In the latest Batman reboot, night is indistinguishable from day, the shadows are long and deep and even the bat-shaped signal that summons Gotham City’s resident vigilante hangs tenuously in the sky. In this overwhelmingly nocturnal world marked by decay, corruption and violence, an anti-hero attempts to understand his true purpose.
Matt Reeves’s The Batman, starring Robert Pattinson, is the latest Hollywood production to repackage a deeply familiar story as a sensory experience. The film’s mesmerising strangeness, technical achievements and grungy visual design communicate the themes of moral ambiguity and the porous line between justice and vengeance far more powerfully than the convoluted plotting and pedestrian dialogue.
Reeves, whose previous credits include films in the Cloverfield and Planet of the Apes series, has co-written The Batman with Peter Craig. The screenplay imagines Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne as a troubled recluse who shields his eyes from the morning light and comes alive only after sundown.
This vampire bat goes into detective mode when a serial killer appears in Gotham. The Riddler (Paul Dano) has been gruesomely torturing his victims and leaving behind teasing puzzles for Batman and police officer James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright). The trail winds past a nightclub where Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz) is a hostess when she isn’t bounding about like a cat burglar.
The film includes other veterans of the Batverse, including the Penguin (Colin Farrell) and Carmine Falcone (John Turturro). Andy Serkis plays Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s butler and guardian. Another of Batman’s sworn enemies turns up in the final minutes to ensure that the reboot won’t be a stand-alone affair.
Robert Pattinson’s gravelly voice ensures continuity with Christian Bale’s hoarse tenor from Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. The Batman is equally indebted to such cerebral thrillers as Strange Days, Seven and The Zodiac. Indeed, it doesn’t appear to have stopped raining since Seven, about a psychopath inspired by the Biblical deadly sins.
Every sequence in The Batman is an event unto itself, bursting with nervous energy and unsettling atmospherics. Reeves brings to The Batman the grainy texture of a well-thumbed comic book printed on rough paper. Cinematographer Greg Frasier bravely shoots in low-light conditions and deploys a shallow depth of field effect that blurs the background details.
The film is equally a sonic feat, in which Michael Giacchino’s eerie score meshes seamlessly with the minutely detailed sound design.
Paul Dano’s over-the-the-top Riddler provides the occasional light touch in a frequently ponderous movie. Batman is not permitted to smile, but lets his guard down whenever he runs into Selina/Catwoman. Zoe Kravitz’s slinky and sure-footed Selina is the one warm spot in the pervasive coldness.
Selina’s encounters with Batman throb with a sexual tension missing from the previous productions. Nestled within the punishingly long 178-minute narrative is a mini-movie – what Selina calls “The Bat and the Cat” – about a perfectly matched pair aching to leap out of their suits.
The film’s dark soul is its Gothic hero, who glides in and out of the carnage without forewarning and communicates his torment from behind a face shield. Does the definite article in the title refer to Robert Pattinson, who magnificently takes command of a role played by a series of actors? In a film that’s more about the showing than the telling, Pattinson’s moody edginess fits right in.