I think the biggest question I had while watching The Batman was “how has Jim Gordon still got a job?” Most police officers who show up at crime scenes with a violent vigilante in full body armour and Robert Pattinson’s 1000-yard stare probably wouldn’t last long in law enforcement. But he does it anyway, and Battinson proceeds to stand around like an ironing board for a bit, then interfere with evidence, question the police, and withhold information – and no one seems to really care. At one point he assaults a bunch of officers and it’s just fine.
Of course, this is a comic book movie after all, despite the aesthetic and atmosphere often doing their level best to pretend otherwise. Yet there’s an earthiness to Matt Reeves’ epic that somehow makes it all feel grounded. Even when Batman and Catwoman are wandering around in what could easily pass for fetish outfits, there’s something unwaveringly believable about the whole thing. It’s made evident right away that he’s no omnipotent hero – the Bat Signal does much of the work for him, scaring off most of the low level thugs the moment it’s emblazoned on the smog. And then he does what he can until the sun comes up. He’s not perfect, but he’s damn effective.
And it’s not the first time, I know. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy did something special with the universe, managing to present Gotham’s rogue’s gallery of villains in such a believable light that, if anything, it was Batman himself who seemed to be the clown in a suit. The Batman does something similar, but manages to be even more humourless than Batman Begins. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The movie adaptations of DC’s Caped Crusader have been nothing if not pendulous, but if anything it’s Robert Pattinson’s version of Bruce Wayne that feels so different to what we’ve seen before. There’s none of the usual swagger and confidence, neither of Michael Keaton’s charming socialite nor Christian Bale’s pretend playboy. Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne is a mop-haired misery obsessed with fighting crime to the detriment of all else in his life, but he fits the world Reeves has built perfectly. And besides, at just shy of three hours long, The Batman can’t afford to waste screen time on corporate mergers or whatever it is Bruce Wayne actually does for a living.
So instead we get more duality between the crime-fighting persona and the real man than perhaps ever before. You couldn’t look at this version of Wayne and even connect him to the unstoppable justice machine he becomes behind the cowl. To his credit, Pattinson plays both personas almost flawlessly. This is him shedding the last clinging vestiges of Edward Cullen, if you believe he needs to at all. He carries a rare kind of constrained rage around whether as Wayne or the Batman, always on the verge of losing his shit with everyone. Anyone.
Pattinson and Reeves do an incredible job of positioning Batman as the anchor point for the entire movie. And while that sounds like it should be obvious, it’s important to consider how many times the Batman character has been overshadowed for whatever reason. Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger stole the show as two very different versions of the Joker, Batman Forever felt more like a Jim Carrey film than a Val Kilmer film, and Batman Returns belonged to Danny DeVito. But The Batman is Pattinson’s, always. He remains the focal point throughout, commanding the screen in every scene and filling the surrounding space with simmering menace.
That said, the supporting cast is incredibly strong. Andy Serkis’ Alfred feels closest to Sean Pertwee’s iteration in TV’s Gotham, all stoic, British, and a slightly better detective than the big guy in black. Meanwhile Paul Dano is both terrifying and compelling as the Riddler, channelling wisps of Joker and Scarecrow through his portrayal. I’m still not sure Gary Oldman’s Gordon can be bettered, but Jeffrey Wright is fantastic here. He’s a good cop doing his best in a broken, corrupt city where vigilantes are more trustworthy than trained police officers.
Elsewhere there’s Zoe Kravitz, putting the cat back into Catwoman with far more integrity and enthusiasm than anyone since Michelle Pfeiffer. She’s vulnerable but capable, physically weaker than most of the goons she squares up to but fearless in the pursuit of what she wants – in this instance good old-fashioned revenge against John Turturro’s scenery-chewing gangster, Carmine Falcone. And finally, of course, is Colin Farrell, whose portrayal of Oswald Cobblepot is so good you forget it’s actually a roguishly handsome Irish guy in very heavy makeup.
If there’s a complaint here it’s that I often felt that the action intruded on the character development. The Batman is at its strongest when it focuses on the interplay between the players, to the point that the action scenes felt almost like an afterthought, something inserted to check a list rather than serve a real purpose. Reeves goes to pains to make the fisticuffs look heavy and dirty and gritty, then sprinkles comic book stuff throughout that threatens to tip the balance too far the other way.
It’s telling that the only time you’re really reminded that it’s a comic book movie is when Battinson careens off a skyscraper and smashes through half a dozen obstacles on his way to a full-speed collision with the ground, before getting up as if he’d just tripped up a doorstep. Or maybe when he tanks a shotgun blast from three feet away. Or does that thing where he somehow vanishes when the person he’s with blinks for a second.
Is this the best Batman movie ever? Some will say yes, others no. For me, it’s on par with The Dark Knight and just slightly ahead of Batman 1989, so very nearly almost, yes. It’s an astonishingly well-shot film that somehow manages to fly by even at almost three hours long. It’s less of a mystery than it wants to be, but only because when you finally begin to connect the dots between the Riddler’s victims it’s a bit, well, anticlimactic. But as a study of the Batman and the city he protects, it’s an absolute triumph.