Film reviews: The Batman | Ali & Ava
Matt Reeves’s take on Batman is designed to highlight his sleuthing skills, so it’s a shame Robert Pattinson’s caped crusader turns out to be a somewhat dull detective, writes Alistair Harkness
The Batman (15) ***
Ali & Ava (15) ****
Batman begins again in the latest reboot for the Caped Crusader. Starring Robert Pattinson and directed by Matt Reeves, best known for the last two Planet of the Apes films, The Batman isn’t quite the radical re-invention promised by the definite article in the title and the Nirvana soundtrack cuts. Covering similar ground to Christopher Nolan’s 2005 version, the film kicks off as a gloomier, moodier riff on Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s 1986 comic book series Batman: Year One, albeit set just over a year or so into Bruce Wayne’s nocturnal war against Gotham City’s criminal element when he’s still finding his feet as a vengeance-seeking psychopath with a penchant for capes, cowls and kicking the crap out of gangs of marauding maniacs.
As Miller and Mazzuchelli did, the film takes some of its inspiration from Taxi Driver, with a voice-over from Pattinson delivering Travis Bickle-style diary entries recounting his nightly excursions through a crime-infested cesspool. It’s a cinematic influence that immediately brings to mind Todd Philips’s radical repurposing of The King of Comedy in 2019’s Batman-adjacent Joker. This isn’t just another ersatz Martin Scorsese movie, though. It’s also an ersatz David Fincher film as Reeves reconfigures classic Batman villain the Riddler as a cross between the Zodiac killer and John Doe from Seven. Played by Paul Dano – riffing on his own creepy turn in Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners – the Riddler is introduced in the film’s unsettling opening sequence surveilling a politician whose progressive public persona masks some personal and professional failings. It’s a great way to open, with restricted point-of-view shots keeping it abmiguous as to whether this is going to be his introduction or the Batman’s – a deliberate, thematically relevant bit of obfuscation as it turns out.
But after Batman’s first proper appearance, the air slowly starts going out of the film as its attempts to suck us into a grim and gritty serial killer procedural are hampered by having a guy in bat ears working the crime scenes. Batman’s supposed to be a great detective of course, and this is the first movie to give his sleuthing skills precedence over all those wonderful toys normally found in the billionaire’s arsenal. Alas, in the labyrinthine plot that ensues, the script requires him to be actively rubbish at solving some of the not-terribly-challenging clues the Riddler is taunting him with, purely, it seems, to spin out the municipal corruption drama unfurling as another power grab between the criminal element in Gotham City erupts.
Here Colin Farrell’s Penguin emerges, caked in layers of prosthetics to make him look like Robert De Niro’s take on Al Capone in The Untouchables. He’s all ready-to-erupt menace – and all ready for the sequel the film inevitably sets up as Batman rides his motorbike through Glasgow’s Necropolis (doubling for a Gotham City graveyard) in the film’s closing minutes. The film also spends a good bit of time introducing us to Zoe Kravitz as future Catwoman Selina Kyle. Her origins hue closer to the seedier backstory found in the Year One comic, but with some additional parental issues to strengthen her bond with Batman, whose own tragically orphaned status is repeatedly circled, albeit with some intriguing new details that force him to reassess the morality of his individualistic mission to violently work through his grief for the betterment of Gotham.
Kravitz is good in the role and generates some heat with Pattinson, who has proven himself a fascinating actor in recent years. It’s ironic, then, that his return to franchise filmmaking should give him his most limiting role since Twilight. In the suit isn’t all that distinguishable from Christian Bale’s Batman; but his Bruce Wayne has a Twilight-esque “sullen Cullen” vibe, just with emo bangs instead of a bedhead pompadour. He’s the goth in Gotham City, though given Batman’s vampire-like existence, it’s a more fitting comparison than the fanciful Kurt Cobain references Reeves has been dropping in interviews. Sadly, what’s really missing is any kind of original stamp. Reeves is one of the more thoughtful blockbuster filmmakers out there, but here he never quite manages to transcend his influences. In trying to disrupt the superhero format by pretending it’s not a superhero movie, Reeves gives us a greatest hits collection of scenes from other movies that just happen to now feature Batman.
The latest from Clio Barnard, Ali & Ava is a rare thing in cinema: a middle-aged love story that’s romantic and realistic rather than forced and patronising. Set in Bradford, it draws on Barnard’s own affinity for the work of the late Andrea Dunbar (the subject of her experimental documentary The Arbor), but with an ongoing recognition that even in marginalised cities with limited opportunities, there’s warmth and humour and things to strive for that make life an enriching experience regardless of how people perceive you. It also treats the interracial relationship between the British Asian Ali (Adeel Akhtar) and the Irish-descended Ava (Claire Rushbrook) with matter-of-fact candour, barely making it a plot point, but acknowledging the tensions that exist as their respective family situations complicate matters. Barnard, who’s very good at finding beauty in the banal, ups the stakes without resorting to melodrama; this is a film that understands how all-consuming and difficult fast-forged love can be, but also understands that its obstacles are worth surmounting.
The Batman and Ali & Ava are in cinemas from 4 March
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