It’s hard to believe that it’s been ten (10!) years since Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises premiered in theaters, concluding his beloved trilogy of Bat films. Of course, we haven’t been without a live-action Batman since then, with Ben Affleck (affectionately referred to as “Batfleck”) donning the iconic cape and cowl for Zack Snyder’s universe of films. And while it’s been less than five years since Justice League (and one year since the “Snydercut” was released on HBO Max), it’s almost never too soon for another version of Batman’s story on the big screen.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that this newest iteration is being told by one of the most respected filmmakers today in Matt Reeves, known most recently for revitalizing the Planet of the Apes franchise. Since Reeves took on this project, nearly every subsequent announcement has been at least interesting, if not exciting. The cast alone is uniquely intriguing, with Robert Pattinson as the titular hero, Zoë Kravitz as Selina Kyle, Jeffrey Wright as James Gordon, Andy Serkis as Alfred Pennyworth, Colin Farrell as Oswald Cobblepot, and Paul Dano as The Riddler.
Reeves’ emphasis on the detective side of Batman, referring to stories like Mindhunter and Zodiac, added to the anticipation for the film. While there have been numerous live-action interpretations of the character, few have focused on the element of Batman as the “World’s Greatest Detective.”
The aesthetics of the film have also been well received, between a Batmobile that looks like a makeshift hot rod, to a batsuit that looks to have a batarang integrated into the chest symbol. This latest version of Batman certainly doesn’t look like others we’ve seen before.
The Batman finally arrives in theaters this week and Reeves’ vision is fresh and innovative, building a young (but not brand new) version of the Bat world that is satisfying as a single film, while planting the seeds for a juggernaut franchise. The Battinson era has begun! Some spoilers below!
From Warner Bros. Pictures comes Matt Reeves’ “The Batman,” starring Robert Pattinson in the dual role of Gotham City’s vigilante detective and his alter ego, reclusive billionaire Bruce Wayne.
Two years of stalking the streets as the Batman (Robert Pattinson), striking fear into the hearts of criminals, has led Bruce Wayne deep into the shadows of Gotham City. With only a few trusted allies—Alfred Pennyworth (Andy Serkis), Lt. James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright)—amongst the city’s corrupt network of officials and high-profile figures, the lone vigilante has established himself as the sole embodiment of vengeance amongst his fellow citizens.
When a killer targets Gotham’s elite with a series of sadistic machinations, a trail of cryptic clues sends the World’s Greatest Detective on an investigation into the underworld, where he encounters such characters as Selina Kyle/aka Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz), Oswald Cobblepot/aka the Penguin (Colin Farrell), Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), and Edward Nashton/aka the Riddler (Paul Dano). As the evidence begins to lead closer to home and the scale of the perpetrator’s plans becomes clear, Batman must forge new relationships, unmask the culprit, and bring justice to the abuse of power and corruption that has long plagued Gotham City.
It seems like an impossible task for a filmmaker in 2022 to deliver a fresh and unique vision of a character like Batman. Yet, a director like Matt Reeves wouldn’t have accepted the challenge without a significant level of confidence in his ability to do just that. The Batman proves that Reeves’ confidence was justified. It’s the first live-action feature film to really explore the detective side of the character, pitting him against a villain that challenges his intellect from beginning to end, it successfully develops Gotham as a living, breathing world around Batman, and it boasts the most inspired cast of any Bat film ever.
The Batman is the closest thing to a noir Batman story we’ve seen in live-action. It puts the character directly in the middle of Gotham, its citizens and its underworld in a way that hasn’t been done before. This Batman isn’t an apparition or a myth. He doesn’t hide in the shadows. While he is a shadowy figure, he walks among the people, much to their disbelief and discomfort. The film puts the audience in Batman’s boots, giving us a genuinely unexpected perspective of what it would be like if we were the Caped Crusader. Whether Batman walks past a gathering of police officers or a nightclub full of partiers, we feel the looks of shock, awe and disgust. Reeves does a masterful job of grounding Batman and playing with the absurdity of a vigilante dressed in a bat costume. In this Gotham, Batman exists and he’s a freak.
