Much as when Spider-Man finally turned up in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Matt Reeves’ The Batman smartly eschews retreading the caped crusader’s origin story, assuming correctly that after 80 years, almost everyone turning up for a Batman movie understands the lay of the land. We know who Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) is, and why he dresses up as a bat to fight crime in the oppressive urban hellhole that is Gotham City. We know honest cop Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), slinky, seductive thief Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz), tricksy criminal The Riddler (Paul Dano), mobster Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), the oafish Penguin (Colin Farrell), loyal butler Alfred (Andy Serkis), etc, etc. The old routine about the DC heroes being akin to Olympian Gods is simplistic but somewhat true, and perhaps never more than in the Batman stories, whose more street level characters are household worlds to millions. You’d be amazed how many people know Joe Chill by name.
He doesn’t appear here, though, and part of the fun these days is seeing how the familiar archetypes of Gotham City are reinterpreted by the director du jour, and what elements of the Dark Knight’s decades-long history are being forefronted. On Reeves’ watch we get an already-established Batman who is nonetheless early in his career and finds himself personally targeted by a Riddler who is a straight up serial killer rather than a thief. Dano’s Riddler shares some DNA with Heath Ledger’s Joker in his propensity for sending out teasing videos to the media, and a lot more with the Zodiac Killer in his dropping of ciphers as clues. That guy was, of course, the focus of David Fincher’s Zodiac back in the day, but the big influence here is Fincher’s earlier Seven: the dank, steaming city streets, the ochre and yellow lighting, the psychological mind games, the oppressive urban despair of The Batman all call to mind the Mank man’s late 90s calling card.
Pattinson, here making some truly bold choices, moulds his performance to this aesthetic. His Bruce Wayne is moody, withdrawn, insomniac, and driven, peering at the world through hollowed eyes from beneath a lank fringe – a reclusive weirdo whose eccentricities are indulged because of his wealth and tragic past. His Batman is either a hyper-focused savant, coolly whispering crime scene revelations only her can perceive to Gordon while uniformed cops stare askance at this caped freak in their midst; or else he’s a hyper-violent vigilante beating street criminals into paste while declaring, “I’m vengeance”. This is a Batman in the grips of an identity crisis; his main arc is figuring out who he actually wants to be: hero or vigilante? Complicating matters is the fact that the Riddler’s killing spree is motivated by Gotham’s all-pervading civic corruption, for which he blames the late members of the Wayne family, whose wealth here has fuelled decades of graft. Can Batman’s mission mean anything if his sainted parents had feet of clay?