Of all the superhero characters featured in the onslaught of DC/Marvel films released every eight minutes, Batman is the exception, at least in the mind of this indifferent reviewer. He has no narratively convenient special powers, apart from his ability to survive a ludicrous onslaught of otherwise fatal injuries (which is a Hollywood problem, not solely a comic book movie problem). His reclusive vigilante persona also lends itself to more nuanced film adaptations than the dross spewed forth by his nauseatingly virtuous and hyper-patriotic counterparts. Matt Reeves understands this, and consequently his adaptation of The Batman is a blistering, gritty and visceral take on the genre’s most interesting antihero.
The story will be of little revelation to anyone familiar with his previous outings. In a thoroughly corrupt Gotham City (this time represented by NYC), Bruce Wayne’s alter-ego (Robert Pattinson) stalks the dark and shadowy streets, waiting to exact his vengeance on unsuspecting criminals. High profile political figures start turning up dead, left accompanied by cryptic cyphers personally addressed to The Batman. After Riddler (a terrifying and unhinged Paul Dano) takes credit for the sadistic, psychopathic killings, it becomes clear that Wayne has a personal connection to the motivation behind them and must stop him before he reveals his identity and takes down the whole city. Familiar pawns like Selena Kyle/Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz) and Oz Cobblepot/Penguin (an unrecognisable and hilarious Colin Farrell) take their place on the chessboard, but the way they both move and are moved seems unique to Reeves’ treatment.
The Batman was made for people like me. Essentially, it perfects everything I like about superhero films (well-choreographed action sequences and...nope, that's it), dispenses with all the stupid junk (everything else — ‘entertaining’ doesn’t have to mean ‘funny’) and frames it with a thriller sensibility. Simply put, if all superhero films were like this one, I’d watch them. Riddler’s chilling first appearance and subsequent kill is right out of the horror playbook — the moment is greeted with groans of realisation around the cinema as people notice him at different times, a la Toni Collette’s spider-hang reveal in Ari Aster’s Hereditary. Reeves also employs a couple of jump scares more expertly than a lot of thriller/horror directors who trade in them regularly. Both are assisted by excellent sound design — the first is diegetic and totally legit, which earns him the right to use a loud string sting later in the film.
Michael Giacchino’s score is easily the best offering of his career. Danny Elfman’s previous work is still iconic and probably the definitive Batman soundscape, but Giacchino’s simple two-note theme is so efficient and does a lot of tonal heavy lifting throughout. Even more effective still is his genius treatment of Schubert’s Ave Maria melody, which becomes an indelible part of the sonic tapestry once the characters first hear it — it’s almost always there somewhere. The score is a masterclass in heightening atmosphere, subtle foreshadowing, and character development.
Fans will be understandably territorial about their favourite Batmen. Consensus seems to oscillate between Christian Bale and Michael Keaton, but those immediately discounting Robert Pattinson (especially if it’s because of his involvement in Twilight) should get over themselves. He can brood with the best of them and more than holds his own in this hulking and physical role. In particular, his cloistered demeanour is actually believable — as a Batman earlier in his journey than his predecessors, he hasn’t yet figured out how to wear two different masks. The supporting cast are uniformly strong, especially Batman’s NYPD insider and comrade James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), although Andy Serkis’ turn as Wayne’s butler and confidante, Alfred, is somewhat unremarkable in the dwarfing light of Michael Caine’s previous work.
With an eye-watering runtime of 176 minutes, it becomes harder to justify the long haul as it progresses. After a scintillating first half, the momentum starts to sag. This is hardly surprising — the breathtaking Batmobile chase is hard to follow up. It’s the film’s pièce de résistance and will soon be mentioned in the same breath as the highway chase scene from The Matrix Reloaded as an example of the greatest vehicular action sequences of all time. Riddler’s dastardly plan goes some of the way to winning back your attention in time for the final credits, but there’s no denying the film as a whole could have done with a trim. Stopping by the amenities before it begins is essential.
Reeves’ decision to present what is an undeniably silly universe with stone-faced seriousness pays dividends in the most exciting movie of the year so far. It looks absolutely spectacular. The prologue sequence, with its menacingly slow zooms into the dark corners of Gotham that await its terrifying villains are a promise of the experience to come, a sincere contender for my favourite superhero film of all time. There, I said it.
The Batman is in cinemas now.