The Batman is a Wonderfully Grimy Noir in Superhero Clothes

Rating: 4 out of 5.

It’s a beautiful thing, when each element of a film is working so harmoniously together, where nothing dominates the other, all working to execute a singular vision. There was a mountain of expectations put on Matt Reeves to create a unique Batman story, a character so embedded into the story of the last 35 years of Hollywood filmmaking, and, most surprisingly, the filmmaker has met those expectations.

We are entering the Batman story a couple years into Bruce Wayne’s journey as the Caped Crusader. With so many recent iterations of the character in film, the writing here is aggressively avoiding overlapping elements from the other franchises. There is no scene of Martha Wayne’s pearls falling to the floor (although it could be argued this iteration required this scene more than any other), or extended montages of Bruce learning to fight. Modern films are increasingly aware of its audience’s background with these stories, allowing each individual film to spread its wings and flourish on its own terms.

It is here that The Batman flourishes. Reeves has crafted a true auteurist vision inside a blockbuster superhero film that is remarkable. With an outstanding cast and arguably the best working cinematographer behind the camera – Melbourne’s own Greig Fraser – The Batman shows us that with enough creativity and craft, the superhero genre can still execute high-level filmmaking.

We should start with the casting, which is excellent and wonderfully refreshing. Pattinson helms the ship like it’s an A24 trauma thriller, with a performance of an emerging Batman and still grief-ridden Bruce Wayne that has you deeply compelled and tense throughout. Pattinson is an impressively nervy actor who is able to show us a mask that is just on the verge of cracking. The film positions Pattinson’s more dour Batman with a wonderful cast of actors, all at the top of their game, to ground the story in a level of humanity that could easily have gone missing in a story like this. The ensemble of Zoë Kravitz as Selina Kyle/Catwoman, Jeffrey Wright as Commissioner Gordon, John Turturro as Carmine Falcone, Paul Dano as The Riddler, an unrecognisable Colin Farrell as The Penguin, and Andy Serkis as Alfred, are all excellent and are perfect counterweights to Pattinson’s aura throughout the film.

Robert Pattinson (left) as Batman and Zoë Kravitz (right) as Catwoman in The Batman

Reeves’ previous experience as a horror director (2010’s underrated Let me in) comes through in several chilling scenes with Paul Dano’s Riddler, a character that has been adapted from one of the campiest in the rogue’s gallery to a harrowing villain that wouldn’t feel out of place in the Saw franchise.

It was clear from the beginning they wanted to craft a story that leaned more heavily into the grime and detective noir aspects of the character, with several scenes that wouldn’t seem out of place in Seven (1995). The use of Riddler in the Batman franchise has always called upon a more detective and serial killer-tinged story, an aspect the film runs headfirst into instead of avoiding. It’s pretty remarkable that this film was able to achieve an M rating in Australia (PG-13 rating).

The level of craft in The Batman is where this film shines and this review could definitely pick each individual element to highlight how it perfectly sits in the pocket of the vision Reeves has for the film. One crucial element I will highlight is the score. The Jaws-ifying of the iconic Batman theme by Michael Giacchino throughout the film works brilliantly, showcasing Pattinson’s iteration of the character as a foreboding presence.

This is further emphasised by Fraser, cribbing from his own work in Rogue One (which Giacchino also scored) of Darth Vader in the hallway, a sequence that has now become that films defining moment and one of the best in the Star Wars franchise, with Batman stepping out of the darkness to enact vengeance.

Colin Farrell as The Penguin in The Batman

It’s impossible not to view the film from the lens of the other Batman films, in particular the Nolan franchise which is still the benchmark for this sort of superhero storytelling. While there are no individual performances as totemic as Heath Ledger, there are many moments that The Batman has improved upon from those films. The political narrative that Nolan experimented with on Dark Knight Rises (2012) has been refined here. In Nolan’s film, the political aspect centred around an Occupy Wall Street allusion felt pasted onto the story being told. Whereas in Reeves’ film, the political narrative is rooted deeply in every aspect of the story, and is a large reason Paul Dano’s Riddler works so effectively. In 2022, there is no more apt American villain than a QAnon leader whose ultimate plan involves a mass shooter plot at an iconic New York venue (I won’t spoil which). Reeves and Pattinson have been active in the press the last month expressing how bleak and dark this iteration of Batman is, and it is in this story choice where that darkness is evident and chilling.

But this film is still a big-budget blockbuster and there are some exhilarating sequences, including a remarkable car chase that maintains the same viscerality that defines every moment of Reeves’ film. The Batman’s legacy will most likely focus on the emo vibe and the runtime, but its action set pieces are worthy of the same acclaim given to Nolan’s trilogy.

What The Batman has achieved feels momentous. After almost 20 years of superhero dominance in Hollywood, it is remarkable to have a filmmaker come in and make the genre feel as fresh and vital as it’s ever been. The Batman is a showcase for some of the best craftspeople and performers in the industry, and is hopefully just the beginning for this new caped crusader.

James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad is an Irreverent, Unhinged Joy

DC’s cinematic output has been rather disparate of late, to say the least, with their releases range in quality from good to woeful, and most being mediocre at best. Now comes another blockbuster branded with the DC moniker, this one outshining everything that has come before it – especially its 2016 namesake.

Task Force X is a secretive branch of the United States government that oversees military operations deemed too dangerous, or too sensitive, for America’s heroes to be involved in. Their agents are inmates of the Belle Reve Correctional Centre – home to the evilest of supervillains – who are recruited in exchange for reduced sentences, provided they comply with their commands; should they not, the agents will be killed by their superiors.

The organisation’s newest recruit is Robert “Bloodsport” DuBois (Idris Elba) who has been sought by the director of Task Force X, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) to lead an operation on the despotic island-state of Corto Maltese. DuBois has no desire to be involved whatsoever, until Waller threatens the safety of his teenage daughter, thereby forcing his hand into joining and reluctantly leading the mission.

The entity of Task Force X previously made its cinematic debut in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad (2016), which found commercial success despite being widely panned by critics for its appalling direction, unfunny humour and jarring, inconsistent tone. In developing the sequel, Warner Bros. ditched Ayer and handed directorial duties to James Gunn – who had just been fired from Marvel Studio for a series of tasteless posts on social media – and gave him complete creative freedom.

As a result of said freedom, Gunn’s new film bares next to no correlation with its Ayer-helmed precursor, despite sharing a similar title in The Suicide Squad. The extended cast serves as the only discernible connection between the two movies, with the abovementioned Davis reprising her role, in addition to Joel Kinnaman as Colonel Rick Flag; Australia’s own Margot Robbie as the squeaky-voiced jester, Harley Quinn; and fellow Australian Jai Courtney as the intensely ocker Captain Boomerang.

Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) makes a return to the screen in The Suicide Squad

Joining them are a bunch of fresh recruits who operate under Bloodsport’s command, including macho gunman Christopher “Peacemaker” Smith (John Cena); a man who can conjure explosive polka-dots, Abner Krill (David Dastmalchian); an anthropomorphic shark named Nanaue (voiced by Sylvester Stallone); a young woman who can summon and control rats, Cleo Cazo (Daniela Melchior); and finally, Cleo’s pet rat Sebastian (voiced by animal impressionist Dee Bradley Baker).

The Suicide Squad spends the majority of its time focused on the latter group of characters, and rightly so, because they’re nothing but a charm. This appeal is fuelled largely by the performers who play them, with all the newcomers looking poised and relaxed, and each gifting their respective roles with a distinct personality. Through their efforts alone, these actors have turned a group of obscure antagonists into loveable rogues who deserve to lead every sequel and spin-off that follows.

Just as admirable is the film’s screenplay, solely and cleverly written by Gunn. In addition to the main conflict, each character is gifted with their own story-arc that pertains to a troubled backstory, developing and maturing as they seek to address it. Although these struggles are relatively minor, they do aid in further humanising the protagonists; what’s more, their arcs prove just as gripping as the central plot without ever distracting from it, nor overwhelming the audience with narrative.

The screenplay’s strength doesn’t just lie in its ability to fuse multiple storylines into a coherent package, for it is equally adept at toying with the viewer’s expectations. Gunn sets the stakes of his picture high from the outset, showing characters being killed left, right and centre with little regard for how established they are, and even less for the celebrities chosen to portray them. After the first few minutes, there’s no knowing where the film is heading, nor if anybody will survive the climactic showdown.

As much a part of The Suicide Squad’s appeal is the mature content, being more vulgar and graphic than the average superhero blockbuster, courtesy of the profanity-ridden dialogue, sporadic glimpses of nudity and gratuitous levels of violence. Blood and gore are abundant in Gunn’s picture, with all manner of body parts bursting open whenever a character is slaughtered, and the majority of those deaths being played for laughs.

Robert “Bloodsport” DuBois (Idris Elba) confronts Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) in The Suicide Squad

On the subject of laughs, there’s some pretty decent ones to be had throughout, with frequent, fast-paced quips coming from every character, as well as the occasional slapstick gag; yet the best comedy is mined from the desk-bound bureaucrats of Task Force X – played by Steve Agee, Tinashe Kajese-Bolden and Jennifer Holland, among others – who utter the funniest one-liners of the entire movie, very nearly outmatching the likeability of the main characters.

Amusingly impish though The Suicide Squad is, there are some aspects in which it falls short. One such aspect is the characterisation of Bloodsport who, despite the film’s best efforts, cannot shake the fact that he is practically identical to Deadshot from the other Suicide Squad film – both are played by black actors, both wear silly masks, both are sharpshooters with impeccable aim, and both are absent fathers wanting to do right by their respective daughters. Were it not for Elba’s British accent, there would be nothing to distinguish between them.

Another disappointment is the music that accompanies proceedings. As per his work on the Guardians of the Galaxy movies (2014, 2017), Gunn has personally curated a soundtrack of retro songs to pair with events, but this one doesn’t have the same appeal, for it lacks the catchy, kitschy tunes of his Marvel Studios playlists. The result is a soundtrack that pales not only to Gunn’s previous features, but even to a picture like Cruella (2021), which demonstrated a far better utilisation of classic hits.

Those grievances notwithstanding, The Suicide Squad is unequivocally the wittiest, warmest and most gratifying DC film to date, and an irreverent alternative to the superhero genre’s usual offerings. Idiosyncratic characters, fantastic performances, gory action sequences and some hearty chuckles solidify the picture as a winner, all but atoning for the sins of its predecessor.

The Suicide Squad is currently screening in cinemas where open, and available for digital download through select services.