Back in 1989, the concept of a dark, serious and Gothic-styled Batman was alien to mainstream audiences, whose point of reference when it came to Bruce Wayne’s alter ego was still the outrageously campy mid-60s TV show version of the character.
Though comic book fans were of course up to speed with the darker stylings of the character, this meant that they clashed with director Tim Burton’s casting choice for Batman: Michael Keaton, who up until that point was known primarily for comedic roles. So opposed to Keaton were the fans that tens of thousands of them co-ordinated a protest by mail; back in the pre-internet days, it was no mean feat to get so many fans together to send such a frighteningly huge number of letters to Warner Brothers.
Of course, we know how 1989 Batman turned out. It pretty much kicked off the modern Summer blockbuster as we know it; though films like Jaws paved the way for cultural phenomena like Star Wars and its endless reserves of toys and tie-in merchandise, nothing compared to the onslaught of hype and products that preceded and accompanied the arrival of Batman. Even the Prince ‘soundtrack’, which featured many songs barely audible in the movie (as well as a few that were admittedly prominently featured) was almost single-handedly responsible for the rise of the ‘Songs from and Inspired by’ movie soundtracks of the 90s.
1992 sequel Batman Returns then saw Burton, having weathered the concerns of both the money men and fans to deliver an unqualified commercial smash hit in ’89, let off the leash to make a violent, dark and even kinky movie which had parents and merch licensees up in arms.
Despite once more seeing big commercial success, the toy manufacturers and Happy Meal providers ended up making those WB suits nervous about their cash cow all over again. caused a shift back towards colour and camp that ended up being the death of the franchise just five years later, with 1997’s disastrous Batman & Robin, directed by Joel Schumacher (which itself followed another campy, but reasonably entertaining entry from the same director – 1995’s Batman Forever).
Christopher Nolan’s serious and critically lauded – not to mention commercially successful – Dark Knight trilogy followed, resurrecting the franchise with Batman Begins in 2005. The Zack Snyder DC Universe movies brought us the Ben Affleck Batman, who was the bright point in some awfully overwrought slow motion pictures that were seriously clunky script-wise, despite Snyder’s undeniable talent with visuals. Though all of these movies were fairly adult-oriented in many ways, it didn’t put off the merchandise machine and little upset was caused by the casting (though of course there were detractors – many of these films hit screens during the social media age after all.
Why do I see such a preamble as necessary in my review of 2022’s The Batman, directed by the ever-reliable Matt Reeves and starring ex-twinkly vampire Robert Pattinson?
It’s because here we have a truly Gothic, relentlessly grim serial killer movie that’s even earned itself a 15 certificate in the UK. Yep, that means that no one under the age of 15 can see it (unless you happen to be in Belfast, where the local authority has decided to overturn the 15 and give the movie a 15A, leaving it up to parents to decide if their kids are mature enough to handle the Zodiac Killer-inspired shenanigans onscreen. And yet…the merchandise doesn’t seem to have let up. Sure, it’s nowhere near as pervasive as 1989’s Batman (truth be told, that was a merchandising juggernaut of a size that’s barely been equalled since, let alone surpassed, but we still hilariously have Lego sets of scenes that the target audience isn’t legally allowed to see, as one example.
And trust me, this really does go to eleven on the grunge scale. I found it to be almost overwhelmingly grimy; even the scenes shot in daylight are covered in a raincloud gloom, when they’re not being assaulted by the rain itself. The rest of the film is shot in the darkness and shadows, lit by the off-colour glow of street lights or even the demonic-feeling glow of car and bike headlights. Michael Giacchino’s phenomenal score and the almost-unintentionally funny overwrought, inverted-Gothic-spire architecture of Wayne’s residence and beyond give the movie a truly oppressive yet compellingly unique atmosphere.
Opening on Halloween to an already damaged and tired Batman who acknowledges in noir-esque voiceover that he can’t be everywhere in Gotham at once, the scene is truly set for this to be a Dark Knight picture that truly out-darks the rest.
That is to do it a disservice though. It’s easy enough to just make your superheroes grimdark with all style and no substance (right, Snyder?), but Reeves gives us a Batman that we frequently see on the page but have rarely, if ever, seen on screen: the World’s Greatest Detective.
Though dense, as well as full of characters and incidents that all add to the rich tapestry of Gotham as a place in dire need of a saviour, The Batman really is a hunt for a ruthless, terrifying, smart and very elusive serial killer, The Riddler (played jaw-droppingly well by Paul Dano – whose ‘costume’ was even inspired by a description of the actual, IRL Zodiac Killer). The Riddler is targeting high profile, high society individuals in Gotham and the GCPD are flummoxed; Batman does have an ally in the police department however: Jim Gordon (played by the always-excellent Jeffrey Wright), who allows him access to crime scenes and calls him using the Bat Signal. Batman also finds a shaky alliance with a cat burglar (Zoe Kravitz) who’s looking to dish out her own brand of justice upon a Gotham underworld – including Colin Farrell, unrecognisable under countless layers of incredible prosthetics, as gangster Penguin.
You’ll note that I’ve barely mentioned Bruce Wayne and there’s a good reason for that; Reeves goes to great lengths to demonstrate that Batman has become Wayne’s dominant, preferred personality (to the frustration of his butler, Alfred – played by one of the world’s finest actors in my humble opinion: Andy Serkis). Wayne is awkward being exposed as himself, whereas Batman is measured, confident and capable. That’s entirely deliberate of course – and somewhat of a recurring theme for the movie in general too, not just for the main character.
Who ever thought that we’d see a Batman movie with Nirvana songs on the soundtrack? It’s a long way from the funk of Prince, but then this is a Batman that most reminded me of another relentlessly grim – but incredibly gripping – movie: Se7en. That movie saw Brad Pitt’s idealistic cop and Morgan Freeman’s weathered, beaten-down veteran detective hunting for a puzzle-obsessed serial killer across a city so drenched in rain and gloom that it was easy to see why the inhabitants felt so helpless. The parallels are pretty clear to see.
The action has real impact here, the fights and violence gritty and realistic; shorn of the need to tone anything down to secure a lower age rating. It’s remarkable, really, that we’ve gone from seeing The Sun newspaper in the UK practically foaming at the mouth to announce that Batman was being turned into a HORROR MOVIE back in the late 80s, yet here we have the closest thing yet to a truly horrific Batman movie and the cinematic landscape and language around superhero characters has changed so much that there’s been little or no furore over it. Just as comic books aren’t just for kids, we’ve now come to finally realise the same for comic book movies – even though truly adult takes on the material are still few and far between.
Is it a good film? It sure is. Gritty, intense and full of superb performances, it’s an incredibly well made piece of art that gives us a unique cinematic take on Batman (it doesn’t even try to hide the eyeliner under the cowl this time; Pattinson’s character is truly emo). It’s not perfect – there are a few admittedly minor elements that don’t quite hit home and the ‘update delivered by TV news report’ trope is overused to a ridiculous, almost comedic, extent (especially with how graphic some of the updates end up being!).
Did I enjoy it though? Enjoy probably isn’t the right word. It’s so relentlessly grim that I was somewhat relieved when it was over. Even the – very few – moments of comic relief do little to lighten the mood; again referencing Se7en, it’s a film I greatly admire and definitely appreciate the artistry of – but I’m not in a rush to spend more time in its grim, neo-noir reality just yet.
Reeves has delivered what he always does though: a thoughtful, impeccably-crafted and mature blockbuster. The Batman feels like no other superhero film ever made, let alone any other Batman film. We’ve come a really long way since 1989.
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