It has been ten years since we last got a live action solo Batman film. After years of bit-part roles in team-up movies, this is the first time the waters have truly been tested since the lauded Christopher Nolan trilogy. To demonstrate the scale of the challenge in realising a fresh incarnation, it is worth remembering that the omission of The Dark Knight from that year’s Academy Awards Best Picture nominees led directly to the expansion of the category, such that now up to ten films can feature in that list. With the Marvel Cinematic Universe now dominating the genre, with largely comic-accurate versions of their heroes, where to go next with the Batman character?
We begin with Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) at the end of his second year as the Batman. It is Halloween night, and the incumbent Gotham City Mayor, Don Mitchell (Rupert Penry-Jones), is murdered at home whilst watching a replay of his previous night’s televised debate with his upcoming opponent Bella Reál (Jayme Lawson). When the police arive (called in by the slain man’s son, who is about the same age as Bruce was when he lost his parents), Lieutenant James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) is accompanied by Batman, who is still considered a dangerous vigilante. With a card containing a riddle, addressed to the caped crusader and attached to the body, and accompanied by the words ‘no more lies’ daubed over both the corpse and the framed newspaper articles on the wall, it is clear that the crime may have a motive related to the integrity of the city’s public figures.
The clues left by the mysterious Riddler (the outstanding Paul Dano) lead the duo to suspect the involvement of Oswald Cobblepot (Colin Farrell): a person of interest known to authorities as the Penguin. In going to the nightclub where Oswald operates, Batman’s path crosses with staff member Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz), who, at first sight appears to be participating in the town’s sizeable drug dealing enterprises.
When Kyle’s roommate (and mistress of the mayor) goes missing, Bruce discovers the club is a front for mob activity. As the police commissioner and District Attorney are targeted in separate attacks by the Riddler, and the latter’s targets start to go further and further up the chain of command in the institutions – legal and otherwise – of Gotham, the Batman will need to work with the future Commissioner Gordon to discover what the Riddler wants, uncover the lies of which he speaks, work out where and how the Wayne family is implicated, and uncover the hidden hand behind the crimes the Riddler is looking to uncover.
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Late in the film, Bruce goes to the penthouse apartment of crime boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro). The music playing is ‘I Have but One Heart’ by Al Martino. Martino played Johnny Fontaine in The Godfather, and sang that song at the wedding of Connie Corleone in that film. The first line of that film was ‘I believe in America’, and was reworked in – arguably the greatest Batman story – ‘The Long Halloween’, with someone saying ‘I believe in Gotham City’ as the opening line, addressed to – Carmine Falcone.
‘The Long Halloween’ was a detective story where multiple notable figures turned up murdered on major holiday occasions, across a year, beginning on – Halloween. Falcone has three scratches on his face in that story – something reprised here. Talking of which, Falcone also appears in ‘Batman: Year One’, an origin story by Frank Miller in which Catwoman’s background is somewhat similar to here. In the later ‘Catwoman: When in Rome’ (taking place just after The Long Halloween) we learn of her parentage – also referenced here. Finally, Alfred Pennyworth (Andy Serkis) is a steel-haired man, one who walks with a cane, has a scar around his eye, and – later in the film – references training Bruce to fight: this is directly from ‘Batman: Earth One’.
The point is that director Matt Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig have picked from the very best, and they have taken the time to get to know the character. The stories above are influencing – and only influencing – our story here, as this film covers only a week, not the months or a year of the books referenced above. These takes on Gotham are of a city mired in mob power and institutional corruption. Panels are drawn of a wet, cold place, where no-one can be trusted, and to walk the streets alone is to take your life in your hands. Batman is drawn frequently with facial stubble and metes out justice with physically brutal beatings. All of that is present here, making even the also-corrupt Nolanverse look crisp and clean by comparison.
Gotham is a composite created of many other areas. The town hall is St George’s Hall in Liverpool; the Walker Art Gallery from the same city appears; graveyard scenes were shot in Glasgow and Liverpool; some of the buildings appear to be Chicago. The overall effect is closest to New York: it is an island – like Manhattan – linked by multiple bridges to the surrounding areas. There are analogues of Time Square, and the Empire State Building (the Gotham Empire), and there is a Gotham Square Garden that is virtually identical to its New York-located inspiration. This is the fullest, most satisfying incarnation of Gotham we have been given in live action, and the most visually distinctive since Anton Furst’s designs for the 1989 film. That it is soaked by an unnatural amount of rain speaks to a city that cannot be cleansed, however much Batman and Jim Gordon work at doing so.
