Looking across the premises of a large house in Gotham City, we pass across the windows and the yard before finally coming to look at a young boy inside, dancing about with his toy sword and ninja costume. From the shot’s perspective, we can faintly see the boy’s parents enter the room. The boy’s father dramatically acts out dying after being pretend-stabbed by his son, and remains still on the floor for some time until the trio eventually retreats from the window, and our gaze. Thing is, the faint off-camera breathing lets us know we’re not the only ones surveying this family.
It’s Halloween night, and the young boy soon hits the streets in search of treats, accompanied by his mother. Flicking through the channels on the television in front of him in the dark, the kid’s father settles for a station broadcasting a mayoral debate. As the personalities on TV contemplate just how badly crime has hit the fan in Gotham, the man watching paces away for a brief moment, and the light from the screen flickers off the glasses of a dark figure waiting in silence. We all know where this is going.
Deeper in the heart of the city, rain pours perpetually from the sky, now illuminated by the bat-signal, as kids run about in costume. Not everyone is quite as giddy, however, as a group of face-painted thugs chase down and corner a man getting off the subway. On the otherwise abandoned platform, the thugs pummel the man until they are eventually interrupted by the caped vigilante we’ve been waiting for. He emerges from the shadows in a fashion not dissimilar to our previous darkness dweller in the opening scene. The thugs put a pause on their mugging, as one in particular steps forward and confidently (overconfidently) demands, ‘who the hell are you supposed to be?’ He is beaten within an inch of his life, and the Batman answers, ‘I’m vengeance.’
This is a much different Batman characterization than we’ve seen before. Played here by Robert Pattinson (Good Time, The Lighthouse), the film skips over the dead horse of a backstory we’re all hopefully very familiar with — parents killed in an alley, orphaned millionaire son turned vigilante crime-fighter, and so on — and gives us a first impression of Bruce Wayne two years into his donning of the suit.
Although the exclusion of that backstory leaves the exact events a bit more mysterious, it certainly doesn’t take anything away from the harrowing magnificence of this Batman’s trauma. This is not a depiction that has Batman fighting crime on the street of Gotham for the sake of justice, but rather of pure, untamed, unhealthy vengeance. Ultimately, we don’t need the backstory to understand just how broken and disturbed this character is, and a lot of that is thanks to Pattinson’s tour-de-force performance.
But what’s a great hero story if it doesn’t have a great villain? That leering killer we previously mentioned is soon revealed once Batman reaches the crime scene of the murder. The dead body is revealed to belong to none other than Gotham City mayor Don Mitchell Junior, despite the face of said body being covered in duct tape with the words ‘NO MORE LIES’ penned across it in red marker. Batman is given special access to the crime scene by Police Lieutenant James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) due to the pair’s friendship, and the fact the killer left an envelope addressed directly to the vigilante himself. Inside is a playful little greeting card with some not so playful additions: a riddle and a cipher. Undeniably, it is the work of the classic Gotham city villain, the Riddler.
This is a villain we’ve seen brought to screen a few times, both in films and on TV, but this is truly unlike some of the silly portrayals of the past. The film sees Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood, Prisoners) suiting for a take on the character that just screams Zodiac Killer. But even if they share the common theme of police-taunting, complex ciphers, and letters to the editors, the Riddler has but one main goal, to ‘unmask the truth’ about Gotham and its corruption. Well-developed villain motivations are a bit uncommon in comic book movies today, but this one certainly stands out. You don’t only understand ‘why’ he’s doing what he’s doing, you actually sympathize with him for feeling the need to do these things in the first place.
I’ll be the first to say that Dano is one of the most unsung stars in movies today, and this might just be his best performance to-date. His character is so chilling, and Dano rides the line between being nuanced and going big with the emotion so effectively. It sends chills down your spine every time he’s on screen. Something that both his performance and the writing supports was actually a slightly unexpected character choice; the Riddler is not actually a complete situation-controlling mastermind. Don’t get me wrong, he’s insanely intelligent, but he’s no Moriarty. And yet, with this choice, I would actually argue the character brings a whole new level of terror with him purely due to his realism. By making a flawed, yet masterful lunatic of a villain, there is a profound level of believability added to him and the story overall.
The believability does wonders as far as grounding the film overall; it feels like a crime thriller, not a superhero movie. Not least in working towards that grounding is the relevance of the themes throughout. Brought particularly into the light by the aforementioned duo, we see an intricate breakdown of vengeance as an MO and the destructive nature it holds for all parties involved. Additionally, since Riddler’s whole thing is bringing the truths of the city into the light, we explore plenty of contemporary and relevant ideas such as class division, corruption, and privilege.
In delving into these ideas, we also find ourselves delving deep into the Gotham underworld. However, I felt this could have been handled a bit better: there is such a large amount of world-building going on in this first film that at times it can be a lot to take in. Overall, the intricacies of overlapping characters and allegiances, though interesting, give the film some pacing problems and make the plot feel slightly bloated, even with its 3-hour runtime. Still, I left the theater with pure excitement for the inevitable sequels this will receive.
The Gotham underworld is complemented by the stylistic prowess we see brought to the screen by the whole crew. Despite the intricacies of the city, this feels like an extremely contained story… something achieved via very tight, almost claustrophobic camera angles. Although the whole neo-noir style can feel a bit too Sin City at times, for the most part, it gives the film a gritty exterior that makes a PG-13 rating feel like an R.
This film has a lot to live up to. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is guaranteed to cast a dominant shadow over any new Batman films for a while now, but director Matt Reeves’ take on the caped crusader solidifies its place as a wholly unique and welcome one. It wears its influences on its sleeve, evoking David Fincher-esque imagery to provide us with the most powerful and grounded Batman film we’ve seen yet.
Overall rating: 8/10