A star rating of 3 out of 5.

Riddle me this – how do you breathe new life into a comic book character who’s so regularly depicted on TV and film that endless on-screen depictions of his parents’ brutal death has become a running joke? A superhero who’s been played by four or more different actors in the last 10 years (depending on how you count animation and TV), in Oscar-nominated movies from superstar directors?


Well, in Matt Reeves’ The Batman the answer is to try something a little different… and sometimes, this works. From the start, this is a gorgeous-looking film with some great moments and an impressive sense of style that tries to do its own thing and often succeeds. However, it’s also a film that arguably doesn’t do quite enough to justify its existence so soon after other acclaimed Batman movies, and struggles to find the wit and intelligence to pull off an ambitious, lengthy story.

But first, what’s different? Well, in what may be a first for a live-action Batman movie we don’t see Bruce Wayne’s parents murdered in an alley in this film (though their deaths do weigh heavily on the story), and we skip over this new Batman’s origin story altogether.

By this point, we know the broad strokes anyway. Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) is a vigilante in Gotham who dresses in a distinctive bat costume, has a souped-up car and a loyal butler (Andy Serkis) and works closely with police ally Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) when summoned by a bat-symbol projected into the sky.

However, while hitting these key points Reeves’ film attempts a slightly different interpretation. While the Christopher Nolan films attempted a kind of "real-world" version of Batman (and the Affleck appearances made him part of a more superheroic pantheon) this film goes even further down the realistic route, aiming for a down-and-dirty style without the excesses of other recent films in the franchise.

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I use the word "realistic" loosely here (this is still a film about Batman) but this is a story where the caped crusader tracks down a single serial killer, rather than holding back magic fear gas or alien attackers. His tech and gadgets are styled to look a little more handmade and homemade, and the way Batman 'flies' in this film is downright ungainly. Even the iconic suit looks like something that someone could conceivably wear, down to the clinking jackboots regularly framed in shot as he approaches his foes.

The Batman
Robert Pattinson as Batman in The Batman

The suit is acknowledged as ridiculous – but because Bruce believes in it, we start to believe in it too. The Batman is particularly strong at creating the 'myth' of its central character, even if he does look a bit daft in his leathers alongside police officers at a crime scene.

And separate from these aesthetics, the structure of the film also tries to plough a new furrow. Compared to earlier Batman flicks this film reminds more of a crime drama, an old-school thriller in the vein of Se7en (which seems to have been a major influence) that follows the twists and turns of an investigation. There are clues, dead ends, false victories and interrogations, all leading to a more traditionally bombastic ending.

At the centre of it all is Robert Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne, who impresses as the most miserable Batman we’ve ever seen on-screen (and that’s a strong field). Believably a young and impetuous version of the familiar vigilante, he’s obsessed to the point of illness by his crime-fighting mission and dismissive of Serkis’ dismayed Alfred. By contrast, his relationship with Wright’s warm Jim Gordon is oddly wholesome, even as the latter’s relationship with the Dark Knight feels particularly bizarre amidst the more 'realistic' rules of this film.

Also on the side of the angels (for now), is Zoe Kravitz as the future Catwoman, aka Selina Kyle. Demonstrating convincing chemistry with Pattinson, she’s still a slinky cat burglar but also feels more like a real person – or at least as close to a real person as you’ll find in this heightened world. By contrast, Colin Farrell’s 'The Penguin' (another future villain in their early days) is a little over-the-top. Farrell is unrecognisable in makeup and prosthetics to the extent that you wonder why they didn’t hire a character actor who actually looks like that, with a broad performance that feels like it’s from a different film ("Ey, I’m Penguin here!"). This is even more notable when compared to other villains like the menacing, softly-spoken John Turturro (as mob boss Carmine Falcone) or the manic serial-killer performance of Paul Dano’s Riddler.

Colin Farrell as The Penguin in The Batman
Colin Farrell as The Penguin in The Batman Warner Bros.

