The new version of The Batman really puts the “dark” into the Dark Knight. It’s the meanest, most sinister take on the character yet, set in a squalid, rain-soaked Gotham full of thugs and perverts, the Batman most definitely among them.
Starring the always-excellent Robert Pattinson, it’s a decidedly emo take on a character who was already pretty emo. Director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) is interested in a question that’s been asked many times in Batman comics over the years: is Bruce Wayne pretending to be the Batman, or is the Batman pretending to be Bruce Wayne? In this story, the answer is pretty clearly the latter.
Wayne is a shell of a man, a recluse who spends his nights beating criminals to within an inch of their lives and his days sitting alone in the bowels of his gothic family mansion “forcing himself to remember” the violence of the previous night, which he records on a futuristic Go-Pro.
With last night’s eyeliner streaking down his face – how else would he prevent crooks seeing pink rings of skin under his mask? – and lank hair falling across his brow, he looks like a teenage goth after too many bottles of Smirnoff Ice. In case you didn’t get the message, the film uses Nirvana’s Something in the Way as a constant refrain, its opening chords becoming shorthand for Batman’s dejected mental state.
With Batman portrayed as a psychotic villain, it falls to Paul Dano to up the ante as main antagonist The Riddler, a job he revels in. There’s no a green-suited dandy here: this Riddler is a basement-dwelling weirdo who, although it’s never spelled out, definitely voted for Trump. He’s genuinely chilling, a man who takes sexual pleasure from killing, which he does wile wearing a home-made gimp mask (one of my favourite facts about The Batman is that Dano gets a music credit for singing Ave Maria, which is Exhibit A for just how weird this film is).
It’s all pretty grim, basically, which actually causes something of a dilemma, because when Reeves tries to deliver a more positive message – usually through Jeffrey Wright’s Commissioner Gordon or Zoe Kravitz’s Catwoman – it comes across as hollow. It’s clear that Batman needs to have a moral epiphany but he feels too far gone.
Tonally, Reeves finds a fascinating middle ground between the “explain everything” realism of Christopher Nolan’s Batman and the “lean into the silliness” of Tim Burton. Those around Batman, for instance, are all too aware of the absurdity of a grown man dressing as a bat and trying to solve crimes – not least the police. Batman is a kook, albeit one who knows kung fu. On the other hand, this is a world in which super-villains abound and people leap from windows rather than take the stairs.
The fight sequences have an almost obscene heft to them, with a straight-from-John Wick industrial rave sequence probably the pick of the bunch, the crack of bone and squelch of face loud enough to punctuate the booming soundtrack. Even better is a car chase between the Batmobile – now a ferocious dragster rather than an armoured tank – and The Penguin (played by an almost unrecognisable Colin Farrell), which is up there with Nolan’s “hijacking an aeroplane with a second aeroplane”. Sequences like these make the rather limp finale all the more disappointing.
Even at three hours long, things never sag, although it does feel like every time Reeves was asked to make a decision, the answer was simply “yes”. As a result his film has a slight Frankenstein lurch to it, at one moment a police procedural, the next a gangster movie, then a John Wick-style action thriller, then a comic caper.
Still, this is thrilling stuff, and proof that despite being the most adapted superhero of all, there’s still plenty of fresh ground – and fresh faces – for the Batman to break.