Barely are we a third of the way through The Batman, director Matt Reeves’ notably gloomier take on the comic book hero, when, to put it politely, a character has a rather unfortunate experience with a purpose-built rodent maze. Without wishing to overly detail the grisly specifics, the contraption – conjured from the twisted mind of sadistic serial killer the Riddler (a delectably creepy Paul Dano) – is the image that perhaps best encapsulates this most recent big screen iteration.
The latest outing for Gotham’s iconic caped crusader is, for the most part, a bleak, labyrinthine thriller that mines both the sullen, shadowy streets of its setting as well as the sullen, shadowy psyche of those who populate it. And yet, while it occasionally evokes shades of Tim Burton’s gothic-inflected production design and shares much the same moral murkiness and intriguing hero-villain symbiosis of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, The Batman often doesn’t feel like a Batman movie at all. From its Seven-inspired morality to its Saw-like set pieces, Reeves’ film, both in style and tone, opts for something rather more unsettling.
At its centre is Robert Pattinson’s emotionally enigmatic Bruce Wayne. As an actor of quiet intensity whose recent roles have boldly rebelled against his early career heartthrob status, Pattinson’s casting is more than a little shrewd. As the billionaire orphan who pummels thugs under the light of the moon in the name of justice, his Batman cuts a markedly more tormented, more nihilistically-tinged figure than any incarnation that has come before. Here, he is more spectral than suave; less socialite than agent of solitude.
The notion of justice, however, occupies a far more slippery space in Reeves’ Gotham. By refocusing and tweaking what has become all-too-familiar origin territory, The Batman, along with its eponymous vigilante, unfurls as a compelling, pointed examination of privilege and posterity. It is, in ways that straddle both the literal and the figurative, a film interested in what lies beneath: a story driven by the idea of journeying below the thin façade to unearth something far more engrossing and, just maybe, something more disturbing.
Amid a tale of murder, mystery and characters with various animal affiliations (bats, cats and penguins) is a narrative tied up in weighty, pertinent ideas of inequality, the sins of previous generations and the reality that role models may not always live up to the lofty pedestals they are placed on. With such a swirling thematic melee, the film’s hefty 175-minute run-time feels at once justified and bloated. As The Batman lurches toward its final frames, however, Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig stumble over a series of false endings, seemingly unsure of how best to tie up the numerous loose ends.
But The Batman is nevertheless a bruising, sinister and altogether captivating beast. “What’s black and blue and dead all over?” sound the muffled, menacing tones of Dano’s villain. “You,” he says, referring to Pattinson’s masked crime fighter. He might, however, just as accurately be describing the film itself.
Dir: Matt Reeves (15, 175 mins)
Released in cinemas on Fri 4 Mar
words GEORGE NASH
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