By George Bate and Josh Reilly
Ten years after the last solo Batman outing hit theaters, the caped crusader finally returns to the big screen in director and writer Matt Reeves’ highly anticipated DC film. Much like its titular character, The Batman has been elusive and mysterious as it slowly works its way into theaters. First announced as part of the DCEU, The Batman was originally due to be the product of Hollywood Renaissance man Ben Affleck, who would have directed, written, and starred in the film. Changes in front of and behind the camera led to Affleck stepping down as director/writer and eventually star, making way for Matt Reeves (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Cloverfield) to step in and craft a new Batman film of his own. Five years later, after a lengthy production and several release data changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Reeves’ film is finally here. And, much to our delight, The Batman excels in almost every department.
The Batman follows the dark knight (played by Robert Pattinson) in his second year of fighting crime in Gotham. The Batman teams up with Lt. Gordon (played by Jeffrey Wright) to uncover the mystery surrounding a series of gruesome murders committed by the Riddler. With the character being 83 years old at this point, every iteration of Batman, whether it be film or television or comic or video game, needs to have a unique quality to it – a reason to exist, if you will. Reeves has spoken at length about how his Batman film stands out from others in regards to it being a detective story, something other theatrical Batman films have surprisingly ignored over the years. It’s in this regard that Reeves centers his film, and does so brilliantly. The Batman is a bonafide murder mystery. Narratively and aesthetically, it bears closer resemblance to David Fincher films like Se7en and Zodiac than it does Batman films helmed by Christopher Nolan and Tim Burton. Pattinson’s Batman is the Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot of the film, uncovering clue after clue with the audience by his side. The mystery itself is gripping from the very first scene. It deals with themes of corruption and accountability effectively and maintains its momentum for much of its three hour runtime. Unfortunately, when the pieces of the puzzle finally come together and characters’ true motives are revealed in the film’s final act, the narrative and the mystery at its core conclude somewhat flatly and uneventfully. For a film that doesn’t take any short measures in regards to the complexity of its narrative, The Batman’s core mystery unfolds to reveal an acceptable, albeit underwhelming, conclusion.
Any narrative shortcomings are offset, however, by virtually every other element of the film. The first 20 minutes of The Batman may be some of the best content we’ve ever gotten in comic book movie history. These first 20 minutes set a tone for the film that is decidedly dark, moody, mysterious, and, on occasion, downright frightening. This is the darkest Batman film yet. Even though Nolan’s trilogy was similarly grounded, it featured more fantastical elements (i.e. League of Shadows, Bane) that are entirely absent in Reeves’ effort. The Batman exists in a very grounded, only slightly heightened world, in which Reeves and cinematographer Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty, The Mandalorian) gorgeously bring a dark and depraved Gotham City to light. Every shot is so meticulously constructed and the superb production design makes the Gotham of Reeves’ film a character unto itself. The same can be said for Michael Giacchino’s epic and moody score. Anchored by the grand Batman theme seen in promotional footage, The Batman bolsters one of the most impressive scores in a comic book film of all time (it’s hard to resist humming the main theme after watching the film).
Another standout element of The Batman is the way in which its main character truly is a main character. Other Batman films, even ones as great as The Dark Knight, often struggle under the weight of their villains’ brilliance (i.e. Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, Jack Nicholson in Batman). While Dano delivers an excellently menacing performance as The Riddler, this is very much a Batman film with Batman at the center. Pattinson’s character is in almost every single scene of this three-hour epic. And, the character appears in suit as Batman for the vast majority of his screen time with an unmasked Pattinson featuring relatively little in the film. Moreover, the film is narrated by Bruce, evoking elements of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One comic. All of this makes for quite the challenge for Pattinson as an actor, but he proves to be a commanding lead more than capable of helming the cape and cowl.
Other characters and performances range from serviceable to outstanding in The Batman. Zoe Kravitz plays Selena Kyle and is very much the film’s second leading character. Kravitz has shown time and time again why she is such an incredible actress, producing such a range of performances across films like Dope, Big Little Lies, High Fidelity, and most recently Kimi. Unfortunately, while the actress makes for a compelling Catwoman, the character’s role in the film’s second half loses momentum and her subplot ultimately doesn’t prove to be very interesting.
Also supporting Pattinson’s Batman are Jeffrey Wright’s Gordon and Andy Serkis’ Alfred. The latter features surprisingly little in the film and, as such, doesn’t make the level of impact that an Alfred like Michael Caine did in the Nolan trilogy. That being said, an emotional scene between Alfred and Bruce ends up being one of the film’s most touching moments. Wright triumphs as Gordon, essentially featuring as Batman’s side-kick for much of the film. Wright brings a certain gravitas to the role as Gordon delicately navigates a fragile middle-ground between Batman and the Gotham City Police Department.
Facing off against Batman are Colin Farrell’s Penguin, John Turturro’s Carmine Falcone, and, of course, Paul Dano’s Riddler. Dano is very much the film’s central villain, but provides an impact off-screen almost as much as he does on-screen. Dano’s scenes are almost always shrouded in darkness and captured in poor quality on a camera. Nonetheless, Dano is a menacing and haunting presence throughout. Colin Farrell is also excellent as The Penguin. He proves to be The Batman’s most theatrical character, but is less in the vein of Danny DeVito’s performance in Batman Returns and more akin to slightly over-the-top gangsters in Scorsese pictures. It was always an odd choice casting Farrell in this role and having him wear such extensive makeup and prosthetics, and the film doesn’t necessarily justify this odd choice. If Reeves wanted to go for a Penguin of a certain look, he could have cast someone who looks more like his image of the character without the use of makeup and prosthetics. Similarly, Reeves could also have gone with a more unconventional Penguin in having Farrell play the character without such additions. The odd casting choice doesn’t take anything away from the movie per se, other than being somewhat of a distraction at times. Finally, Turturro plays the big bad crime boss Falcone in The Batman. Although Falcone’s role in the grand mystery of the film feels a bit out of place when all the pieces come together in the conclusion, Turturro nails the charm and menace of the character.
The Batman is easily the best Batman film since The Dark Knight. Matt Reeves crafts a sprawling and intricate mystery film that evokes elements of Fincher mysteries like Se7en and Zodiac. A slightly underwhelming conclusion to this mystery is offset by superb work in every department. DP Greig Fraser and Reeves team up again to deliver a truly beautiful looking film that is bolstered by Michael Giacchino’s dramatic and grand score. Pattinson proves to be an excellent choice for Batman and navigates the role particularly well considering the character is masked and suited up for the bulk of the running time. All of this makes for a unique, grounded, and beautiful take on Batman that finally explores the detective side of the character, while delivering everything we love about the caped crusader. Three hours fly by in a film that leaves you desperately wanting more from this world.
The Batman is in theaters March 4th.
Images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures