What does it mean to truly capture the essence of Batman? In the past 33 years, we’ve had three big budget, big screen franchises starring The Caped Crusader. And each time, at one point or another, we’ve more than likely heard the phrase “the definitive version of Batman” uttered among colleagues, friends, and fanboys. However, in these 33 incredible years, which have seen their shares of highs and lows with adaptations of the mythology, there surprisingly has never been a truly detective-oriented Batman story put to live action film. Until now.
I’m happy to say that Matt Reeves’ vision of The Batman is a masterpiece. It is a version of Batman that we’ve never seen, putting the detective aspect front and center, doing so in a brutal, gritty fashion. It is the first time a filmmaker has truly honored Batman’s origins in Detective Comics as it truly encapsulates the feeling of immersing yourself into a mature long-form, multi-issue whodunnit Batman arc, such as Jeph Loeb’s The Long Halloween, Dark Victory, or Hush.
And for someone like me, who is absolutely sick of seeing every filmmaker going solely to the Frank Miller well for their Batman adaptations (because they seem to be unaware that other authors exist), it feels like we are finally getting closer to a more definitive version of the character on the big screen in live action (because for the record my definitive Batman is still Kevin Conroy’s interpretation from Batman: The Animated Series).
Yes, many reading this will be quick to point out that Reeves, like his predecessors, was also inspired by Miller’s Batman: Year One. But, as he’s also stated several times in interviews, this is more like Year Two for the character (though not literally inspired by Batman: Year Two). So while films like Nolan’s Batman Begins genuinely feel like origin stories exploring how Bruce Wayne puts on the cowl, Reeves’ film is entirely about what it truly means to wear it. In short, the arc Reeves and his co-writer Peter Craig have crafted for the Dark Knight in this film is absolutely gorgeous.
Without spoiling anything, the film begins with The Riddler making his presence known to Gotham via a series of grisly murders. In true Riddler fashion, clues are left, and Batman is brought in by Lt. Jim Gordon to help with the case. As motives begin to make themselves known, and the body count begins to rack up, Batman starts to find that the case may not be as straight forward as it seems. And underneath every layer that gets peeled back are personal secrets waiting to be revealed.
Let me start out by saying this film is dark as hell. It’s incredibly somber, and a lot more mature than previous adaptations so far. Cinematically speaking, it takes inspiration from classic detective noir films and thrillers like Seven more than traditional, modern day comic book films. And ironically, that actually makes it feel much more like a real Batman story. For instance, the noir trope of using voice over is inherent to Batman comics as well. When picking up any issue of Detective Comics or Batman at some point in time, be it for a storyline like Hush or Court of Owls from the New 52, you’ll eventually come across the unmistakable voice of Bruce (or occasionally other members of the Bat-family) narrating his complex thought process, constantly dictating details about the cases he’s working on or the steps he needs to take to ensure he stays ahead of his enemies. And sure enough, we get that in this film. Thankfully it’s not the entire film. But from the opening frame in which Bruce is catching us up to speed about where he is in his career, as well as his state of mind, it feels like we’re reading narration amidst the moody panels of a classic Batman comic book.
My praise for the writing goes far beyond just that small detail, however. Knowing Bruce’s state of mind throughout the film is key because it fuels his ultimate arc. While it does take a while for you to see the big picture, the way Reeves and Craig map out where Bruce is at the beginning of the film (and incidentally these early days of his Batman career) to where he is at its conclusion after seeing how the events of the film have impacted him; it all beautifully begins to align with the version of the Batman character we know and love, and shows great promise for where they intend to take him. In short, we don’t just get the character that stands for justice and hope right out of the gate, because it needs to be earned. And it is.
