The Batman

Year: 2022
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: Matt Reeves
Writer: Matt Reeves/Peter Craig
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro, Paul Dano, Colin Farrell, Andy Serkis, Peter Sarsgaard, Barry Keoghan

Recently I've been noticing a lot of films that prove the idea that if there's a good story to tell and it's directed well it doesn't matter how many times a mythology's been done, despite the principles of diminishing returns Hollywood usually manages. See Prey for another example.

In fact, we might just keep coming back to the same tropes and ideas in fiction and cinema (alien invasions, zombies, the eternally wandering Man With No Name) because of their singular narrative potential, and we want to see what a new and talented team of writers and directors can cook up around the elements we love.

The Batman hasn't been the first Batman screen story (trilogy/franchise/reboot) and it certainly won't be the last – in fact we delineate entertainment eras according to the Burton originals, the Schumacher train wrecks, the thrilling Nolan reset and Snyder's overblown videogame aesthetic.

But Matt Reeves and cowriter Peter Craig manage a delicate balance. They take what's already there and adhere to it enough for the elements to make sense in the story most of us are familiar with – even lesser known or secondary pieces like crime boss Carmine Falcone, the Batmobile and Arkham Asylum – while making it completely their own.

They stay well within the guardrails and still manage to give us something we've never seen before. In this case it's a young Bruce Wayne only a couple of years into the job, still finding his feet and far from indestructible. It's his voiceover we hear early on, writing his self doubt in his journal as crime gets worse rather than better and what difference he's ever going to make.

But he's going to have to take his place as Gotham's caped crusader when a serial killer starts knocking off senior political figures from the incumbent mayor running for re-election, the chief of police and the Gotham District Attorney.

We already know the killer is the very model of a sweaty incel who lives online – dressed up in army fatigue-coloured garb, a hood and goggles, leaving grisly crime scenes behind that include tacky greeting cards addressed to The Batman, styling himself as The Riddler (Paul Dano).

In the guise of his alter ego, Bruce (Robert Pattinson) has an ally inside the police in Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), a good cop who knows he's surrounding by corruption on every side and that Gotham's masked avenger is the only one he can truly trust, the pair of them kindred spirits in the battle to cleanse the city.

But Gordon brings the Batman in (and rubs his colleagues up the wrong way in doing so) not just because he knows he has an ally, but because the mysterious hero is good, divining answers to the clues and cyphers the killer is leaving at the scenes.

The clues lead to the Iceberg Lounge (another secondary but mainstay element of the Gotham city mythology), an underground club run by Oswald Copplepot, otherwise known as The Penguin (Colin Farrell, looking and sounding so much like Robert De Niro in The Untouchables it's scary), who's also Falcone's (John Turturro) right hand.

It's the kind of place Gotham's best, brightest, most beautiful, most powerful and most dangerous fraternise, and when the killer's clues reveal that the former Mayor and all the other public figures he's targeting are mixing with some unsavoury elements, it seems like he's targeting corrupt power in Gotham no differently than Batman is.

The young woman in one of the photos left at a crime scene also leads Bruce to her roommate, Selina (Zoe Kravitz), a waitress at the the club and professional burglar who calls herself Catwoman.

So the mission becomes saving a missing girls as well as finding the informant who's unwittingly serving Gotham's most powerful up to the killer on a platter, especially as it seems everyone from the cops and the city's political classes are in Falcone's pocket.

Almost everything The Batman does it does not just well, but better than almost any Batman or superhero film before it. Even clichés that usually make me roll my eyes with exasperation (this time it's personal, the corruption goes higher than the hero can imagine, etc) are handled with aplomb.

Over the last half century we've gone from goofy, happy Batman courtesy of Adam West, Bill Dozier and Lorenzo Semple Jr to brooding and tortured thanks to Christian Bale and Chris Nolan, so you'd think there were no more emotional corners for Batman/Bruce Wayne to go to.

But Reeves and Pattinson make Wayne even more soft spoken, dark and unsmiling. In lesser hands you'd be saying 'yawn, we've seen this', but it likewise works – probably because Pattinson and Reeves aren't just styling, they're creating a real character.

After the moving comic strips of Burton and Schumacher, I also remember being thrilled at the way Nolan situated the mythology in real places with real people, jobs, practices and technology.

Reeves improves on that to by doing it inside out. Where Burton and Schumacher built glimmering fantasy worlds and Nolan put his story firmly in ours, Reeves (with a titanic contribution from cinematographer Greg Frasier – more below) builds a real Gotham city and shoots it through with a dark, graphic novel-coloured sheen.

I've mentioned the essential or core elements of the mythology, and one of the biggest niggles I've had with previous iterations (even Nolan's to some extent, although Snyder was the worst offender, making him just another bland solider in a CGI army) was the way they ignore Batman's skills as a detective. Here, it's his way into the action and thrills.

Burton gave a couple of nods to it but they were just convenient plotting. Here Reeves and Craig have Gordon bring Batman in because of how good he is with the clues, riddles and cyphers The Riddler leaves, and Wayne's billions enable technological trickery that's unobtrusive and believable, like the contact lenses that record everything.

Better yet, it's not just about Batman, with Bruce Wayne as active a character not just in the story but the action, as if he's still not sure when his superhero alter ego is applicable to the situation or not.

It's heightened by the very real vulnerabilities he shows in the few scenes where he gets injured, hit, knocked out, etc. When in the suit Wayne can certainly fight, but he's still perfecting his methods and he's far from invulnerable.

But the presence of Wayne being as much of a character as Batman lets Pattinson do more than just scowl and mope... even though, somewhat paradoxically, he scowls and mopes better than anyone else who's played Bruce Wayne before.

The story also taps into several current social zeitgeists like the economic unfairness of the one percenters, and the final act when The Riddler's plan comes to fruition is partly about the toxic masculinity online and the promise of violence and disruption lonely and angry sad sacks trade in.

On top of all that it's technically brilliant as well. Like Nolan did, Reeves and his designers and costumers have created suits and attire you could imagine would exist if you extrapolate them from the real world of today.

But the most exciting artistic achievement might be simply the colour scheme. Almost every colour palette we associate with Batman has been blue, black or every iteration between.

But between the costume test release online a year or so prior, the title treatment and several iconic scenes like Batman leading survivors of the Gotham Square Garden stage collapse through the floodwaters with an emergency flare, it makes a bold new statement, Reeves and Frasier associating the whole myth with a deep blood red.

It even gives us a several scenes in a half constructed skyscraper Batman keeps as his secret meeting place with Gordon where it's actually dusk, the setting sun casting reds, pinks and orange sheens across Gotham. When, it makes you ask yourself, have we ever seem Batman in daylight before?

And it's all wrapped up by that beautiful, bombastic, simple and powerful four note riff by Michael Giacchino that forms the backbone of the score. Together with the look, performances, design and every other creative element, the music takes something and makes it something you've never seen before, and the result is thrilling.

And then – as if issuing a cheeky final 'anything you can do I can do better' to Nolan's universe where Batman Begins foreshadowed the best Joker we'd ever see in Heath Ledger – Reeves does the same. The Riddler, foiled and behind bars, is befriended by a mysterious man in the next cell who promises to help him in his quest and then cackles maniacally.

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