Comic books have become the dominant source material for franchise filmmaking. There is a staggering amount of IP out there, ripe for exploration on the big screen. And yet, there are a handful of characters to which we invariably return. Characters upon whom filmmakers can’t resist placing their own stamp.
Few characters have seen the kind of churn that we’ve gotten from Batman over the years – a churn that continues with the release of “The Batman.”
Since Tim Burton’s “Batman” hit in 1989, laying the groundwork for the superhero explosion that would eventually follow, we’ve seen numerous artists and artisans embrace the character in their own way. Early on, we got Burton’s neo-Gothic vibes and Joel Schumacher’s candy-colored neon fever dreams. After that, Christopher Nolan’s trilogy redefined the possibilities of what the character – and comic book movies in general – could be. Next, we got Zach Snyder’s stylized grimdark take as the character was moved into a wider expanded cinematic universe.
And now, Matt Reeves has entered the ring.
“The Batman” promises a more grounded take on the character, moving away from the more extreme interpretations and focusing on a younger Batman, one still learning the logistical challenges and harsh realities that come with costumed vigilantism. With Robert Pattinson assuming the cowl, the film seeks to dig into the early years of the hero and his development.
The film seeks to embrace verisimilitude – at least, to the extent that a movie based on a superhero comic can – and focuses more on the idea of Batman as detective, an aspect of the character that has been largely underplayed or outright ignored by previous adaptations. . The result is a movie that, while uneven, offers room to evolve and expand in ways we haven’t yet seen on the big screen.
We meet this Batman (Pattinson) just two years into his crimefighting mission. To this point, he remains a street-level vigilante, one devoted to cleaning up the crime-riddled streets of Gotham; it’s a mission reflective of that put forth by his now-deceased philanthropist father, though his methods are far removed from those exercised by Thomas Wayne. He has a complicated but ultimately mutually respectful relationship with Gotham PD lieutenant James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), though the vast majority of Gotham’s finest view the Batman as a nuisance at best and a menace at worst.
Without the mask, however, he’s simply Bruce Wayne, scion to a massive fortune that has been steadily dwindling in recent years. His sole confidant is Alfred Pennyworth (Andy Serkis), the man who has been by his side ever since the tragic death of his parents some two decades prior.
The already-troubled city threatens to explode when a mysterious masked figure known as the Riddler (Paul Dano) begins to pick off prominent members of the community, wealthy and powerful people that the enigmatic villain sees as corrupt monsters responsible for Gotham’s slow self-immolation .
Meanwhile, a young woman named Selina (Zoe Kravitz) has embarked on her own mission, trying to determine what happened to a friend of hers who has disappeared. Selina works at a notorious club well-known for providing a place for power players from all sides to mingle. Said club is run by a thug known as the Penguin (Colin Ferrell), but the real string-puller is the crime boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro).
Selina – a gifted cat burglar – opts to utilize her particular set of skills to try and unravel the mystery surrounding her friend, leading to her path crossing with that of the Batman. This connection leads to the two of them connecting their goals, with the pair discovering just how deep – and how high – the city’s corruption goes. Their efforts place them in the crosshairs of some very powerful people who have a vested interest in the status quo, even as an insane serial killer targets those very same powerful people. In the end, it boils down to who can be trusted – and who cannot.
There’s a remarkable ambition at work with “The Batman.” Most superhero movies operate on a massive scale, but this one uses that scale in a different way. Those films revolve around huge, world-shattering stakes and scale the presentation accordingly. This film’s stakes are much smaller, more grounded. That’s not to say they’re less important or impactful, however – if anything, the lessening of the narrative bombast only increases our ability to directly connect.
Matt Reeves (who along with directing the film co-wrote the script with Peter Craig) proves to be an ideal choice to shepherd this iteration of Batman. He’s shown himself to be a deft hand with genre fare and IP franchise work – he wrote and directed the found-footage breakout “Cloverfield” and helmed the final two films of the excellent “Planet of the Apes” trilogy from the mid-2010s – and executed a clear and distinct vision in this film.
