Matt Reeves | 2hr 56min
The line drawn between the identities of Bruce Wayne and Batman has rarely been hazier. There is an inherent dissonance built into the character between the rich, orphaned billionaire and the justice-seeking street vigilante, and although Matt Reeves certainly takes the time to explore this aspect in The Batman, there is often the sense that between the two, it is the quiet, floppy-haired recluse living up in Wayne Tower who feels more uncomfortable in his own skin. Robert Pattinson barely even changes his voice when slipping into his crime-fighting persona, as with this rendition of Batman comes a brutal explosion of fury that is only barely contained beneath Wayne’s angsty demeanour. Forget about quippy, tension-diffusing one-liners – Reeves’ vision of The Batman is one of the darkest comic book movies in years, both thematically and visually, landing with the sort of psychological weight we haven’t seen since Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.
But where Nolan took Michael Mann’s sprawling urban crime dramas as his source of inspiration, capturing epic establishing shots of Gotham and crowds of extras with crisp IMAX photography, Reeves opts for a far more oppressive, grimier vision of the city, illuminating it with the dim, yellow glow of street lamps and headlights. David Fincher is the major influence here in both narrative and lighting, and cinematographer Greig Fraser deserves a good amount of the credit as well for capturing that noir-tinted visual flair which similarly defines the dingy aesthetic of such crime procedurals as Seven and Zodiac. It is through that angle which Reeves thrillingly teases out the mystery-solving detective side of Batman, leading him along a nocturnal trail of puzzles and ciphers left behind at grisly murder scenes by the enigmatic serial killer, the Riddler.
It is with these mysteries in mind that Reeves and Fraser resolve to obscure our view of this city even further, letting backgrounds and sometimes even entire scenes disappear from the camera’s focus. With an incredibly shallow depth of field, our vision often only extends so far as to make out the vague, hazy outline of silhouettes and objects in the background, at times even moving them across layers of the frame to come into view or alternately fade away. This effect gives the same impression as those shots that Reeves masterfully captures through dirty, rain-glazed windows, obfuscating our perspective with a gritty filter that keeps the answers we seek just slightly beyond our grasp. Even when the camera does pull back to reveal massive set pieces or the Gotham cityscape, there is still a sense of claustrophobia or intimacy between smaller ensembles. Perhaps this is just the impact of filming during a pandemic, but the impact is still tangible – The Batman is contained and surprisingly patient for an action film, taking the time to investigate each new mystery and examine the internal lives of its clandestine characters.
On this level, Reeves’ interpretation often nods in the direction of Martin Scorsese thrillers like Taxi Driver, giving Wayne a voiceover and numerous point-of-view shots that turn him into an uneasy, Travis Bickle-like icon. One of his foes, bigwig mobster The Penguin, even bears striking similarities to Jake LaMotta from Raging Bull, with an unrecognisable Colin Farrell plastered in lumpy, scarred prosthetics drawing heavily from Robert de Niro’s loud, boisterous performance.
Though he remains behind a mask for much of the film delivering unhinged monologues over online videos, Paul Dano’s wild envisioning of the traditionally camp Riddler takes a drastic turn into toxic internet culture, and as the film progresses a unique three-way relationship between him, Wayne, and Batman emerges. We have frequently heard other villains wax lyrical about that inextricable bond between them and Batman, but in the Riddler’s disturbing methods of exposing the corruption in Gotham’s wealthy elites, a compelling contrast is set between the two vigilantes, equally steadfast in their vengeful convictions.
Because as terrifying as the Riddler is at times, Reeves doesn’t hold back on setting up Batman as an equally frightening figure, lurking in shadows like a horror monster. Michael Giacchino contributes to this with one of the greatest superhero movie scores in years, driving home a minimalistic, four-note theme for Batman that pounds each beat with ominous force as he furiously advances towards his targets. He is relentless in his pursuits, particularly thriving in the darkness of one thrilling, pitch-black fight lit only by the blast of his enemies’ point-blank gunfire. At his most menacing, Reeves goes on to flip the camera and gaze fearfully upon Batman’s upside-down silhouette closing in on his trapped prey, backlit by a bright, yellow blaze.
There is something far creepier, or perhaps even spiritual about the Riddler’s justice-seeking ideals in comparison to Batman’s, rooted in his childhood at a rundown orphanage. Giacchino attaches the operatic ‘Ave Maria’ to this narrative thread, playing it diegetically a few times before weaving it into his score with subtle, minor variations, often in eerie anticipation of the Riddler’s murders. In these two primary musical motifs, he effectively captures two sides of violent retribution driven by deep-rooted beliefs, both of which form the basis of Reeves’ primary thematic concerns. And it is ultimately in those thoughtful examinations drawn out in a magnificently gloomy visual style and gripping narrative that The Batman emerges not just as a cinematic landmark of its franchise, but of the superhero genre in its entirety.
The Batman is currently playing in theatres.