It begins with rapid titles. “WB,” “DC,” The Batman, all flash up on screen quickly, before an opening point-of-view shot through binoculars takes in a well-dressed man in an opulent mansion. Watching, observing, planning and judging, this extended shot is unsettling in its voyeurism, especially as the viewer shares the perspective of this watcher, who remains unseen apart from extreme close-ups of his eyeballs, before a terrifying reveal within the home of the well-dressed man.
This opening sequence of Matt Reeves’ The Batman creates a creeping sense of dread and disquiet. This steady pace continues throughout the film, deliberate but always appropriate, even down to the multiple sequences of slo-mo action where boots tread ominously across floors, figures emerge from shadow and Greig Fraser’s sublime cinematography catches the passage of shafts of light breaking through cloud, windows and grilles, while Michael Giacchino’s score delivers portent without being ponderous. It would be easy to criticize the length and pace of The Batman, but it is deeply satisfying to see a mainstream blockbuster taking its time to bring the viewer into its world. This envelopment is one of the strongest things any film can do, and with superhero films the envelopment is often a matter of allowing the viewer to share in the experience of superpowers. Famously of course, Batman has no powers, so what do we experience?
The best Batman films utilize the dark aspect of the Dark Knight effectively, bringing the viewer into a close relationship with a protagonist who is, let’s face it, seriously messed up. There is an argument that Batman is often the least interesting character in the films he appears in: from the charismatic Jokers of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger to the slinky Catwomen of Michelle Pfeiffer and Anne Hathaway, from Cillian Murphy’s creepy Scarecrow to Danny DeVito’s grotesque Penguin, Batman sometimes comes across as, ironically, exactly what he sets out to be — a symbol rather than a man. Reeves creates and develops an intimacy between viewer and cowled figure, perhaps more effectively than any other. Reeves and his collaborators do this through the deliberate pace and ominous tone, at times almost oppressing the viewer as much as the eponymous hero with the weight of the cowl. Obvious comparisons can be made with Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy,” which did a fine job of psychologizing Batman within a context that was fantastical yet grounded. Reeves and his co-writer Peter Craig lean further into this conceit, creating an even more grounded version of Batman. Fancy gadgets are minimized; the Batsuit and Batmobile are roughly made; combat is an ugly, brutal affair rather than a dance of martial arts choreography and editing; villains are drawn from the street rather than secret societies.
In fact, “street” may be the best way to summarize The Batman. The film is influenced by many genres, including film noir, action, detective, serial killer, horror, superhero and disaster movie, but the strongest impression the film leaves is that of a street level film like “Taxi Driver,” “Thief” or “Drive.” Alleyways and subterranean nightclubs, underpasses and sewers, all of them steeped in shadow and drenched in rain, create a sense of street level crime, gutter politics and filth fighting with filth. If “The Dark Knight” was like “Heat” with costumes, this is more akin to “Seven” or “Blade Runner,” not least due to the rain. Barely a scene occurs without torrential downpour, and the sun only appears at dawn and dusk. The few scenes that take place during the day are always overcast, making the similarly rare appearances of Bruce Wayne, identified as a recluse rather than a playboy, seem like an aberration from his more common appearance in his bulky carapace as “Vengeance.”
While this Batman is not as physically imposing as that of Christian Bale or Ben Affleck, his presentation is always looming, once again drawing the viewer into the brooding face that is the mask. Robert Pattinson (“The Lighthouse”) keeps his character guarded, but the tight clench of his jaw, hooded eyes and largely soft voice leave us in no doubt that this is a deeply wounded soul, while his eruptions of violence are genuinely frightening. The voiceover is possibly overstated, but its connections to Bruce writing in a journal with a neat yet ornate hand (echoing Frank Miller’s “Batman: Year One”) serve to present Bruce’s memoir as a connection to a world that he has left behind.
A connection to that world is understandable, as the world of Gotham is one where vengeance seems the only appropriate response to corruption and violence. Paul Dano (“Okja”) is easily the most frightening cinematic version of the Riddler, a character who is often presented as camp and silly. Like Pattinson, Dano largely underplays the role, his soft quavering voice (at one point used for some truly freaky singing) and babyface indicating something brittle that, if smashed, will damage everyone in the vicinity. His riddles and traps are deadly yet improvised, recalling “Saw” more than “Batman Forever,” and this makes the Riddler’s crimes and perhaps more importantly his ideology chillingly plausible. Just as Ra’s Al Ghul and the Joker expressed noughties’ anxiety of terrorism, so does this Riddler resonate with the specter of incel culture and toxic masculinity.
A more flamboyant performance comes from an unrecognizable Colin Farrell (“The Killing of a Sacred Deer”) as the Penguin, grunting and flapping and at one point waddling to great effect. Zoë Kravitz (“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald”) is strong as Selina Kyle, bringing perhaps the most sympathetic and soulful character into the mix. The cast is rounded out with the somewhat underused Andy Serkis (“Long Shot”) as Alfred Pennyworth, John Turturro (“The Jesus Rolls”) as crime boss Carmine Falcone, and the wonderful Jeffrey Wright (“Only Lovers Left Alive”) as Lieutenant James Gordon. The interplay between Batman and Gordon gives the film a further dimension as a mismatched buddy movie, Gordon constantly frustrated by Batman’s recalcitrance but supporting him even when the rest of the Gotham Police Department resent the vigilante. Batman’s interactions with Gordon as a detective, as well as Bruce’s home relationship with Alfred, keep him human, albeit an insular and troubled human.
All this grim brooding, plus the length and slow pace, could suggest that The Batman is something of a dirge. This is far from the case, as the stylistic intimacy is precise, while the mystery plot as well as some exhilarating action sequences (including a stellar car chase), are handled with verve and panache. With its deft handling of generic tropes, close-quarters engagement with characters and careful attention to building an inhabited world of crime, corruption, vengeance and yet touches of hope, The Batman is an intense thriller that combines its various elements to gripping, visceral and enthralling effect.