The initial reactions to Robert Pattinson’s casting as the Batman were predictably divisive, particularly in comic fan circles (a famously well-adjusted bunch at the best of times). Many among them refused to accept that this “sparkly vampire” could possibly live up to their ideal image of the caped crusader, and that “My Chemical Robats” must surely spell the end of their beloved franchise. Of course, all this really indicated was that the common nerd understands their favourite hero about as well as they understand puns. That is to say, not at all.
Batman has always been a fragmented character. Interpretations range from blue tights and kid sidekicks in the Detective Comics harkening back to the 1940s, to the psychosexual surrealism of books like Arkham Asylum in 1989 (in which incel-glorified supervillain The Joker is made up like Madonna, down to the stockings and swishing hairline, and spends its duration trying to seduce our eunuch Dark Knight – seriously, google it ). The most consistent feature of Batman has always been his inconsistency, and while the same can be said for virtually any long-running comic book property, the caped crusader is unique for having appeared in a record 84 feature films, discounting the countless additional television appearances. It would be impossible to construct an adaptation of the character capable of encapsulating everything that makes Bruce Wayne such an enticing artifact in popular culture, which makes it all the more impressive that The Batman director Matt Reeves has come shockingly close.
Just as the menacing Riddler (Paul Dano) leaves a Valentine’s card for the Batman at every crime scene, Reeves The Batman is an assured and detail-obsessed love letter to the mythology of its hero. The film is set in the second year of the Bat’s war on crime in Gotham, which fans will quickly clock as a playful wink to iconic origin comic ’Year One’. Indeed, one of this film’s most immediately striking and refreshing choices is its assumption that audiences already know the framework of its world. Batman is an orphan billionaire, living out of a cave, breaking bones at night with his work wife Lieutenant Gordon (Jeffrey Wright, not yet the Commissioner), all while his faithful butler Alfred (Andy Serkis) sulks at home over a cup of tea. The message is clear; Year One is done, it’s time for something new.
And new is just what we get. Over its epic, three hour runtime, The Batman weaves together a complicated canvas of characters and conspiracies, tied together by the threat of masked killer The Riddler (with this iteration drawing more from David Fincher’s Se7en and Zodiac than from Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura spin on the character back in 1995). Through a sinister social media campaign, Riddler has vowed to undo a wave of corruption that has taken hold of Gotham, which he largely achieves through murdering public figures in increasingly gory fashion, and left disfigured and enshrined in dedication to our tall, dark and brooding caped crusader.
Reeves has described his approach to The Batman first and foremost as a detective story, with the subgenre being one of the last great tenets of the character left unexplored in cinematic adaptations. Consequently, the vast majority of the film’s dramatic weight is pinned on Pattinson’s laconic, simmering performance. Appearing in virtually every scene (and only removing his mask for a total of about ten minutes throughout), the Twilight heartthrob turned arthouse golden boy brings the best of both worlds to this unhinged, unsettled reimagining of the character.
Indeed, the Twitter nickname of ‘emo Batman’ proves to have been rather prophetic; most of the decisions Pattinson makes in his presentation of Batman would likely leave Marvel CEO Kevin Feige feeling a touch queasy. Having based his interpretation largely on a lesser known comic entitled Batman: Ego, wherein the titular character is portrayed as almost schizophrenic with the Bruce and Bat sides of his persona at odds, always wrestling for control of the other, Pattinson’s approach certainly runs the risk of running a bit too edgy for modern sensibilities. It is a testament to both his and Reeves delicate touch then that this more insular take on the hero, whose introduction is made to resemble something out of Taxi Driver (to infinitely better taste than the other one, it must be said), never loses our sympathies. Bruce is often misguided, and often becomes a greater threat to his allies than any of the villain, but Reeves plays this as pitiful, not heroic. The Batman of this film is the reality of the sort of unstable man who believes the best the best way to enact change is with pointy ears and a swooping cape. We’re a long way from the moonlighting gym bunny playboy of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy here.
The humanity of this rendition of Bruce Wayne is largely cultivated through his encounters with Gotham’s other leather clad vigilante; the Catwoman. Played now by Zoe Kravitz, this latest rendition of Selina Kyle will inevitably invite comparisons to Michelle Pfeiffer’s iconic take in 1992’s Batman Returns , and although both characters work in much the same way as an inversion of Batman (whereas Bruce is symbolic of privilege and wealth, Selina has only ever known squalor; the fact that both have come to stalk the night in flattering spandex is a psychoanalyst’s dream), Kravitz glows by infusing the character with a curiously aromantic edge. The Bat and the Cat might be the oldest ship in superheroism after Superman and Lois Lane, but The Batman has little time for love stories. Pattinson’s Bruce is sexless, almost virginally naïve, whereas Kravitz’s Selina is tunnel-visioned; ruthlessly pragmatic (and refreshingly queer), yet willing to toy with her hulking dark knight to any end. They are the detective and femme fatale of a classic noir tale, with the same crackling, intensely ambiguous chemistry of the genre’s best and bleakest.
Coming into The Batman then, the main question always going to be what Pattinson, Reeves and the rest of the team could bring to this character in 2022 after a whopping eighty years of prior reinventions. Drawing from an assortment of iconic comic storylines, from ‘The Long Halloween’ and ‘Hush’ to more recent breakouts like ‘The Court of Owls’, it would be easy for this film to slip into old habits and once again spin Batman into the sort of artless action star of his peers on the comic shelves. The core elements are all here; the Gothic romance, the convoluted mysteries and the electrifyingly overplayed villains, but what Reeves and Pattinson have really achieved is an adaptation which truly interrogates the inherent fallacy of superheroism’s best (and arguably only) literary figure on screen for the very first time. The symbolic conceit of Batman has always been the fight to turn trauma into a force for good, and The Batman engages with the source material of its hero first and foremost as a victim, before concluding in its final, jaw-dropping movement with a breathtakingly heartfelt alternative to his typically doomed fate. The Batman is the rare blockbuster to get everything right, and then dare to try something a bit different. Which means the fans are probably going to hate it. Bring on the puns.