Even in this limited rundown you may have noticed that this film has a rather stacked cast, but it doesn’t feel overloaded as the large pool of characters step in and out of the story depending on the steps of the investigation. As much as anything it reminds of a hardboiled detective novel, with our battered investigator punching his way past mob enforcers, questioning oily gangsters and butting heads with the local police force, all to track down an even greater evil and conspiracy at the heart of his community. There’s even a femme fatale, of sorts, in Kravitz’s Kyle/Catwoman.

Presumably, this is something of the feel that Reeves was going for (some cast interviews have suggested it was), and it’s certainly a different take on the superhero movie. But if this was the grand plan for the film, it’s also where the cracks in The Batman’s own dual identity start to show, as two different versions of the film come together uncomfortably.

The Batman styles itself as a gritty serial killer movie – but in an apparent attempt to avoid a high age rating it can’t show or particularly describe the grisly deaths Riddler inflicts, leading to a lack of clarity over the murders (one death involving rats is particularly confusing, and it took me a second watch to really understand what was supposed to have happened).

Similarly, despite featuring drug dealers as a key plot point the film doesn’t include any real drugs, instead relying on fictional narcotics like the Riverdale-worthy "drops", a liquid used on the irises that makes the serious tone of the dialogue seem faintly ridiculous ("I was a drophead at the age of 12," is a particular clanger of a line).

The Batman
Paul Dano as The Riddler in The Batman

Now, a film obviously doesn’t need wanton violence, gore and drug use to tell an interesting story. But The Batman clearly really wants to include these elements in its story so just… cuts around them as much as possible, playing it too safe and too gritty at the same time and satisfying nobody.

The fact that the film ties itself so closely to influences like Se7en and Zodiac also doesn’t help. Though similar in length and tone to these David Fincher movies, The Batman just doesn’t hit the same levels of quality, and inviting the comparisons only highlights its relative shortcomings. The clues the Riddler posits are fairly basic, the twists perfunctory, and you’d see a more engaging murder plot at any hour of the day on Drama or ITV3.

The fact that the film is so bum-numbingly long at just under three hours is also hard to justify, with ample opportunities to trim the fat in lengthy scenes especially towards the conclusion of the film.

So yes, there are issues with The Batman. It’s overlong, slightly under-baked and a little too reminiscent of the 'realistic' Nolan approach to really strike out on its own. But there’s also enough to recommend it alongside these shortcomings.

For starters, as noted above the look and feel of the film are striking. Dune director of photography Greig Fraser does some incredible work with Reeves to deliver distinctive shots and sequences that will stay with you long after you leave the cinema, while composer Michael Giacchino delivers a soundtrack that will live in your head for days. In the crowded market of superhero films, making anything visually or aurally distinctive is an achievement, and The Batman pulls this off in spades. If nothing else, I’m glad this film exists to bring that soundtrack into my life.

It's also great to see a movie that has a 'take' on Batman, with a sub-strand of the story functioning as a debate about how useful he really is when it comes to helping Gotham. You may have seen gags on the internet over the years about how Bruce Wayne would do more good donating his billions rather than dressing up like a rodent to beat up the mentally ill, and the film does actually engage with this idea at length. By the end, there are some uneasy answers to the need for one of fiction’s most beloved characters, albeit answers that are sometimes reached a little too easily.

As you may be able to tell, I had some conflicting feelings about this movie. I loved the style, the photography and music, and loved the direction Reeves tried to take the film in – but for me, the execution of the story fell flat. I wanted The Batman to just be that little bit cleverer, to actually be the smart thriller it was dressed as.

As a mood piece, it’s great. As a mystery, it’s underwhelming. Maybe in the next film, they can finally solve the trickiest riddle of them all – how to make this version of Batman truly fly.

The Batman is in UK cinemas now. For more, check out our dedicated Movies page or our full TV Guide.


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