Perhaps the most influential comic book character in film history, a young billionaire crimefighter known as The Batman, returns to theaters this weekend. He first graced the big screen in 1943 with Lewis Wilson donning the cowl for the little-seen (and often forgotten) Batman. Nearly 80 years later, Batman and Bruce Wayne are more popular than ever. Director Matt Reeves takes a swing, hot off his own successful Planet of the Apes franchise. Handing the iconic role off to Robert Pattinson, Reeves takes us into an epic journey through the underbelly of Gotham City. While the film’s runtime leads to some bloat, Reeves’ noir-influence The Batman stands out as the darkest and most visually inventive film starring the caped crusader.
In his second year on the job, Batman (Pattinson) has been called in to help Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) on a murder case. The current Mayor of Gotham is dead, but the unusual killing is made more complicated when a note addressed to Batman is found on the scene. A mysterious villain, referring to himself as The Riddler (Paul Dano), leaves a signature puzzle and cipher for Batman to figure out. Batman links the slain mayor to a mob hideout known as the Iceberg Lounge, bringing him face-to-face with boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), henchmen Oswald “The Penguin” Cobblepot (Colin Farrell), and the mysterious Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz). With help from Alfred (Andy Serkis), Gordon, and Kyle, Batman unravels the mystery behind The Riddler’s dangerous games.
Reeves’s take on Batman embraces the character’s darkness in every aspect. The film depicts brutal violence, even as it holds up Batman’s “no killing” rule. Visually depicting The Riddler as a serial killer, complete with images that recall the Zodiac killer, pushes the boundaries of dark storytelling for the comic book movie. While Nolan’s Batman worried about the surveillance state and emerging Occupy movement, Reeves explores the dangers of young men isolating themselves from society.
This comes into focus almost immediately. In the film’s opening shots, it is clear that the camera has assumed the POV of a character, one that is intently watching their subject from across the street. We hear the heavy breathing and eventually follow the voyeur inside the house they have been stalking. While we later discover our opening sequence has picked up with The Riddler, Reeves has already questioned the audience’s relationship to Batman. After all, are these not the same ways that Batman watches criminals? Does he not hide away and attack when the moment is right?
Borrowing the visual and tonal aesthetics of Mann’s Manhunter, Fincher’s Zodiac, and Powell’s Peeping Tom, Reeves has already engaged the stakes. Yet the way he mirrors voyeurism between his hero and several antagonists in the film speaks to more significant issues. The Batman questions the idea that Batman can benefit society as a symbol, a long-held belief by characters in the comics and films.
Instead, Reeves highlights the fine line Wayne walks through a plethora of dangerous counterpoints. While The Batman is the most focused film in depicting the detective aspects of the hero, the film seeks to examine more profound questions beyond the plot mechanics. A message can be warped and repurposed for disinformation in our modern age. What if those unable to read the ideas as disinformation have already taken that material and misinterpreted its meaning? It is not hard to draw lines between Q-Anon, conspiracy Reddit blog posts, and the men that Reeves wishes to examine.
While Reeves holds court, the team assembled shines in every regard. Kravitz steals the show, capitalizing on her chemistry with Pattinson to provide the film crackling energy missing from other Batman features. The “will they, won’t they” is irrelevant, as their sheer connection provides the franchise it’s greatest pairing since Michelle Pfeiffer squared off against Michael Keaton. Kravitz brings a pathos-laden performance to the forefront of the film, pulling the baggage of Selina Kyle and her Catwoman persona into the light. While the film may suffer from an overtly self-serious tone, Kravitz elevates the energy of every scene.
While Kravitz brings an emotional tour-de-force, Farrell brings the ham needed to lighten the mood. His Penguin engages in brash outbursts and angry tirades. He embarrasses himself in public but cannot be spoken down to because of the status he holds. The manic energy on display will excite you every time he enters the frame. Farrell knocks every line and exasperated sigh out of the park. The sheer oddity of the performance and writing makes him one of the most memorable characters to grace the screen in some time.
Of course, Pattinson’s angry Wayne plays in stark contrast to Paul Dano’s Riddler. The performances pair together nicely, even as they embrace opposite approaches to those on the fringe. Pattinson’s embrace of the hyper-emotional and undisciplined Batman sells us on a clear break from previous depictions of the character. Unlike recent iterations from Bale and Affleck, Pattinson’s Bruce has become entirely consumed in his Batman persona. You believe this man would be a recluse, and Pattinson brings the awkwardness out in his limited interactions as Wayne. He finds his comfort as Batman and can show his true colors for once.
For Dano, his Riddler struggles with basic social functions. While Wayne may be uncomfortable, this Riddler cannot communicate. The overly large reactions strike fear, but they feel like someone suffering from a mental break. He cannot empathize with his fellow man because he has detached so significantly from society. Reeves wisely lays out potential causes for this mental break (drug use, mania, a traumatic upbringing). Yet Reeves never settles on one aspect as the difference between Wayne and Edward. Instead, one small moment reshaped both of these men’s lives, leading directly to the bloody future where we meet them.
Beyond the dark performances and general themes, the craft of The Batman is nearly unparalleled. Reeves brings a crew onto the picture to make a genuine art film, and it is unlikely we will see a more visually dynamic studio blockbuster this year. Greig Fraser’s camera captures brilliant images and intertwines them with blurry mysteries. The general darkness of the pictures on the screen can be off-putting, but Fraser captures so many memorable moments it is impossible to ignore.
Michael Giacchino’s masterful score is integral to setting the film’s tone. Complete with an impossible-to-shake theme, upsetting chants, and a grand scope, the Oscar-winning composer truly outclasses himself. Giacchino vacillates between the operatic visions on screen and the danger lurking within the shadows. It plays to the highest moments and underscores the darkness that has infiltrated Gotham. This score is destined to be played for decades, and it is so rare to come across themes that announce their iconic legacies within minutes. Expect this one to live on for years.
While The Batman does so much right, it is not a flawless masterpiece. Most striking is the frustrating runtime, which is only made worse while viewing the film. There seems to be a natural end-point for the film around the two and half-hour mark, yet we’re introduced to an underwhelming finale we must see to the end. While it serves a slight thematic purpose in the film, the seeds of that theme had already sprouted. The film’s final act feels like tacked on studio notes, input by executives to provide a thrilling conclusion despite the character-focused one available for the taking.
Additionally, the darkness can get a bit excessive. This does not only apply visually but also emotionally. Watching characters trash their family and friends when their arguments can be explained away in simple discussions slows the film’s progress. Some actors are subjected to become exposition machines and sometimes seem to be on screen to rebuttal the previous exposition provided by an alternative point-of-view. This gets boring, drawing even more attention to the bloated runtime.
Overall, The Batman scores on most fronts. The stellar ensemble brings the joy of reading huge Batman arcs in the comics. Fans of the Arkham City video game or The Long Halloween comic series will find this film right up their alley. However, for some, the film will simply wear out its welcome. Where it ranks in the ultimate Batman canon remains to be seen, but with dozens of moving parts and an exciting cast, this was an excellent outing for Reeves and Pattinson. Expect many more to come.