The Dark Knight is widely considered to be the best comic book film of all time. Be it the poeticism in the screenplay and the visuals, or the unforgettable performance of Heath Ledger as Joker, it’s unquestionably a milestone in superhero filmmaking. So when one more Batman film was announced, I was a little skeptical. Honestly, there have been too many renditions - not that I’m complaining because I love the character and what he symbolically stands for - but there hasn’t been much uniqueness, apart from the Christopher Nolan trilogy. Still, the trailer had the color palette that felt like it was right out of a David Fincher crime thriller like Se7en or Zodiac. So, I naturally got stoked because if it was truly Fincher-esque, it would be a treat to the eyes and the mind, and I’d always wanted a Noir style film about Batman. The character is a great detective and the older comic books look and feel like the Noir movies from the 60s or 70s.
And Matt Reeves’ The Batman sequel delivers on that front! As a superhero nerd and a childhood fan of Batman, the film is like a dream come true. The Gotham presented in the film looks exactly like what one would imagine a live-action version of the comic books would look like. It’s a stale lifeless toxic dumping ground of criminal activity in a maze of sprawling skyscrapers that obscure the horizon from the eye and shield their inhabitants who apathetically enjoy the pleasures of being rich, oblivious to the suffering of the citizens of the place they call home. There are a few good people looking to make an honest living, whom Gotham will deny thanks to a corrupt police force and an abundance of hooligans, petty thieves, and highly skilled assassins. It’s a nightmare of a city, with the architecture looming like buildings out of a Gothic horror, providing shelter to the dark forces under the shadows they cast at night. And yet, it’s those shadows which the criminals themselves are afraid of. The very same spaces that allow the proliferation of delinquency also harbor the famous Caped Crusader.
Opening on a Halloween night drenched in rain, Gotham is presented to the viewer through a voiceover by Robert Pattinson who introduces it as a breeding ground for everything evil. After a montage of delinquents running away from any place in the shadow once they see the Bat-signal in the sky, The Batman himself enters the scene with Michael Giacchino’s brilliant score reaching the crescendo. And his suit is again right out of the comic books. Ben Affleck’s Batman from Justice League had been said to be very comic-accurate, but Pattinson’s Batman is even more so. In fact, the striking similarity goes beyond just the look. Actually, anyone who has played or seen walkthroughs of the Arkham video games based on the titular character of batman the animated series will realize how much the film draws inspiration from that. There are some buildings in the production that are literally lifted from the Gotham in the games, and the lighting and color palettes also seem to be inspired by the video games’ looks.
And the similarity doesn’t just end there. Pattinson’s body language as Batman himself is strikingly similar to the video game version of Batman. The combat motion especially seems to follow in the footsteps of the Arkham series. The stances and the movement when he kicks or delivers punches make The Batman feel like a live-action rendition of the video games. That makes it all the more a dream-come-true for any fan of the character. And on top of that, the gadgets being used are also a relief from the older versions of Batman we’ve seen in live-action. Tools like the grappling hook and the Batclaw are rarely seen outside the world of animation and video games - especially the Batclaw features heavily in the combat of the games, so seeing him use that in this movie was a rather special surprise for me. Outside of fighting, when he is lurking in the shadows or carefully surveying a crime scene, he uses the contact lens which doubles as a camera, and such surveillance is exactly what you’d hope for from a Batman who’s starting out.
Actually, that is what sets this Batman apart for me. He’s literally just starting his crusade against the unchecked growth of criminal activity in his home-town. And he’s not at all well-adjusted just as you’d expect him to not be. He’s still angry at the world for being this way and is depressed about his apparent lack of contribution to changing the rapid growth of immorality. He suffers from insecurities about his place in the world and listens to Nirvana while he journals in his Batcave, writing down his disturbing notions. He is a genuine person, not a symbol or a hero. He feels broken and unsure of how to use his passion and channel it in the right way. He doesn’t pull his punches and calls himself Vengeance. It’s probably an all-encompassing concept for him, a mission of revenge against the world for being this messed up. The Batman doesn’t shy away from presenting him as a fallible and desperate person on the edge of hysteria, an “emo goth” teenager lurking underneath a shell of an adult burdened by responsibilities and an incorruptible moral compass. Also, his attitude around Catwoman is a brilliant touch from Pattinson as he clearly composes himself, hinting at his discomfort as an inexperienced crime-fighter.
