There are moments in the latest entry in Warners and DC’s Batman franchise when I thought this is going to turn into a variation of what we experienced in the reimagined Saw series sequel, Spiral — in which Chris Rock played a detective trying to solve a series of grisly, graphically presented murders in a city run amok. The inventive, torturous death scenes in that film leave nothing to the imagination, earning it a definite R rating.
In The Batman, we see the caped vigilante from Gotham City as he emerges into the figure we know and love, basically playing detective in trying to crack a serial killer targeting the mayor and other officials in gross fashion — their faces, or most of them, covered primitively with masking tape and the phrase “No More Lies” scribbled across. There is always an accompanying greeting card addressed to The Batman and offering a riddle as a clue to the carnage. Unlike Spiral, these murders are not as vividly violent because, let’s face it, this movie needs to be PG-13. Nevertheless, unlike what has come before, and in the unenviable position of having to follow Christopher Nolan’s masterful Dark Knight trilogy, what new writer-director Matt Reeves has cooked up has just as much in common with The Maltese Falcon and sleuths like Sam Spade as it does with what we expect from a Batman picture.
Reeves — who brilliantly stepped into another iconic franchise, the Planet of the Apes movies, and brought them to a new level, especially with War for the Planet of the Apes — has taken on the challenge of producing a fresh take for this comic book icon as well and comes up with the novel twist of turning it into a detective story. He weaves characters we know and love in and out of it, and shining a light on the early days of Bruce Wayne’s emergence into the alter ego of this conflicted hero. And don’t be mistaken, this is not Christian Bale in Batman Begins, not an origin story but rather a look at the title character about a year into his transition into the superhero.
As it starts with dour narration by Batman, played here earnestly and an almost-defeated air by Robert Pattinson. This is a crimefighter exhausted by the effort to get a handle on a corrupt, dark and hopeless metropolis, a person we meet in a kind of purgatory. He is not quite Batman but rather The Drifter, as he tries to find his footing before landing in full regalia on Halloween night with the populace not sure if he is a trick-or-treater or something weirder. It could go any way, but then the murder of the mayor — brutally done in — changes it all and sets Batman and his closest associate, Lt. James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), on the trail of the killer who deals in riddles left as clues. Joining in the hunt is Selena Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), a young woman who lives with cats and dons her surprisingly subtle Catwoman guise and befriends Batman aka Bruce Wayne but with unspecified agendas of her own that eventually will come forth.
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As in any good detective story — especially one with such a noirish overtone that Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig have cooked up — all roads lead to mob bosses and the criminal underworld figures who seem to be hanging out locally in the Iceberg Lounge run by Oz aka The Penguin (Colin Farrell), whose boss is crime lord Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), a man not to be messed with. But Selena is not afraid, and Batman is thrust into this dark, foreboding world that keeps evolving as the bad guys keep on killing and the twists keep coming from two iconic Batman villains: the aforementioned Penguin and, as you might have guessed, The Riddler.
However the latter is not the comical, green-attired character in other versions. In a chilling prison confrontation between Batman and Edward Naston aka Riddler (Paul Dano), we see a truly disturbed individual letting loose, and it is not pretty. Feeling lost, not meeting his own potential and angry about being overlooked and undervalued by society, he has turned to unspeakable crime, and the victims are piling up. The ultimate plans go well beyond the few chosen killings to become a true catastrophe for the populace of Gotham City.
At a running time of three hours, I never once looked at my watch. If feels like two at most, and credit goes to Reeves for making it compelling and atmospheric all the way with the help of ace cinematographer Grieg Fraser (Dune), the vivid production design of James Chinlund, and Michael Giacchino’s pitch-perfect score among the work of a sterling group of artisans. Pattison takes on the iconic role and makes it his own, not an easy task here since he is in that suit more than as Bruce Wayne, certainly not the dapper playboy in past versions but a conflicted soul in search of himself.
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Kravitz is excellent, a Catwoman far less extreme than others who have played her, and so is Wright, played with the world weariness of a law enforcement officer in an impossible job. Turturro totally gets the right beat on Falcone, while in lesser roles Peter Sarsgaard as D.A. Gil Colson and Jayme Lawson as Bella Real both have some explosive moments. Dano goes places we have never seen him go before, and the results might be a bit over-the-top but chilling nonetheless. And speaking of “chilling,” Farrell steals the show and the most time in the makeup trailer as Oz/Penguin, totally unrecognizable and right on the money. And finally, the inimitable Andy Serkis brings touching purpose and gravitas to the role of faithful Alfred.
In terms of action, this is meant to be a slower-paced and far moodier take on the 80-year-old fan favorite but is worth the price of admission just for a midfilm car chase that ranks with the best in any previous version. The Batman might not be The Batman, but what Reeves has wrought is pretty damn good and worth a few spins in the Batmobile. In other words, this is a Batman you have never seen before.
Producers are Reeves and Dylan Clark. Warner Bros releases the film on Friday. Check out my video review with scenes from the movie at the link above.
Do you plan to see The Batman ? Let us know what you think.
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