Additionally, how The Riddler’s, Selina Kyle’s, and Penguin’s stories factor into everything is so incredibly intricate, but also incredibly well constructed. This isn’t an Amazing Spider-Man 2 or Spider-Man 3 situation where the filmmakers shoehorn in these characters to quickly set up a Rogues Gallery for future movies. Every storyline here ties back into the over arching mystery with The Riddler in a significant way, while still managing to fully flesh out The Riddler — and especially Selina’s characters (less so Penguin for now, even though he has a limited but important-ish role to play in the narrative too). But more importantly it all ties back to Bruce’s personal arc and growth as he’s influenced by what he learns about each of these characters and what separates himself from them. In short, the story and script embody a well constructed puzzle that ultimately creates a beautifully haunting, and (dare I say) actually relevant big picture story (you’ll see what I mean when you see it) that’s incredibly compelling.
The direction of the film is also brilliantly done. Reeves captures a really moody, and very realistic take on Gotham, without robbing it of its character. The world he builds is somewhat of a cross between the Gotham we see in Burton’s and Nolan’s films, in that it’s not nearly as fanciful as Burton’s, but also not as commonplace as Nolan’s. The vision of the world he’s trying to build makes it unique from his predecessors, but no less bold, being incredibly seedy and grimy. And the performances he gets out of Pattinson, Dano, and especially Kravitz are phenomenal.
But what’s most interesting are the unexpected cinematic sources he’s pulling from that really separate this interpretation of Batman from others; particularly the noir and western influence. Indeed, when The Batman walks, we hear metal clanging like spurs. When he comes out of the shadows to face down a gang of violent thugs, it’s slow and filled with tension. And the cinematography — courtesy of Oscar nominee, Greig Fraser (Dune) — adds to this tension, with every gorgeous silhouetted shot of Batman against the darkness of the Gotham streets, or the fleeting light of dusk. Even the amazing score by Michael Giacchino, when combined with the “dark stranger here for vengeance” homages give scenes a Dollars Trilogy sort of polish never previously seen in any other Batman film. It’s gorgeous and fresh all at once.
Because, as previously stated, Reeves is giving us a Bruce Wayne that’s very early in his vigilante career. His version of the character is controlled by rage and (you guessed it) vengeance, and Pattinson understands this. It’s also why his version of the character doesn’t quite capture the duality of the Bruce Wayne/Batman personas as well as his predecessors. But it’s clearly intentional, given Bruce is consumed by the Batman persona he created for himself. To him, the Wayne persona doesn’t matter or exist. So in a move that’s quite unique based on other actors’ portrayals of the role, you don’t have a separation between the vigilante, the tortured orphan, and the playboy philanthropist. You only have Batman, and that is essential to tell this story.
Pattinson is incredibly rage-filled and broody, but also complex and tortured. There’s a sadness that comes across in his expressions and line delivery, but also a sense of conflict about the limits he’s willing to cross for his mission. He handles the role as well as he wears the suit, and still gets us to root for him, in spite of his flaws and obsessions. I will say given the intentional decision to undercut the idea of duality for this film, it’s still early to tell if he will be the best Batman actor of all time. But this film did give me confidence at the prospect that he has that potential. It’s a good performance for this film and the story Reeves wanted to tell, and I’d like to see how it evolves with the franchise.
I will say, however, the villains most definitely walk away with this movie. While Dano’s Riddler may not be the equivalent of the show-stopping performance of Heath Ledger’s Joker, he’s exceptionally creepy. In fact, this is the most I’ve ever been terrified of a Batman villain in any project. Part of that is the grounded writing, and how plausible a character like this is in real life. The other is Dano’s voice. It’s disturbed, unhinged, and full of volatile inflections with every line delivery (most of his scenes he’s got a creepy, full-faced rubber mask on).
I simply am shocked at how long it’s taken me to get to Zoe Kravitz’s performance in this review. Because hands down, she’s already the second best interpretation of Catwoman on film. I realize that’s not a long list, and Michelle Pfeiffer is damn near impossible to beat, but Kravitz oozes charisma with every scene she’s in. In a dark and dour film like this, her character manages to be a spark of life and charm, even if hers is a story as tragic as Bruce’s. She’s tough, she’s sympathetic, and she’s a lot of fun to watch onscreen. Kravitz is the perfect foil for Pattinson, and the two really bounce off each other well. What Reeves does with Selina Kyle here is every bit as complex as what he does with Bruce Wayne. And in that sense, she’s essentially the co-lead of the film. And Kravitz commands every second of her screen time with energy, ferocity, and style.