Pattinson’s performance deserves multiple rounds of applause. First of all the makeup team did an amazing job with his disheveled hair, his eye shadow, and the general lack of cleanliness in his face. And then Pattinson lost himself in the role. Even when he’s not suited up, he’s essentially Batman, walking noiselessly through the Batcave and the mansion, like a lurker, speaking through his teeth, with a general discontentment at everything defining his body language. His lack of confidence is beautifully conveyed by Pattinson, in the way he makes the character look distinctly uncomfortable whenever outside the Batcave, where he usually stays huddled up away from the sun and everything bright. And then as Batman, he practically roars all the time during fights or else barely speaks while in company. His camaraderie with James Gordon is of course one that breaks through the barrier, and the fact that he feels juvenile in presence of the senior detective with much more experience shows in the way Pattinson walks with a certain reverence around him.
And that brings me to my favourite thing about The Batman. This is the first live action version of the character which focuses primarily on him as a detective. Everyone knows Batman is the World’s Greatest Detective but none of the live action films have cared enough or chosen storylines that depict this. Even The Batman doesn’t do that because the Bruce Wayne here is miles away from becoming the amazing detective that Batman is but more than half of the story is good old fashioned detective work on the part of Gordon and Batman, following in the footsteps of The Riddler who has mainly unearthed secrets and is leading them on a wild goose chase to expose a hidden truth. The duo of Gordon and Bruce is almost like the duo of Somerset and Miles from Fincher’s Se7en. There are clear parallels in the way their dynamic functions. Gordon is the clear-headed experienced man who has knowledge about older crimes and power in the police force to allow Batman into crime scenes and Bruce has the arrogance and ferocity to not hold back in investigation and do undercover work that Gordon can’t possibly do. In The Dark Knight they did work together but it was more like Batman helping out Gordon and the relationship they share in The Batman is a refreshing take. Even Batman would need help when he started out and I love that the writers kept that in mind.
Mattson Tomlin, Peter Craig and Matt Reeves are credited for the screenplay, and I must say they did an amazing job to start with. The first two acts are beautifully paced, without any rush to pile on information, taking time to get from one clue to the next, featuring extended monologues as you would expect from an abrasive Bruce who keeps to himself and talks to himself all the time. His interactions are written with his mental health issues in mind, and so are The Riddler’s. The Riddler is a maniac on the loose but he’s presented as a human with a vengeance, just a person who was on the opposite side of fate and privilege as compared to Bruce Wayne, and so views the world with distaste to the point he believes in obliterating it by exposing the fallacy in the very truths that the citizens live by. The storyline of The Batman is based on the same comic on which Batman: The Long Halloween, Part One and Batman: The Long Halloween, Part Two are based, and it’s a great choice for an introduction to a world, because the story revolves around the city, its people, its corruption and Batman’s place amongst its people.
However, as good as the writing is in the first two acts, the third act is an utter disappointment. It left me with a bad aftertaste and practically ruined what could otherwise have been the best live-action Batman film made to date. The plot point on which it is based wasn’t there in the source material, and it was a terrible creative choice in my opinion. The Noir vibe of the film would have paid off perfectly if the writers stuck to the exploration of the murkiness on the ground instead of trying to make this specifically relevant for the 21st Century by bringing in the Internet and Reddit. It doesn’t fit well with the aesthetics of the initial part. I’m not one to claim what they did was wrong, but if this was in their mind, maybe the role of the Internet could have been eased into the film from the start instead of introduced near the end where it feels like an unnecessary forced inclusion, put there to pander to certain members of the audience who are looking for excess relevance or abundant action. The Batman stands out because it takes its time going from one action scene to the other, much like the Arkham video games, which include solving pieces of a puzzle and then moving onto the next fight, however, the third act is a complete mess with the almost loop-hole like illogical inclusion of a bunch of people who have no relevance whatsoever. In fact, the story’s ending isn’t even affected by their presence.
That is why I vehemently disagree with anyone, be it a critic or a viewer, who is claiming that the film is “Fincher-esque”. An unforgettable trademark of David Fincher’s cinema is a buildup over two acts which pays off in a memorable third act, which is usually the crescendo of the emotional and narrative symphonies of the film. And so, despite obvious similarities, The Batman’s failure to deliver a compelling third act should be a reason for not claiming it’s “Fincher-esque”. In fact, to take the example of the film that The Batman is most similar to, in Se7en, Kevin Spacey’s John Doe appears with a shocking entrance, and the third act is focused on understanding the man and seeing out his vision to a conclusion, whether successful or not. He is essentially Se7en’s The Riddler, but unlike in The Batman, he gets a lot of screen time in the third act, and I believe Paul Dano is criminally underused in The Batman. As an actor, he delivers a horrifying performance, not unlike his role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, and he deserved more screen time. Also, The Riddler is a rather compelling character, and giving him more time would have further helped deliver in the third act.
