Only Spider-Man rivals DC’s caped crusader when it comes to the sheer quantity of screen adaptations in recent years. Go back to the last century, however, and even the web slinger is dwarfed. The arrival of Robert Pattinson on the scene appears to officially call time on the reign of Ben Affleck. Before Aflleck, there was Christian Bale. Prior to he: George Clooney, Val Kilmer and Michael Keaton. We are, of course, talking Batman.
It would be fair to say that the Affleck era hasn’t quite enjoyed the success afforded that of Bale – and director Christopher Nolan – before him. Arguably, the fault falls there in the hands of Warner Bros. and DC’s attempts to rival Marvel with the creation of their own extended universe. Over-complex and under-developed were just two critiques levels at the studios’ delivery. Certainly, the individual peaks – Wonder Woman! Aquaman! – always seemed to crumble when the gang came together. The appetite for standalone sequels far outstrips any clamouring for Justice League 2.
Pattinson’s debut, then, marks a significant departure. On face value, The Batman is less a leap into the unknown than a return to the Nolan years. That was a time of dark, gritty and critically acclaimed material. No talk of Bruce Wayne sharing barbs with Diana Prince and Arthur Curry. For many, this will be a welcome move. For others, the sheer dourness of the new film may well prove suffocating. The Batman appears to be set in a dystopian future in which the price of lightbulbs has inflated to so unattainable a level that only the wealthiest can afford them. Even they plump solely for dimmables. As for the hero himself, Pattinson’s broody and much younger take on Wayne undeniably recalls his work on the Twilight Saga. Toned but more slender than his predecessors, Battinson’s dark eyes and darker locks place him firmly in the category of super emo.
Matt Reeves directs the new film. He’s best known for his work on the revived Planet of the Apes franchise and also his involvement in the creation of J. J. Abrams’ Cloverfield. It’s said that it was Reeves himself that detached The Batman from the DCEU, re-writing a feature that was originally to be directed and produced by Affleck himself. Mercifully, Reeves’ reboot does not go so far as to return Batman to his origins – as has so often been the case with the Spider-Man revivals. Instead, The Batman opens two years on from the hero’s rise and finds him in hot pursuit of Riddler, a serial killer targeting the elites of Gotham and played here by Paul Dano.
Alongside Pattinson and Dano, Zoë Kravitz steps forth as Selina Kyle – aka: Catwoman – with Andy Serkis as Pennyworth and Jeffrey Wright as CGPD lieutenant James Gordon. Watch out too for a barely recognisable Colin Farrell as Oswald Cobblepot, the crime lord better known as Penguin. His farcical outbursts are the closest The Batman ever comes to lightness of touch. Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig pen their film firmly in a fort as far reached from the Whedon cut as it is possible to be. It’s a crime noir police procedural. A David Fincher inflected thriller in which no one is safe. Were it not for Lycra, this would hardly be a superhero blockbuster at all – family friendly marketing (Oreo biscuits, anyone?) notwithstanding.
At almost three hours in length, the film boarders on the insufferably long. While it is a strength of vision that Reeves allows his camera to linger in scenes – a vertically challenged frame from the wreckage of a flipped car is a stunner – the bloating threatens episodes of clock watching. Reeves’ art house pretensions dance a fine line between the impressive and tiresome. It is not entirely unfair to suggest also that, at times, The Batman veers into self-parody. This may not have been so were the pacing more compelling from the off. As things really kick into gear, such qualms fade away and the maturity of all presented comes into its own. That said, it is a singular frustration of The Batman that Dano’s presence is so restricted until the final act. When Wayne finally meets the Riddler, mano a mano, there’s a psychological intensity to the sparks that suddenly feels sorely lacking in all that came before.
In spite of early derision, Pattinson proves himself a casting coup. He brings vulnerability to the brawn and a fierce intelligence behind the mask. When long kept secrets roar, they do not upend his Wayne’s relationship to the past but rather build on the layers already there. To that end, The Batman remains an origins story, albeit not one we have seen before. These are the origins of ideas and a philosophy for all that remains to come. There will, surely, be more to come.