Five or six, I guess. That’s the number of times Batman has been reinvented. One may ask, “Isn’t that enough?” From the cartoonish Clooney (Batman and Robin) to the Grumpy Bale ( The Dark Knight Trilogy), we have seen it all, the entire spectrum. So when WB announced that they are trying something new, I said, “Shut up about the caped crusader!” We’ve got Scorsese complaining about theme parks, focus on that. A short internal conflict later I gave it a try. So, was it worth it? – “Hell yeah!”
The Batman isn’t just your average momentary blockbuster. It is way out on the outskirts of the comic book genre. Director Matt Reeves (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Let Me In) has a clear-cut vision of what he wants this revamp to be. There’s an obvious influence of the gritty 70’s Noir films – the dark rainy look, the feel of David Fincher’s Seven with a similar villain archetype, combined with the corrupt city storyline of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Reeves stated that he was inspired by Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver), confirmed by Bruce’s narration of his daily journal while walking through the messy streets of Gotham. Despite the wealth of influence, Reeves manages to construct and orchestrate his own story, without shying away from the comic book (The Long Halloween, Batman – Year One) roots.
Robert Pattinson’s (The Lighthouse, Good Times) portrayal of Batman is just phenomenal. He effortlessly conveys the sturdiness and outsider persona of the vigilante even when half his face is shrouded by the black mask – a challenge faced by most actors playing this character. He shines in the tight close-ups with his ever emoting eyes and displays his brooding body language brilliantly in the wider shots. Unlike most of the others, Pattinson’s costumed vigilante is not a confident one. In his early functioning, he is still learning and simultaneously fighting for control over his dark instincts. This guy just wants a chance to bash someone’s head in with a rod. Here, Bruce Wayne is the alter ego of the vigilante rather than the usual reverse.
Detached from all societal influence, he is akin to a pop-star dealing with a hard hangover while resting in a tall isolated tower. This is supported by Pattinson’s statement that he based Bruce on Nirvana’s frontman Kurt Cobain. This Bruce Wayne can’t handle the light but he can handle a vengeance-fueled persona away from the limelight. “They think I’m hiding in the shadows,” he says in an opening voiceover, “but I am the shadows.” This line clearly defines this interpretation of the character right from the beginning.
Sharing the screen with him is Zoe Kravitz’s (High Fidelity, Kimi) Catwoman. She adds a traumatized touch to this beloved character while sustaining the sexy femme fatale persona. The seducing nature of the Bat-Cat tension is gracefully performed by the duo. There is this brilliant scene where we see Bruce spying on her when he discovers that she also has a secret like him. We see in his eyes the building attraction, which shades off after she wears her sleek suit and exits her balcony in a graceful manner, transforming into the woman we all know and love. This plays out so perfectly because of the beautiful intersection of all the different aspects – the performances, the editing, the Hitchcockian cinematography and the subtle, evolving score. A true moment of pure cinema.
The supporting characters have a more character-oriented role in this film. Jeffrey Wright’s (Westworld) idealism shines in his character of the new Commissioner Gordon. The credits say that Colin Farrell (The Lobster) is playing this cheesy mobster version of the Penguin, but I think they are lying. Meanwhile, John Turturro (Barton Fink) shines as the silent, killer-type crime boss Carmine Falcone and Andy Serkis (Apes Trilogy) shows his caring, warm nature as the butler Alfred while trying to repair a disjointed relationship with his master.
Finally, coming to the esteemed member of Batman’s rogue gallery – Riddler, played by the brilliant Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood, Swiss Army Man) who brings the much-needed wild menace to the role. Dano uses his voice to convey the cracked mental state of a disturbed individual. There lies a traumatised past underneath the green “Zodiac” mask. One of the strongest performances comes at the end when the two meet – a brilliant moment of suspense built by Dano’s evolving disbelief. Yet, I feel that something is missing, which may be the case since the main antagonist is absent for a big chunk of the movie.
The story itself is well defined and structured to increase tension, with perfect pacing seldom found in a comic book movie. It is essentially a weird yet effective hybrid of a detective story and an action thriller laced with a neo-noir touch. Reeves uses recurring settings to build a layout of Gotham in the subconscious of the audience. Gotham itself is a mix of gothic and realism, building upon what Burton and Nolan had previously constructed. All the characters perfectly fit into this heightened world.
The action set-pieces service the characters very well while filling the runtime. Reeves’s centre framed long takes of the action scenes give the audience a much-needed breath while displaying the uncontrolled brutality of Batman. The intense batmobile chase scene made me jump to the edge of my seat. Done in-camera, it ends spectacularly by showing us the upside down bat walking through hellfire with Giacchino’s score soaring in its highest form. It slows down a little after this, leading to a struggling third act. However, it all ends in a poetic manner by accomplishing the most important thing that most comic book movies fail at – providing the audience a moment of real character development. The movie questions the audience’s perception of their beloved costumed vigilante by showing the character’s internal struggles.
Now, coming to the filmmaking aspects, let me just make myself clear that this movie just excels in most of its aspects. Cinematographer Greig Fraser (Rogue One, Dune) does an outstanding job capturing the world through his shallow focus lens. Inspired by the works of Gordon Willis (The Godfather I & II), Fraser and Reeves display the characters engulfed in dark shades of carbon black and tungsten yellow, reflecting their rotten and corrupted souls. The use of composition is very unconventional but still beautiful. The characters create a frame within a frame for each other, creating a separation between the foreground and the background. The constant use of red hints at it being a visual motif/metaphor for the vigilante, supported by the fact that the first time we see him, he is covering his eyes with black paint in a darkly red-lit room.
Michael Giacchino (UP!, Rogue One) also adds his brilliant gothic taste of music in the intense action scenes but also in the slow detective-oriented scenes of the movie. Giacchino’s score establishes its originality while also honouring the individual scores of Danny Elfman in the Batman (1989), Batman-TAS. The leitmotifs for each character still ring in my ears, whether it be the dread-announcing horns for the Dark Knight, the transformative noir glissando for the femme fatale, or be it the “Ava Marie”-based troubled choir for the Riddler. Reeve’s bold choice of “Something in the Way” by Nirvana gives what I feel is the thematic backbone to Batman’s character arc.
Overall, the movie is a fresh and brilliant iteration of this age-old mythical character. It differentiates itself from its predecessors by focusing primarily on the central character. Sure, it has its flaws but after a few re-watches it will redeem itself. I’m very much excited to see where this new world is going to head soon. Also eager to see Matt Reeves’ evolution as a director . Just go watch it in a big dark room to fully experience this MARVEL of a movie – Pun intended.
This spoiler free review was written by Niraj Zambreker