The Batman

dir. Matt Reeves, 2022

Against an orange sunset, Zoë Kravitz as Selina Kyle and Robert Pattinson as Batman are overlooking Gotham City.
Image credit: Warner Bros. & DC Comics

‘Hidden in the chaos is the element’ is a signature line from the opening gambit of Matt Reeves’ The Batman (2022). It lays down the tone of the murky, crime-solving caper to follow. As a rule, I am not a devotee of fantasy or superhero lore. My filmic taste aligns with the darker side of myth and legend, and such crowd-pleasers rarely deliver on promises of true grit. This gloomiest and most stylish entry into the DC canon paves an alternative path into the world of the Dark Knight that engages even with my cynical sensibilities.

The Batman is the first in a revised saga that at last resembles a comic book anti-hero turned cinematic. This version is unrecognisable compared to the Adam West caricature seared into childhood memory. Sure, he’s still Batman: a caped crusader with fists poised to tackle the usual crowd of thugs and goons. However Reeves’ film, verging on horror, possesses a maturity and jet-black humour that is incomparable with earlier iterations.

Of course, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy conveys a darkness not previously achieved by superhero film. But his movies carry themselves like action-thrillers; heist grandiosity in the shape of bank robberies and crashing stock exchanges. Reeves tackles the subtler mysteries of Mafiosi (and, crucially, their victims) playing out in the shadows. Here the political and personal maintain equal stakes. To Nolan, the police department still has its reliable ‘good’ guys. In Reeves’ Batman, discounting Jeffrey Wright’s Lieutenant Gordan, the seedy hands of organised crime are squeezing the neck of the entire law enforcement body — from rookie cop all the way up to district attorney.

This Gotham City is a gothic city; a neo-noir, comic book metropolis doused in perpetual rain, twisted and tormented by a thriving criminal underworld. A veritable sleepless city of night creatures watched over by its caped nocturnal guardian. Indeed, Robert Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne has the complexion, posture and sleeping habits of an insomniac teen. Pattinson nails the depressive mannerisms and melancholies of the haunted orphaned rich figure. When not skulking about the streets of Gotham he withdraws into his basement lair; Nirvana humming on speakers and shadowy eyes glued to computer monitors. This grunge Batman is not so heroic — yet.

Wayne is not the only nocturnal animal making night moves. In this timely vision of a superhero classic, screen-addiction, spying and stalking in the name of sly vigilantism are noteworthy traits shared by his adversary, Paul Dano’s Riddler. This villain identifies as a ‘nobody’; an ‘instrument’ subject to the will of his perverse cause. In turn, Pattinson’s Batman sacrifices the softer edges of human identity and becomes ‘Vengeance’ personified. In The Batman, the purpose and poetics of justice are defined solely by those enacting it. Characters become ciphers of redemption, each actioning for their version of greater societal principles.

Following the trajectory of the American crime story, The Batman maintains a steady descent into violence and obscurity; puzzles (and riddles) that divert mystery from clarity. The chaos deepens once Zoë Kravitz’s Selina Kyle ,  Catwoman in all but name , hits the (club) scene. Her mob den cocktail waitress moonlighting as notorious feline night burglar is the sleekest characterisation yet. Armed with acrobatics and catchphrases — Lives? ‘Don’t worry, honey. I got nine of ’em’ — Kravitz’s is the most electric performance offered.

The Batman’s neatest trick, in detective story fashion, is confining its villain to plot corners until the final act. Nolan reveals his Joker in the opening sequence of The Dark Knight — a bad guy operating in plain sight. In The Batman, the threat lies in a villainous presence pulling strings from behind the scenes. Dano’s skill lies in the steady unravelling of his Riddler; a demented, bespectacled Zodiac-inspired killer with elements unhinged from his preacher role in There Will Be Blood.

Set apart from its predecessors, The Batman takes into consideration the low-key aura of comic book aesthetic. The movie has a sinister, operatic beauty — down to its ‘Ave Maria’ refrain — but its strength lies in a commitment to tension over action. On a personal level, that’s what gives Reeves’ redirection of a well-worn franchise its uncompromising and steely edge.