I feel the same way about Zoë Kravitz too. The Catwoman is again reduced to a secondary character like all her live-action versions but this narrative is painfully unaware of her role in the story. She plays an important part in the plot development and solving of the mystery, and yet the writers haven’t done her justice. Her introduction isn’t necessarily forced even though it differs from the source material, but she neither plays a compelling role in helping Bruce overcome his issues, nor in helping Batman find The Riddler. The few plot points revolving around her feel like gratuitous consolation gifts to her for bringing her into the film. She isn’t very sexualized in The Batman, however, the lack of male gaze in the camera which presents her like every other character in the film, gives Zoë the space to express herself sensually as Catwoman. Her chemistry with Robert is almost entirely from her side, which makes sense given Bruce’s clear discomfort. It’s just a theory but Robert plays him with the body language of a virgin and that is a fun thing to see. However, beyond eye-candy or pushing Bruce towards his sexual expression, there isn’t much Catwoman does and that’s a shame because unlike the existent live action Batman films, this one had a storyline which she could fit into and properly contribute to. And as the only person of colour amongst the main cast members, her arc will be disappointing to those looking for representation in cinema.
So it’s essentially the writing that is not top-notch throughout but on every other front, the film delivers right from the opening scene till the credits start rolling. And one of the biggest factors in the experience is Michael Giacchino’s score. He is a frequent collaborator of Matt Reeves, and the composition for The Batman is one you’ll hear ringing in your ears long after you’ve left the theaters. Even with that terrible aftertaste left in my mouth by the third act that essentially blinded me to the initial brilliance of the film for some time, the theme music kept playing in my head. Some might feel like it’s been overused because almost 90% of the film is scored. I think given that The Batman is primarily about focusing on the place and its impacts on people, which is a general trend of Noir films of the past, that isn’t a bad thing because the music is a part of how we perceive the world, especially through Batman’s eyes.
Interestingly enough, Greig Fraser's cinematography isn’t much PoV given that the writing is almost presenting the world through Batman’s eyes. The camera in fact presents him like he is the mythological phantom, the ender of all evil, an ominous presence to be reckoned with, not a perspective you can personally adopt. Whether it be the inverted car crash scene shown in the trailer where we’re essentially seeing Batman through Penguin’s eyes, or the top view shot bathed in red with Batman holding the flare, he’s rarely not in front of the camera and that helps demystify him. Because it’s essentially through Batman that we meet Gotham, which is practically the protagonist of the film. So while we get an idea of how the villains perceive him, to us he becomes accessible by not hiding in our shadows as well. Plus, the colour palette is a big part of how Gotham has been brought to life in The Batman. There’s barely enough sunlight, and most of the visuals are dark and grimy. The dim lighting is like an overwhelming shadow that bears heavily on the mind, helping the viewers adopt the mindset of the protagonist.
And part of Gotham’s charm is the instantly recognizable plethora of antagonists. Especially Penguin. He’s a very iconic Batman villain, probably most famous right after Joker, and Colin Farrell is shocking as Penguin. I had seen his recent release After Yang just hours before watching The Batman and I was surprised to my core when I saw glimpses of Farrell in Penguin. The makeup and costume design team have done an amazing job, and Farrell has delivered perfectly as an antagonist. He has that charming detestability that you’d associate with any despicable mob boss. And unlike Paul Dano, he’s been given ample screen time to showcase his acting ability. There’s a surprise entry of another iconic Batman villain who even Nolan had introduced in his trilogy. He’d not been credited initially, so I didn’t know he’d be here, so I’m leaving it for viewers to find out, but he was a pleasure to watch. In some ways, he’s the primary antagonist, and the way he has managed to bring a certain comicality to his character is rather enjoyable. That being said, I’m still bitter about the underuse of the main villain The Riddler and Paul Dano because it was a very compelling screen presence and I can’t help think the film would have been much better if they hadn’t shifted focus from The Riddler’s story.
Apart from having the theme music permanently become a resident of your brain, and getting intoxicated by the mindblowing production design which has brought Gotham authentically to life, another thing that’s bound to happen to you after watching The Batman is getting stuck to listening to Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” on loop for days to come. It’s surprisingly appropriate for the emo teenage vibe that Pattinson has evoked in his Bruce and that’s no fluke. He was inspired by Kurt Cobain to adopt such a persona for Batman, and that’s why his presence is so well complemented by the choice of that song in the film. And of course, if you have a thing for Bad Boys (TM), you’ll instantly develop a crush on Pattinson’s Batman, one that based on personal experience, doesn’t really go away anytime soon. And same goes with Zoë Kravitz. If you’re into badass feminists, although here she’s reduced to the pawns at the hands of the men around her, you’ll love Catwoman. So, watch it already!