There are also standout performances from Colin Farrell, unrecognizable as The Penguin (but also hilarious and energetically fun), as well as Jeffrey Wright as Jim Gordon and Andy Serkis as Alfred. Serkis portrays a much more hardened, military trained version of the character (not unlike the version from Fox’s Gotham series), and gives a terrific performance making his version of Alfred lovable, conflicted, and frustrated. His relationship with Bruce is much more contentious than what we’ve previously seen in the past, and Serkis makes it his own. As does Wright for Gordon. We don’t get as much screen time with him as we did with previous iterations, such as Gary Oldman’s. However, Wright plays a perfect everyman committed to justice, cautious of the fact that the only person he can trust is a man in a giant Bat costume. He’s tough and heroic, but also relatable and honest. Wright nails the part.
Now for as much of a masterpiece as I believe the film to be, I will send out a few words of caution for average moviegoers looking for a colorful comic book adrenaline rush. The Batman is not that kind of movie. This, like the noir films and Westerns that inspired it, is a slower burn movie — specifically the first half. So that nearly three-hour runtime is going to feel its length. But it’s worth it. Reeves is trying to engross you with the mystery, and establish stakes and character because it all comes into play by the end of the film. So you won’t get your “Pow! Bam! Boof!” action sequences until a little later. But in doing so, he’s essentially balancing what it is to be a Batman movie. This is a detective mystery first and an action comic book film second. And that’s what you literally get. But it will test audiences who prefer shorter form binges on streaming.
The second half picks up with so many fun action scenes; all of which are spectacular. This is when Reeves embraces the rich tradition of modern comic book fare. There’s a tremendous Batmobile chase sequence that’s been teased in the trailers. It’s excellent and so much fun! And the final sequences of the film are a blast as well. The fights and flights (because we do get both) are also fun, but a lot more brutal than we’ve seen in other Batman movies. From prior films, we rarely see Batman getting beaten as hard physically. In fact, we’re so used to seeing him beat the odds that the premise of what separated Dark Knight Rises from the rest of the Nolan series was that he loses badly midway through. Here, even if The Batman triumphs in scenes, it’s not without first getting the crap beat out of him. He even gets injured flying. And all that to say sequences like this show Reeves’ understands what it should mean to be Batman. Scars and bruises, even if accidentally self inflicted, will happen. And it’s all exciting to watch, ultimately raising the stakes of mortality for this version.
Another thing I’d like to highlight is this is not a movie for kids. Yeah it’s fun to see Batman get the bad guys, and Target is going to sell toys to your 6-year old children. But there are murder sequences that feel ripped out of movies like Reeves’ own horror remake Let Me In or a violent Fincher thriller. There’s a scene involving a severed thumb. There are subplots involving prostitutes and strippers and corrupt government officials. I cannot stress enough how much some of this could traumatize someone of the age I was when I first saw Burton’s Batman in ’89. Far be it for me to tell anyone how to raise their children. I personally would not recommend this for the younglings though.
Matt Reeves’ The Batman is admittedly the first time I’ve seen a Batman movie that mostly captures what I want to see from an adaptation: a moody, gritty, haunting, mystery noir with the world’s greatest (albeit most tortured) detective. As a slow burn, it may not be for those more accustomed to the style of previous Batman films featuring the whiz-bang action spectacles with a side of moral philosophy tossed in. But hardcore readers of the classic storylines that inspired the film will find themselves familiar with the direction and tone of a true Batman graphic novel come to life. With a stellar script, unique direction, and terrific performances from Pattinson and especially Kravitz, I personally can’t wait until the next time they turn on the Bat Signal.
Overall Score: A