The Batman is perhaps the most unusual of Batman films. It’s certainly the most beautiful, the slowest, the longest (just under three hours), and the most enigmatic. It’s part Taxi Driver, part Joker (which was already part Taxi Driver), part detective story, and part modern noir. Putting Twilight star Robert Pattinson in the cowl has been getting most of the press, but he is a part of much larger and richer picture.
This is not simply a new version of the Batman story, but whole new and fresh take on it. Best friend Clint Morgan likens this film to the rest of the Batman series as Logan is to the X-Men movies—a creative and inventive spin-off with a life of its own.
OK—Pattinson. He has come a long, long way—as has his Twilight film partner Kristen Stewart—and both are now considered legitimate and talented actors (Stewart having won a French César and an Oscar nomination). Pattinson swerves back into the pale-faced, intense character he has played before, but adds an emo and goth sensibility to it for this new take on the Caped Crusader. Except for action scenes, Pattinson moves slowly, thinks deliberately, and responds to outside stimuli almost glacially. This is the quietest Batman we’ve ever had, and perhaps the most human. This is apparently an early incarnation of Batman, before he settled down a bit and grew in confidence. Here he is angsty and coiled-up angry, and (spoiler alert) calls himself Vengeance. He is also not yet experienced in making quick getaways with his Batsuit, and there is a lovely moment of relatable human fear just before he takes off with it to escape. The Batman isn’t technically an origin story, and the moment of his parents’ deaths is only alluded to and not given in flashback. But this is clearly an early version of the character, and leaves a wide-open door for at least one sequel.
The film is also well titled, as this is all about the Batman, and hardly about Bruce Wayne at all. Bruce Wayne here is nothing like the dashing and energetic character we have seen, but is unkempt, hesitant, and weary. He slips in to places rather than “arrives,” and there is no arm candy to be seen. This is a film that is about Batman and his alter ego Bruce Wayne rather than the opposite.
The film is also a great example of good cinematography and production design. There are some stunningly beautiful scenes, and some of the darkest film work since The Godfather: Part II. Likely Oscar winner (for last year’s Dune) Greig Fraser has created an exemplary palette of dark and muted colors that form some of the most arresting images one might see in a superhero film. (It reminds a little of Hoyte Van Hoytema’s work in Spectre, that most visually stunning of Bond pictures.) Fortunately, the world created by the film is less typically dystopian (a word I will be happy never to have to type again) than dark, shadowy, and beat-up.
Another technical aspect to the film that succeeds greatly is the score, which should garner a great deal of attention and analysis in coming weeks and months. It’s by Michael Giacchino, best known up to his point for his Oscar-winning work in Up, and for Ratatouille. The score blends with the film’s images, characters, and pace as few recent films have, and it’s a model of creative work. Warning: A transcendent “sacred” song becomes positively creepy by the end of the film.
Director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield and the two more recent Planet of the Apes films) and Pattison’s take on the character works largely because of two other characters in the film that ground it all in reality and honest emotion. They are Jeffrey Wright as Lt. Gordon and the underused Andy Serkis—here in completely human form—as Alfred. They are ethical, relatable, and honest, and are what the viewer can connect with as emo Batman makes his way through the plot.
But since this is the world of Batman, we also have the more outlandish characters. The first is an unrecognizable Colin Farrell as the Penguin, who is as far from Danny DeVito’s impersonation as possible. This Penguin is an almost believable Mafia character, and doesn’t pull the film into near-fantasy. That is left for the end of the film, when the talented Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood), Escape at Dannemora) rips into his version of the Riddler. Yes, he chews every bit of furniture in sight, but he stays of a piece with the rest of the film. One, we know the Riddler is nuts, and will be when we meet him. But we also have seen his dastardly work throughout the film, and we bring an anticipation that provides a perfect context for this outlandish personality when we finally get to experience it.
What doesn’t work, but what doesn’t not work, is Zoë Kravitz’s Salina Kyle/Catwoman. Kravitz redefines sexy/slinky, and provides a little (and I mean little) romance with the Batman (who is so quiet and unmoving that she has to kiss him). But though she acquits herself well in the role, the role doesn’t really add anything to the film beyond the pallid lip locks. We already know he’s a loner and works on his own, so it’s no surprise when they don’t form a real team. Perhaps we’ll see more of her in a way that makes more sense in the sequel/s.
The original Batman was apparently a detective story (thanks again, Clint), and this version returns the franchise to that. This is a serial killer detective story that happens to have the Batman as its central character. That adds a certain much-needed energy and drive to a story with a quiet, recessive character at its core.
Last thoughts: I’m looking forward to seeing it again, I’m looking forward to any sequels, and I’m hoping that, as with Silence of the Lambs years ago, that a film released in the winter will be remembered by the Academy 10 months from now—at least in cinematography, production design, and score.