A lot of that vision plays out in the film’s, well… visuals. The aesthetic Reeves and company have created is filled with stylized structures and creeping shadows, all of it soaked in a nigh-omnipresent rain. So much of the film is steeped in darkness that even the moments filled with light carry that shadowy undertone.
The stylistic influences on the film are legion and extremely present. There’s a ’40s noir feeling throughout, a hard-boiled vibe that informs the underlying detective story foundation of the film. But there’s also a New Hollywood feel to a lot of the film, stemming from the efforts at crafting a griminess to the setting – the unseemly urban sordidness of Gotham is plucked straight from that tradition. Not to mention the fact that Reeves is unapologetically Hitchcockian in his approach to it throughout. Elements of paranoid thrillers and clean-up-the-streets exploitation are apparent as well. That said, this is n’t pastiche – Reeves simply incorporates these elements to help fill out a world that ultimately proves to be very much his own creation.
(Oh, and the music is awesome. The score, the needle drops – it’s all great.)
Now, you can’t have a Batman movie – even one more interested in Batman as detective – without some action set pieces, and “The Batman” has some good ones. There are a handful of hand-to-hand combat moments that are beautifully executed – there’s one lit almost exclusively by muzzle flash that is striking to watch – and a couple of top-notch chase scenes, as well as an explosive and complicated third act sequence that I won’t spoil.
Let’s talk performances, which are exceptional pretty much across the board. Pattinson makes for an outstanding Batman in this context, brooding and emotionally disengaged and clearly struggling to find the dividing line between Bruce Wayne and the Caped Crusader. There’s a sense of psychological disconnect to the character that Pattinson captures nicely, even as he holds his own with the physical demands. Meanwhile, Kravitz somehow gives an even better performance, endowing Selina / Catwoman with a litheness and agility reflected both in her physical presence and her dramatic connection. She oozes movie star charisma and wields it wonderfully throughout. Oh, and the chemistry between she and Pattinson is legit – the screen practically crackles when they share it.
oh and have you seen this supporting cast? Dano is fantastic as the Riddler, somehow personalizing his menace from him even through a full-face mask and a digitally altered voice, using his eyes from him to give us a window onto the character’s fractured soul. Ferrell – who is literally unrecognizable – pushes his performance with a glint-in-the-eye gleam; he is a great representation of the Penguin as aspirational mid-level thug. Turturro is largely doing his usual Turturro thing, but it suits the character well, so it works nicely. Gordon is almost always a thankless part, but Wright finds ways to bring something new to a character that often feels like an afterthought. Alas, Serkis kind of IS an afterthought; Alfred kind of gets short shrift here, but what we do get is typically solid. Oh, and we get some dynamite work from Peter Sarsgaard in a couple of scenes as well.
As for the elephant in the room – the nearly three-hour runtime – all I can say is that it is remarkable how fast the time passes. I certainly didn’t feel like I had been in the theater for three hours; the overall quality of every aspect kept me more than engaged enough to lose awareness of the film’s length. Could it have been trimmed? Sure, but there was little included that felt actively unnecessary; perhaps we didn’t need everything we got, but nothing we saw actively detracted from the experience.
Personally, I don’t thing “The Batman” quite reaches the apex achieved by a few of its predecessors – specifically, Nolan’s first two films – but it settles quite comfortably into the tier just below. And yes, there’s an argument that perhaps we didn’t need to reboot/revisit the character quite so soon, but hey – if we were going to get a new take anyway, then I’m really glad that this is the one we got .
Stylish and stark, packed with well-executed action and high-quality performances, “The Batman” is a welcome addition to the canon of the Caped Crusader. Here’s hoping we get to see more of what Reeves, Pattinson and the rest have in mind.
[5 out of 5]