While the lucrative Marvel Cinematic Universe gets most of the attention when it comes to the popular superhero genre, it’s hard to find a more anticipated movie than “The Batman”. The Caped Crusader certainly isn’t new to the big screen. First there was the Burton/Schumacher films that began in 1989. Then there was Christopher Nolan’s brilliant bar-setting trilogy starting in 2005. And most recently we had Zack Snyder’s Batman in his “Justice League” series of movies.
Now director Matt Reeves brings a new flavor to the character with “The Batman”, a film originally set for release in June 2021 but pushed back twice during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some may roll their eyes at yet another Batman big screen iteration. But I’ve always found the character, his world, and his rouge gallery to be among the most rich and interesting of its genre. And I love how the Bat-related movies are often willing to step outside the confines of the superhero genre. Such is the case here.
Without question, “The Batman” (co-written by Reeves and Peter Craig) is much more of a detective story than a superhero movie. And rather than following the stock comic book blueprints of movies like “Spider-Man” and “Eternals”, “The Batman” falls more in line with edgy crime thrillers like Fincher’s “Se7en” and “Zodiac”. In some ways it’s a love letter to classic noir. Other times it plays like a hard-boiled procedural with as many bold cerebral choices as eye-popping visual ones.
Robert Pattinson is the latest actor to don the cape and the cowl in what is the first solo non-animated Batman movie since Nolan’s 2012 “The Dark Knight Rises”. Pattinson was an interesting choice, and he slides right into the dueling roles of brooding billionaire Bruce Wayne and the vigilante Dark Knight. What’s fascinating is how Reeves braids the two personas together in ways we haven’t seen before. And while the Batman film’s are notorious for being dark, here the grim and grimy dystopian tone surrounds you in what feels like a three-hour visceral nightmare.
As with most Batman stories, Gotham plays an essential role. Mixing old gothic architecture with a dull glow of LED and neon, the dour rain-soaked design is a perfect reflection of the city’s deterioration. This is a diseased Gotham with striking similarities to our modern day society – the bitter division, the rise in crime, the corrupt leadership willing to let the city burn if it means holding onto power. It’s as if Reeves is holding up a mirror and asking, “Do you see this America? This is where you’re heading. Is this what you want?”
Reeves wisely bypasses the whole Batman origin story which most people (die-hards and casual fans alike) know by heart. Instead he cuts right to the chase. In his film there’s already a bat-suit, a batmobile, a bat-signal, and the bat-cave. And Batman and Gotham PD detective Jim Gordon (a terrific Jeffrey Wright) are already two years into their off-the-record crime-busting partnership. Of course there are references to Thomas and Martha Wayne and how their death has shaped Bruce and given birth to the Batman. It’s an essential piece to any Batman story. But Reeves is crafty in how he uses it and adds some fresh and interesting twists of his own.
Fitting for a movie this bleak, the story begins with the brutal murder of Gotham City’s mayor at the hands of a masked serial killer who goes by Riddler (Paul Dano). Aside from his affection for handmade greeting cards and duct tape, Riddler has a special interest in the Batman. With each new high profile victim, the killer leaves a new riddle specifically for him. This twisted game of cat-and-mouse eats up much of the film’s first half as Gordon works with Batman (much to the chagrin of many of his fellow officers) to piece together the clues before Riddler kills again. Not only is this where the film really ratchets down on the detective angle, but it’s also where Batman and Gordon’s relationship takes form.
But there are several other players with key roles to play. There’s Zoë Kravitz’s seductive and mysterious Selina Kyle, a fresh spin on the Catwoman character with personal stakes in the game. She works at a nightclub ran by Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), a powerful mob boss and drug trafficker who has most of the city’s leaders on his payroll. Falcone’s right-hand man is Oswald Cobblepot, aka Penguin. He’s played by an unrecognizable Colin Farrell in heavy makeup and prosthetics. It’s an astonishing transformation and Farrell is an absolute scene-stealer.
Also in the mix is Andy Serkis playing Bruce Wayne’s butler and mentor Alfred. It’s a small role, but Serkis is a nice fit. The always good Peter Sarsgaard pops up as a crooked district attorney while Jayme Lawson plays a young idealistic mayoral candidate thrust into the center of Gotham’s growing chaos.
And of course there’s Dano who gives an effectively creepy take on Riddler. There are no green spandex with question marks or shrill persistent cackling. Dano’s Riddler is a meticulous and calculated killer; a sociopath with brains and a very clear agenda in mind. His murders are detailed and with purpose, and his cold calloused pathology makes him a terrifying threat. I was concerned about Dano’s boyish appearance, but it works to make Riddler even more unsettling. And much like Nolan’s treatment of the Joker, Reeves doesn’t overuse his chief villain. He’s in there just the right amount of time.
The more you watch “The Batman” the more you recognize and appreciate the differences in Reeves’ vision. For example, there isn’t a glimpse of ‘billionaire playboy’ Bruce Wayne. There’s a fleeting reference to that expectation, but in this Gotham it’s hard to visualize big lavish galas and hobnobbing with the elite. Much like Bruce, the people of Gotham seem beaten down by a city that’s eating itself alive. Also, while this is a superhero movie per se, Reeves’ Batman is far more grounded in reality. Much of it is inherent to the story, but just as much of its identity comes through Greig Fraser’s moody cinematography and Michael Giacchino’s epic score – both Oscar-worthy.
“The Batman” gives you a lot to process, but when fully considered this is a truly great addition to the character’s big screen legacy. What I like best is that Matt Reeves has delivered something strikingly unique – not only as a Batman movie, but within the superhero genre as a whole. And while I wasn’t initially sold on its length, the movie earns its three hour running time. Sure, you could pick apart some of Reeves’ choices and find things to trim down. But doing so would cut out what makes his movie unique. And with so much potential on the horizon, I want Reeves to use his creative freedom to the fullest. “The Batman” is out now in theaters.