Imperfect though it may be, Matt Reeves’ dust-grey reimagining of the Dark Knight is one of the most inventive takes on the character on screen in ages.
The opening shot of Matt Reeves‘ The Batman evokes, if nothing else, the opening shot of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation: we peer, ominously, through the binoculars of an unseen voyeur, looking at a young boy in a red ninja outfit playing with his father in a Gotham penthouse. While this isn’t a flashback to young Bruce Wayne — rather, we see Gotham’s tough-on-crime Mayor Mitchell and his soon-to-be-orphaned boy — the evocation is undeniable. By the time The Batman‘s three hours whiz past you, we’ll have a similarly probing look into Bruce Wayne himself: what he prioritizes, what drives him, what he thinks he’s doing for the city as Batman and what he realizes he should be doing. And it’s that texture, that sense of interiority, that makes The Batman one of the best films of the year thus far, and one of the most fascinating cinematic adventures the character has to offer.
In a lot of ways, Batman never really recovered from The Dark Knight, a film that both revitalized the character and the idea of superhero films as prestige cinema. While 2008 saw the release of Iron Man and the beginnings of the MCU, Christopher Nolan’s Heat-with-capes morality play was a watershed moment for the Caped Crusader, and every film since has either tried to lean into or run away from that conceptualization of the character. Affleck’s tenure leaned hard into the older, broken down, Dark Knight Returns-type Bat, a man hobbled by age and a lifetime of regrets.
Reeves, one of the most interesting blockbuster filmmakers still working (see: his Planet of the Apes films), takes him in a more Year One direction: Here, Bruce (Robert Pattinson) is in year two of his work as Batman, a man swallowed completely in the cathartic newness of his violent revenge fantasies. “I’m vengeance,” he growls (though not as lupinely as Christian Bale) to a gang of Joker-themed hoodlums early in the film before beating the pulp out of them. His suit, brilliantly designed by Jacqueline Durran, feels like an enticing middle step in the Bat’s evolution. It still has the evocative cape and cowl, but it’s bulkier, the rubber mask carrying the nicks and scrapes of prior encounters. To quote Bale’s Bruce, Patz’s Bat is kinda wearing hockey pads, but that fits his vision of the character.
Reeve’s Gotham is a city steeped in corruption, one gearing up for a mayoral election off the back of a historic drug bust but whose secrets are still buried deep underground. It’s also a city still getting used to the Batman, weighing whether he’s friend or foe; clearly, he has an ally in Detective Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright, a wonderfully credulous foil for Pattinson), but the rest of the force views him as an unstable vigilante (and they’d be right to). But they need his help when, at the scene of Mayor Mitchell’s murder in his home, the killer leaves a greeting card riddle “For the Batman” and the words NO MORE LIES scribbled over Mitchell’s duct-taped head. A mysterious figure known only as The Riddler (Paul Dano) is brutally murdering city officials and using the Internet to foment social unrest. To solve the mystery and bring The Riddler to justice, Batman must infiltrate the city’s criminal underworld, contending with figures like Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) and the Penguin (Colin Farrell, hamming it up in House of Gucci-level prosthetics). But along the way, he may well see that the Riddler’s crimes are grounded in criminal conspiracies that run deeper than he ever thought possible — even at his own front door.
The Batman is an obvious ode to the cold, nihilistic trappings of Nolan’s trilogy, but also leans a little further in the direction of Todd Phillips’ Joker, at least in its clear odes to ’70s cinema. On top of the Conversation nod at the beginning, its focus on Gotham’s mob underworld and the internal corruption of its governmental fabric evokes Chinatown and the conspiracy thrillers of Alan J. Pakula (The Parallax View, Klute). Batman, after all, is The World’s Greatest Detective, but prior films have treated him more like an action hero; Reeves, on the other hand, puts Bruce’s mind front and center, his focus more on untangling the complicated web of lies at the center of Gotham City than punching and firing his grappling hook. (When it does come time for him to get down and dirty, though, the film more than delivers, with brutal fisticuffs and an incredible mid-film showcase for the Batmobile.)
But what impresses most about The Batman is its deep well of interiority, the way it uses the innately mythic nature of comic book storytelling to zero in on the wants and needs of its characters. Pattinson’s an incredibly unconventional choice for the Caped Crusader, but it works fabulously here: with his hang-dog expression, wispy downcast hair, and lean, gymnast frame, he has the feeling of a ghost. As Alfred (Andy Serkis) tells us early on, he basically no longer spends time as Bruce Wayne, what few appearances he does make being begrudging. He’s truly a nocturnal animal, cloaking himself in the ink-black comfort of vengeance. That also means he’s flawed, short-sighted, motivated by personal grievances and occasionally blind to how deep Gotham’s rot actually runs. Pattinson plays Bruce Wayne as a man who desperately would rather just be Batman, someone as much hiding behind the mask as he is finding power in it.
Other familiar characters receive some interesting reimaginings, though some work better than others. The good? Wright’s dogged, sympathetic version of Gordon, who gets to act like Batman’s partner more than he’s ever gotten to before on screen. Zoë Kravitz‘s take on Catwoman, slinky and mercurial but driven by mutual purpose to help the Bat, is just incredible, the pair soaking the characters in more chemistry than they’ve had since Batman Returns. (Simple gestures, like pulling each other to safety around corners or watching two motorcycles zooming side-to-side down dusky Gotham roads, are more erotically charged than most Marvel movies.) Turturro’s quiet menace as Falcone, a man with a strangely fatherly dynamic with Bruce Wayne.
Less successful, unfortunately, are the more colorful members of Batman’s rogue’s gallery. The Riddler is ostensibly the primary villain, but he spends most of his time in the shadows, Dano’s take on the character feeling like a cliched, one-note collage of John Doe from Se7en and the Zodiac killer, mixed with modern-day social media mob leaders. (Dano’s delivery is also Way Too Much, confusing the random shouting of syllables as off-kilter menace.) Farrell is an intermittent hoot as The Penguin (he’s basically doing a cartoon impression of Old Robert DeNiro), but the fat suit and the lack of real screentime give him little to work with. Still, these are minor concerns; frankly, it’s admirable that these folks are only minor background players in the larger tapestry unfolding over Gotham City, and the more haunting implications of what they represent.
It doesn’t hurt, too, that The Batman is one of the rare modern films to not confuse ‘dark and moody’ with ‘muddy and glum’. Cinematographer Greig Fraser (Dune) soaks Gotham in grim, textured greys and blacks, punctuated almost exclusively by the rare glint of brilliant orange sunrise — the glimmer of hope for a city all too steeped in misery. Michael Giacchino‘s score is downright impeccable, a bit too aggressive near the start but threaded with a simple, but deceptively versatile four-note heartbeat for the character that rivals Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s for sheer intensity.
At first glance, The Batman may not seem to give you anything you haven’t seen before about the Caped Crusader: a dash of Nolan here, a pinch of Burton there. Devotees of campier takes on the Dark Knight may also balk at its self-seriousness. But undergirding that is the kind of earnest sociopolitical sincerity Reeves brings to all his projects, turning sci-fi and comic book pictures into ruminations on the fissures that exist in our modern society. For The Batman, it’s the question of what we do with our own decimated faith in our institutions, and the tantalizing pull to make things right ourselves, no matter how far we feel we must go. It’s a confident new start for the character, and one I hope isn’t just a one-off.
The Batman swings its way into moodily-lit theaters March 4th.