Matt Reeves’ The Batman is bold, operatic, and swings for the fences. It is huge in scope and goes as big as it needs to be to tell its story. This is not a subtle film, nor does it want to be. Reeves directs this film like it will be his one and only chance to play in this sandbox, so he leaves nothing on the table.
The same goes for Robert Pattinson’s performance, and I admire just how much Batman we get in this film. So many actors who play superheroes seem to chafe under the masks and the gear, but Pattinson seems right at home behind the cowl (in fact, I think Batman gets more screen time than Bruce Wayne does this time around and that feels like a first for this character onscreen).
There are so many versions of Batman, both in print and on the screen, that it sometimes feels a little like a buffet – people can take the parts they enjoy and leave the parts they do not want on the serving line.
But The Batman has focus and a goal where it wants to take the character, and it is very aware of the history that we know so far but willing to defy our established understanding of the character and give us a Batman we haven’t really seen before now, cinematically. Even the film’s cinematography reflects the arc – throughout the film we are in darkness, but we begin to see the light seep into this bleak, desolate world.
There are about a million other films in The Batman‘s DNA – the most obvious ones being David Fincher’s Seven and Zodiac, but we get some Coen Brothers, some old school film noir, even a little of The Empire Strikes Back. While The Batman wears its influences on its sleeve, it manages to weave those influences into the fabric of the film in a way that feels unique and fresh. Some of the decisions made by Reeves and co-screenwriter Peter Craig seem blatant and obvious at first blush, but the filmmakers are not afraid to be direct, especially with some deliberate editing and music choices.
It feels like genuine risks are being made – there are times when the movie almost verges on silly, but the commitment of the filmmakers keeps The Batman from tumbling over the edge. This may be the first use of a Nirvana song in a movie that works – even though at first it feels very on the nose, when we hear it again later in the movie it feels poignant and passionate. Even Michael Giacchino‘s score holds nothing back – it is brash, melodic, and full of memorable leitmotifs that accentuate the action and the emotion.
Some of the style and story choices seem to come in conflict with what we’ve seen from this character in recent years. In fact, it almost feels like an answer to a particular version of this character; we are introduced to Batman not as a shadow in the alleyways but through voiceover, as we hear Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) talk about the city he’s chosen to protect and his chosen task. If this sounds very Zack Snyder-Watchmen to you (or Scorsese’s Taxi Driver), well, that’s probably the point.
I’ll leave it to the audience to decide whether that is a purposeful commentary or not, but it sure feels like it in context. But Matt Reeves uses that as a starting point to expand and contextualize our appreciation for Batman over the years. In previous iterations, we find a character averse to change, but Reeves seems to want to test that theory.
We are two years into Batman’s tenure in Gotham City, and judging from what we hear and see, Batman doesn’t seem all that interested in stopping crime as he does in punching bad guys nearly to death. Batman’s rage is his focus, but he does have someone to guide him through it. It’s not Alfred (Andy Serkis), surprisingly – Alfred pleads with Bruce to take an interest in his daily life, but Bruce is hearing none of it – but Gotham City detective Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright, fantastic here) who keeps Bruce Wayne/Batman in check.
On Halloween night, the mayor is brutally murdered, and there are clues left at the crime scene that force Gordon to bring in the Batman to assist over the strong objections of the rest of the police department. The murderer, who refers to himself as the Riddler (Paul Dano), wants to bring all the city’s corruption into the light, including some of Gotham City’s most esteemed citizens. One of those, to Bruce’s dismay, is his father Thomas Wayne, who may not have been the white knight Bruce always believed that he was.
The criminal underworld reacts strongly to the Riddler, and when a friend goes missing, Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz) dons her own costume to look for answers. Batman must leave no stone unturned in his pursuit of the Riddler, which puts him in the crosshairs of Oswald Cobblepot (Colin Farrell) and his boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro). The more Batman digs into his past, the more he discovers that his family’s role in Gotham City is more complicated than he knew.
How is Robert Pattinson as Bruce Wayne/Batman? It depends mostly on your favorite version of this character. On the Bat-scale, Pattinson is probably closer to Michael Keaton than Christian Bale – Batman doesn’t speak with a gravelly voice, but low, almost a whisper. Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne is more recluse than playboy, and you wonder how lonely he was growing up. Pattinson can blow the character up when he needs to, but he also brings a sensitivity to Bruce Wayne/Batman that we recognize even through all the fury and the action.
