Little did I know growing up, that I was being raised a DC fan. At a very young age my first exposure to the world of superheroes was watching Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman as part of the classic Super Friends animated show. Around the same time I occasionally caught some of the Adam West iteration of Batman; while quite campy and bizarre, it always fascinated me. West would “battle” an array of extravagant villains, usually with a combination of stiff choreographed fight moves. There were bold colors, lots of poison smoke, and of course, the comic book type text bubbles on screen. Pow! Bang! Boom! (Awesome!)
Over the last couple of decades my loyalty as a Batman fan has waned slightly. First there was the travesty of Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin feature film. In addition, the introduction of the machine known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the mainstream contrasted against some recent DC missteps has allowed The Dark Knight to slip into the shadows of my superhero fandom rankings.
While I am still a big fan, I am rarely as amped up about any outings of the character as I had been in the past. Well… that changed about 10 minutes into my viewing of Matt Reeves’ The Batman. For the first time in years I was again captivated, eager to have the story unfold before my eyes. Recent entries in the Batman filmography had me feeling letdown mainly because while individual elements of the films were good (including Batfleck’s aka Ben Affleck’s performance – something I was not on board with when announced) they next swung big.
The film makes a statement early, with the darkest, rawest, and most disturbing sequence of any superhero to date – straight into the mind of a serial killer. A cold calculated and inhumane masked man – The Riddler (Paul Dano). Anyone expecting Jimmy Carey or Frank Gorshin better pack a change of underpants, because when I say disturbing, this character is the definition of it. My heart rate kicked up a notch and stayed there for almost all of the 3 hour running time. Some scenes were so deranged I could not wait for them to end.
This opening is smashed directly against a dark and gritty sequence that shifts perspective to street level Gotham, putting us in the shoes of your basic perp or street thug while Robert Pattinson’s voice over gives us a peek into their minds and The Batman’s. When the sun goes down and the street lights go on, crime runs this town. That is until as of late as a mythical man dressed as a bat has been terrorizing the terrorizers. He does not lurk in the shadows, he is the shadows, and he is waiting to cast vengeance. When the Bat signal is cast in the sky, they run in fear because they never know where he is.
I was immediately and completely immersed after arguably the best 5-10 minutes of any Batman film to date. Reeves quickly establishes these characters – two very different men with very different intentions while eerily sharing some qualities. Both believe they are fighting the good fight and work outside the system, but both work in the darkness and secrecy.
In addition, Reeves also turns Gotham itself into a character, a broken place full of crime and decay, lacking hope like many of its residents. Crime has run amok leaving citizens as victims. But the corruption is not only at street level and runs deeper into deeper into its veins. Where previous iterations of Gotham pulled inspiration from the comics and classic architecture, Reeves’ version captures the communal despair we all shared over these last couple of years. It is rainy or overcast almost constantly, dimly lit and full of shadows, always creating a touch of claustrophobia. Unlike other Gotham’s you may want to visit, this version is one you avoid.
The Batman is less superhero and more of a detective story in the vein of Zodiac, True Detective, and Seven. It is grim and dripping in film noir – part hunt for a killer, part crime story. The Batman must solve intertwining mysteries that put everyone in Gotham at risk, the good, the bad and the ugly. The majority of what is put on screen feels like it could happen in real life. Yes, there are still the high tech gadgets, but most come across like technological advances that may already be in the works. The over the top Bat gadgets are replaced with winged skydiving suits, video contacts and even a Batmobile which is more a souped up classic muscle car than a work of fantasy.
Part of what makes these characters land so well is there is no break from the realism – the film is relentless. Reeves sets the tone, revs the engine then slams his foot on the gas, just barely tapping the brakes during the entire runtime. The Riddler is anxiety-inducing every time he is on screen. He uses every day tools like social media and cell phones as weapons combined with Saw-like traps to terrorize. At the same time tapping into some modern day fears (such as the Insurrection on The Capitol) that are so fresh in our minds they add to the visceral reaction. I had an almost constant state of unease… during a Batman movie. This is Reeves’ masterstroke.
Unlike so many superhero films before it, he also avoids providing a standard origin story. Actually most of the characters are still evolving into the versions of them we know so well. For those new to Gotham this may be a little jarring, especially since Marvel typically perfectly packages their stories in easy to consume containers. That is not the case here.
We are thrown into the world of a Batman who is still learning who he is, even when he is just Bruce Wayne. We are discovering who he is as he does. When it comes to those Bat gadgets, let’s just say he is still working through the learning curve. This is not a polished hero or person for that matter – making for a much more interesting watch. He is essentially a rookie superhero, a broken kid finding his way – with access to billions of dollars in resources.
It is a bold move and it works, stripping away some of the standard baggage Batman carries with him to deliver a more grounded version in film that could almost certainly work as a standalone without being part of Batman lore. It finds a great balance for our suspension of disbelief – we can still escape into some of Gotham fantasy while keeping one foot planted in the real world.
That is not to say this does not feel like a Batman film, there’s plenty of familiar names and Battributes to ensure fans will not be disappointed. In addition to The Riddler there’s a younger, take on Commissioner (James) Gordon (Jeffery Wright) and as always Bruce Wayne’s butler, Alfred (Andy Serkis) – both portrayed differently here than in the past, but still maintain the spirit of the character intact. There’s even some levity with a buddy cop back and forth between Gordon and Batman which supplied one of my favorite scenes. A very promising relationship for future entries in this series.