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That is the background against which the latest iteration of the titular character operates. Two years in and his voiceover (he keeps a journal, meaning the film can mimic the internal monologue of the comic books, where necessary) speaks of feeling helpless – that he is not making a difference. A lot will be made of this being an inexperienced Batman. Although this is true, the story speaks to this more in his attitudes than his skillset. This is already an accomplished detective, with enough credit in the bank to have a trusted police ally. He is not yet a fully rounded figure, however. He tells his adversaries ‘I am vengeance’. The Batman is the story of Bruce Wayne learning that his alter ego needs to be considerably more than this – and this does not mean just the ‘symbol’ of the Nolan films. This Batman will always strike from the shadows – but he won’t only do this. This Batman knows that the shadows themselves, and the Batsignal, will do some of the work for him, as criminals will imagine him where he is not.
The aesthetics of this film are perfect. Eschewing the cartoonish, it hits the sweet spot between the Kevlar of Bale, the comic accuracy of Affleck (though he was way too bulky with tiny ears), and the sheer grime of the Frank Millar/Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale works (that’s forgetting there is also a sizeable ‘Batman: Hush’ reference in this film). As with the latter, this is a Batman that, as Bruce Wayne, would likely sit waiting for the sun to go down so he can get to his real work. The Batmobile is a cross between KITT, Max Rockatansky’s car, and the 60’s version – with fins at the back suggesting bat ears. The end effect is post-apocalyptic muscle car, with a hint of fighter jet. This is the Batmobile you never knew you wanted.
This Bruce is not yet particularly active at Wayne Enterprises, or as a faux-playboy for that matter, but these are areas he will develop as this continuity grows. Kravitz’s Kyle has plenty of cats, a skin-tight catsuit, and is a cat-burglar – but she is not yet Catwoman. The suit – particularly the headwear – looks to be at the R&D phase still. Dano’s Riddler is a character reimagined to the point that we can see that while Reeves clearly respects the source material, he will not allow his version to be imprisoned by it. There is no Wayne Manor – Bruce lives in a luxury high-rise, but the essence of that type of home survives.
If the story matches the very best of the written Batman detective/organised crime stories of recent decades, then it is complemented by some fantastic performances. Pattinson plays his role much smaller than Bale. He’s probably the Timothy Dalton of the Batman world (Bale is Daniel Craig – more star power, maybe less fidelity), but his take on the costumed part of the role is superior (the jury is out on his Bruce Wayne, as the two are almost indistinguishable at this point).
Although there are nods to Batman’s stealth and his ability to disappear, Reeves and Pattinson focus more on physical presence. Batman walks deliberately on heavy boots – the foley work gives the impression that this guy is a wrecking ball. He is required to stand in well-lit rooms with police – something he did only very briefly in Nolan’s take – and not only does it look natural, as well as not diminishing the sense of threat he carries, but Pattinson is constantly acting with his eyes. His Batman is thinking – strategising – and we are let into that process.
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Kravitz plays Kyle as ambiguous as the script allows. We could have a lot more to come from her. Turturro is ripped straight from a prestige mob film. Farrell’s role is small, but what a performance. John Cazale’s Fredo character from The Godfather has been referenced by the actor as an influence, but this can be relevant only to where he is when we find him. As with Fredo he has little real power, living in the shadows of more powerful men, and very weak when challenged in any physical way. As the story develops, we can see that he will become a much more powerful and assured figure. This version is becoming something akin to the Kingpin.
There will be endless discussion as to where The Batman sits in the pantheon of live action films for the character. It is far too early to pronounce on this, but it is fair to say that, for many, this will be the take on the character and world they always wanted. Until 2016, the films lived alongside the comics, never fully integrating the style and sensibilites of the drawn panel. Reeves has found a way to marry the verisimilitude of Nolan with the art of the page. The package comes in at 176 minutes of film that maintains momentum, gives the audiences things to think about, and starts the process of illuminating a world of which there is so much to see. We cannot wait.
The Batman is out now in cinemas.