‘The Batman’ Review: What if The Dark Knight Rises had been Se7en?

Batman has been re-envisioned for the big screen more frequently and diversely than any other superhero. From Tim Burton’s gothic nightmare to Zak Snyder’s drab mess, and not forgetting the hilarious Adam West rendition. After only five years of cinematic dormancy we have Matt Reeve’s new vision…an amalgamation of all the previous ones. But with a surprising new ingredient.

Having already started his quest for vengeance disguised as the mysterious Batman, Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) faces a dangerous serial killer who calls himself The Riddler (Paul Dano). With the help of a determined cat burglar Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz) his trusty manservant Alfred (Andy Serkis) and the only good cop in whole damn city James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), Batman scours the underbelly of Gotham City in search of answers. Though he may discover more than he cared to know about The Riddler, his parents and himself.

The film opens with a menacing sequence of a man being stalked in his home by a mysterious stranger, invoking David Fincher’s Zodiac. Reeves does very ably invoke a sense of dread throughout the film. No film since Batman Begins has recalled Batman’s thematic connection with fear. As we shift focus to Batman’s nocturnal activities Reeves builds anticipation well, whilst also recalling Snyder’s gravelly rendition (influenced heavily by his own adaptation of Watchmen). The action then resembles Nolan’s up close brutality that emphasises impact over visibility or beauty. This extends to the vehicle action which relies heavily on mounted cameras, used so effectively by Nolan in Interstellar.

The city of Gotham is somewhere between Batman Begin’s Narrows, Burtons Art Deco spires and even the neon tinge of Shumacher’s efforts. The Wayne mansion is pure Burton, whilst the sometimes goofy riddles is pure West. Snyder’s heavy colour grading is present albeit in a new rusty red shade. From the comics and 90s cartoon show we get a very refreshing renewed focus on investigation, restoring the credibility of Batman being the world’s greatest detective. For audience members well-versed in the caped crusader’s history, the film is a highlight reel of his various incarnations.

But does it actually do anything new? Well, it’s the first Batman movie to rip off Se7en! As The Riddler leaves behind increasingly elaborate crime scenes with PG-13 appropriate grisly deaths, the similarities to Fincher’s seminal serial killer film, in particular the culmination of the investigation which sees The Batman and Gordon find The Riddler’s apartment and collection of creepy notebooks. It’s a bit heavy handed but the mystery elements aren’t as tired as the rest of the Batman mythos.

Reeve’s film also brings Batman back to his 30s crime noir origins, especially in the dialogue and plotting. Batman frequently returns to a seedy nightclub where corrupt politicians rub shoulders with eccentric crime lords. Colin Farrell’s grotesque Penguin is more Orson Welles than Danny Devito. Wayne himself encapsulates the desperate man with nothing to lose only with a slightly comical 90s grunge aesthetic.

Leaving aside the franchises hang ups, we find a compelling but uneven film. The serial killer story shares screen time a little uneasily with the wider political intrigue that attempts to mirror how disaffection drives people towards vigilantism and extremist groups. This is actually very astute and interesting. The men and women who attempted a coup last January remind us that taking the law into your own hands is a dangerous thing to do. Having Batman realise he needs to do better and positioning The Riddler as a dark reflection of Wayne’s self-indulgent mission has been done before but perhaps not so elegantly.

What does get left behind in the manic pacing of the film is character. Wayne has a lot going on, but never feels three-dimensional. He reacts to the things that happen to him and is suitably shocked by the revelations regarding his past, but there’s no sense of who he really is and what it means. It’s nowhere near as shallow as Snyder’s portrayal but forms an unfortunate gap at the centre of the film where it’s heart should be.

The Batman is beautiful but derivative. It’s insightful but hollow. It’s a rousing summer blockbuster, but it is a little disappointing. It simultaneously feels like a belated sequel to Tim Burton’s Batman films and a remake of The Dark Knight Rises. What it doesn’t feel like, and what I really wanted it to be, is a whole new vision of The Batman.

Three Stars

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