More importantly, we see in Pattinson’s Batman someone who is just beginning a journey, as opposed to a more established, set-in-stone version of the character. This is a Batman who makes mistakes and learns from them. This is also a Batman who becomes acutely aware of his role in the scheme of things and begins making choices to affect the changes he wants to see in the world. He refuses to be held captive to the past, trapped by his parents’ fate. It’s compelling, strong, subtle work from Robert Pattinson.
Pattinson is surrounded by a very good supporting cast that give to the film just as much as he does. Flat out, Jeffrey Wright is my favorite Jim Gordon. Previous Gordons felt very much as if they were simply in Batman’s wake as opposed to any agency they may have, but Wright’s portrayal is more active in the film’s events and more capable than previous versions of the character. Gordon is very much a partner to Batman, sometimes having to pull him back from more extreme behavior, but Pattinson and Wright have fantastic chemistry together and if we do get more to this story, I greatly look forward to seeing what these two bring to the table in future films.
Pattinson and Kravitz as Selina Kyle/Catwoman also seem to fit well with each other, giving complementary performances, and I hope we see more of her in the future too. Her Catwoman has urgency and purpose, and Kravitz is perfectly capable of keeping up with Pattinson and showing the audience her skills. She also has just as much a reason to be in the fight as Bruce does.
Our villains also deliver the goods. Paul Dano takes the Riddler to dark places, as we would expect from his performances in the past, but his Riddler is also given purpose – he may have a legitimate beef, even as his methods go into madness. Colin Farrell, buried under makeup, is unrecognizable as the Penguin, but he is funny, and dangerous, and gets the film’s best lines. He seems to be channeling Jon Polito’s performance in Miller’s Crossing a bit, and as a huge fan of that film that’s perfectly fine with me.
Speaking of Miller’s Crossing, we get another Coen alum in John Turturro’s Carmine Falcone, and his Falcone is slick, smart, and formidable. His relationship with Bruce Wayne is especially interesting, and I love the way these two interact with each other, testing each other’s boundaries.
So – three hours though? Does The Batman earn that kind of time? An awful lot happens in this movie, and the story covers a lot of ground. While it may not be strictly an origin story — one we’ve seen many times before — it does establish Batman in a way that hasn’t been done since the animated series, and these stories take time to play out. While we are spared yet another shot of Martha’s pearls spilling onto the wet pavement, we do take that journey from fledgling vigilante, full of darkness and rage, into a hero we can believe in, and the way Matt Reeves and Pattinson slyly play with our expectations in that regard is subtle, even though the film is not.
The Batman is grandiose and epic in ways that even some of its predecessors were not – not necessarily in scale but in the amount of emotional terrain that the film must cover. While there will almost certainly be more films made in this series — I can’t imagine this movie failing at the box office, no matter how long it is — this feels complete and unique and stands on its own. In a genre world full of crossovers and exhausting continuity that can be difficult to keep up with, it’s refreshing to see Reeves wipe that board clean and start anew.
I can admit to a bit of Batman fatigue. We can’t exactly miss the character if the character never goes away. There is something primal to Bill Finger and Bob Kane’s creation that still captures our imaginations more than 80 years later, but at this point, you can attach any theme you like to Batman and make it stick if you commit to your story. The ideas and messages that Reeves wants to get across with The Batman feel more poignant and relevant than ever, and I did not expect the emotional response I had to this film when all was said and done.
I was profoundly moved by the journey The Batman took me on, and I was surprised to find that this very well-established character still had that kind of power over me. I can get as cynical as anyone, especially over these past few years. But The Batman is not a cynical movie. It is hopeful, and passionate, and may be exactly what we need in the superhero genre right now.
We take so much time concentrating on the super- in the superhero genre that we forget that we don’t come to these films for that. We come to them for the -hero part. We still need heroes. We need to see them come into the light. Because we need to know that we can come into the light along with them. This is the Batman that I’ve always wanted to see since I was a boy, and a Batman for the ages. This is a great movie.
THE BATMAN REVIEW SCORE: 9.5 OUT OF 10
Warner Bros. Pictures‘ The Batman is scheduled to open in theaters on Thursday, March 3.