed cat burglar / semi-ally / semi-nemesis to Bruce Wayne. Her Cat is confident, lithe, slinky, smart, fully capable, and the perfect foil/complement to the Bat, with whom the chemistry is palpable. Unfortunately she’s also saddled with the film’s clunkiest exposition in one scene that otherwise exudes the unspoken connection between these characters, yet still Kravitz makes it work. Other notable supporting cast members are, an unrecognizable Colin Farrell as the Penguin, doing his best gangster lilt as the number two to John Turturro’s oddly charming sleazy mob boss Carmine Falcone, who has ties to Kravitz’s Selina Kyle. There’s Jeffery Wright’s Lt. James Gordon, the incorruptible cop who sees the potential of the strange vigilante’s crusade. Even Peter Sarsgaard shows up in a small but pivotal role. It’s a shame though that so little time is spent with Andy Serkis’ rendition of Alfred, but his regretful relationship with Bruce is intriguing.
The main villain of the piece is a vastly unique take on The Riddler, as compared to previous extremely campy iterations like Jim Carey in “Batman Forever” or Frank Gorshin in the Adam West 1960s’ Batman series. It’s best left to experience oneself, but suffice it to say that Paul Dano gets at the Zodiac-killer influenced version of the character, who believes he’s righteously exposing the sins of the elite. He’s an aggrieved individual that represents the rot at Gotham’s core, dimly lit, his flak green mask and plastic wrapped head appearing almost black and white as he hides in the shadows. His signature accompaniment is the distinctive sound of duct tape pulling off its roll and tearing, which will no doubt forever haunt audience dreams. Like Ledger’s Joker from “The Dark Knight”, he’s incomplete if he’s not bouncing off his nemesis Batman, but this Riddler also acts as a dark reflection of the unhinged protagonist.
When Robert Pattinson was announced as the newest actor to embody the cape and cowl, one could almost hear the collective groan of fans, similarly to the way in which Michael Keaton’s casting resonated over thirty years ago. Like Keaton though, Pattinson brings a singular interpretation of the icon. His rendition is almost completely devoid of humanity, so much so that he barely plays as his alter ego. He broods to the point of agony, the eye black he wears under his mask streaming down his face, Nirvana’s classic “Something In the Way,” being his own private theme song. This could all threaten to play as parody of self-serious comic book fare, but director Reeves and his star are so committed to the bit they pull it off masterfully. In hindsight, there was only one actor who could even begin to bring Reeves’ vision to bear, one whose previous franchise stint as a vampire fully prepared him to play another nocturnal denizen. Here’s to a hopefully long stint in the role if this bunch of creatives can keep turning out future installments as compelling as this one . . .
Directed By: Matt Reeves
Written By: Peter Craig & Matt Reeves
Running Time: 175 min.
* * * 1/2 (out of 4 stars) -OR- A-