While the tone is certainly bleak throughout such glimpses of humor are sparse and may be overlooked because of the surrounding gloom. It is hard to feel jovial when a film opens with a brutal hammer attack. At my screening, the only laugh I heard was mine. The rest of the time I tense with fists clenched. Afterwards several colleagues mentioned the humorous notes – I missed several.
Most of the relatively lighter moments come on behalf of Colin Farrell as Oz (The Penguin,) played as a mob boss. If you did not read the opening credits you would not recognize the actor. He is hidden under layers and layers of prosthetics. (If I didn’t know better I’d say it was Richard Kind). As for the design of the character, he is also lacking any of the cartoon camp or color. Unless you are a Batman comic book reader, you would not be able to pick out this version of The Penguin in a line-up. The Riddler, while also lacking the physical traits of the character old school fans would recognize, is downright terrifying. Dano nails performance – a creepy, unsettling loner obsessed with exposing corruption who uses social media to connect with others like him felt a little too pitch perfect 2021 not to send a chill down my spine.
The other standout, in a cast of standouts, is Zoë Kravitz as Selina Kyle – aka Catwoman. She is strong, slinky, full of passion, and packs a punch (and a kick.) Her scenes with Pattinson sizzle up the screen and her acrobatic fight scenes are a lot of fun. Dressed in a Catwoman 1.0 costume, she is a complex, yet minimalized version of the character – one who is also figuring out where her moral compass points. I admit I was not sold on her casting at first – I was hoping for a more established actress. After seeing her in Soberburgh’s Kimi I changed my mind, landing her firmly on my must-watch list. Kravitz has arrived.
The film, as mentioned, has a film noir/murder mystery vibe. You almost must watch it in a darkened theater or living room because the lighting is minimal. Greig Fraser’s cinematography constantly immerses us in the grim aesthetic. Dark and dingy world building that holds viewers hostage in this less than pleasant environment, rarely providing a break from the intensity. Some well used thematic use of color and the rare magic hour shot are our only escape. The camera is often at ground level firmly planting us into the middle of each scene. There were some moments, especially when watching in the first person POV where the darkened approach hindered my ability to fully grasp what I was seeing. It may have been intentional, but no less frustrating. Beside
The visuals are complemented by the brooding score by Michael Giacchino. It is powerful, taking us on a journey into the haunted psyche of the character. It instantly emotes him through brass, stings, and heavy percussion. When you hear it, you hear The Batman. Weighty and strong, with manic and somber notes. Over the three hour runtime the three main chords do get a little overused, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t love it when properly used to shred chest as its bass pounded through me. It also amped up the already fierce and pounding action of the fight scenes as well as the exhilarating ride in the Batmobile. If your heart is not racing, see a doctor.
There is so much to appreciate from The Batman. The stylistic choices were bold swings which will certainly leave some viewers feeling cold. They ended up working for me even if I personally like my Batman meter leaning a little more toward the comic book approach than towards the realistic vibe chosen here; quirkier, more colorful characters and bolder Burtonesque architecture. But, that was not the film Reeves set out to make so you cannot fault him. Overall, the film would have been better served as a tight 4-6 episode series where characters could be explored more or, maybe scaling back the ambition for a smaller more focused film.
Either way, the runtime did not bother me for a second. I enjoyed every minute and could have used another hour added on. To be totally honest, I did not “enjoy” every minute. The serial killer aspects creeped me out and had me squirming in my cineplex seat. It was all a bit too real, which only added to my need to see The Batman true to put an end to his dread. This is not a film for the kiddos.
Now to answer the big question. How does Robert Pattinson do underneath and outside the cowl? He’s pretty fantastic. He is a better Batman than Bruce Wayne at this point and not exactly great at either. That is what I enjoyed so much about Reeves’ take on the character. He is a brooding, emo angry at the world Batman; clumsy and ethically ambiguous. Much of his performance he emotes through his eyes, especially in the scenes with Selena Kyle. There is subtlety and nuance unlike others before him.
The script by Reeves and Peter Craig delivers an evolving Batman who is both a man and a monster. Unlike some iterations his character arc slowly materializes. There is no desperate need to show all the cards. I applaud the patience, delivering a complex and conflicted character both in the suit and out. When the inevitable sequel comes out, that is when this greener Batman/Wayne will make more sense to audiences looking for a more complete hero. Hang tight.
The most exciting part about the Reeves/Pattinson Batman is we do not know where it is going. No real roadmap has been set. Perhaps it is a standalone film. And if it is, sure I would be disappointed not to get more, but at the same time, what was delivered in The Batman is riveting. While many superhero films define their heroes with the precision of the razor, this Batman story was torn from the page – full of yet undefined, rough edges. Reeves makes us a voyeur, throwing us in among the madness of Gotham, making us a reluctant citizen of a city rotting from the inside. It is a hell, but also a hell of a visceral ride.
Matt Reeves’ delivers a Batman unlike any to ever hit the big screen that digs deeper into the psyche of a man turning superhero than previous iterations. It is a dark and disturbing trip into Gotham. Enjoy your stay.