Only, even as much as Batman is a freak, he’s also imposing and scary. Reeves’ Batman doesn’t sneak around. He stomps around in heavy boots, reminiscent of Darth Vader with cowboy spurs, buoyed by Michael Giacchino’s pulse pounding score (listen closely and you almost feel like you can hear the “Imperial March”). The criminals hear Batman coming, and that’s just how he wants it. Probably one of the most well explored elements of Batman is the idea that the persona exists to prey on the fears of criminals (“Criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot” and all that). Whether it’s Michael Keaton’s ’89 Batman or Christian Bale’s, scaring the bad guys is a staple of any Bat story. Pattinson’s version scares criminals with his physicality. He’s in their faces and welcomes a few punches or shots because he seems to relish getting as much as he gives.
Perhaps one of the few substantial flaws in Nolan’s Batman films is that the action sequences were too choppy and claustrophobic. You could barely see what was happening and it undermined Batman the expert fighter. The Batman suffers from no such issues, as the fight sequences are clear and intense. Whether it’s Batman pounding down a group of thugs or going one-on-one against Selina Kyle, the fight sequences were well choreographed and well shot.
But while The Batman is very much still an action film, it adds heavy doses of detective work weaved in. Paul Dano’s Riddler knows he can’t go toe to toe against Batman and he has no desire to. Instead, he wants to open Batman’s eyes to the real Gotham City and all the filth that lies underneath it. That forces Batman to enlist the aid of allies like Alfred, Gordon and Kyle to stay on top of the Riddler and his infamous riddles.
The story structure lends well to establishing the relationships that are so critical to great Batman stories. Batman is a great character, but it’s the Bat family around him that helps the character endure and evolve. Reeves has emphasized numerous times that he did not want to do a Batman origin film. However, The Batman is the origin story for many of the characters around Batman, both Bat family and Bat villains.
Robert Pattinson is a great Batman. I didn’t realize how physically imposing Pattinson can be, and his “Batman voice” is probably the best of any version since Kevin Conroy’s unforgettable performance in Batman: The Animated Series. Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne isn’t quite the billionaire playboy, and is instead a young celebrity still working through his trauma. He doesn’t party. He doesn’t even want to go out, and Pattinson plays that role so well that it makes you wonder if Pattinson himself prefers not to be in the spotlight. It’s worth noting that unlike other iterations, this film is much more of a Batman story than a Bruce Wayne story. Other films have struggled to tell a Batman story without using Bruce to develop the character, but Reeves and Pattinson successfully avoid that crutch.
Batman’s relationship with Jeffrey Wright’s James Gordon (not yet police commissioner) and Selina Kyle (not yet Catwoman) are central to this film, and it’s nice to see both the bromantic and romantic elements seeded throughout the film. Wright and Kravitz are exceptional in their roles, giving genuine depth and development to Gordon and Kyle that give The Batman the most ensemble feel of any Batman film.
Particularly given The Batman’s noir qualities, its ultimate message is pleasantly surprising. The film’s ending is unexpectedly hopeful and establishes Batman as something too many films forget – a hero. This Batman realizes that he cannot simply be a creature of the night, scaring the bad guys. He knows he can’t pretend to be the villain in hopes that someone else can be a figurehead hero. This Batman realizes that he must lead and inspire. He recognizes that being a hero is his burden and responsibility and embraces the challenge. It’s an important theme that has been lacking in many Batman stories (including comics).
The Batman is a big win on numerous levels. Reeves successfully delivers a unique Batman film that stands on its own, Pattison, Kravtiz and the rest of the cast leave indelible marks on ageless characters, and Warner Bros. has the kind of film it has long desired – a true blockbuster franchise starter.
For all it gets right, The Batman has a few warts. Primarily, Dano’s Riddler is less of a fully developed character and more of an intriguing plot device that is used to build this new world. Riddler’s stated goal is to shine a light on the rampant corruption within Gotham City. However, it’s never made fully clear why he’s so determined to do that, and why he’s so desperate to have Batman recognize his work. There are elements of Riddler’s backstory that are told, but it’s not enough to empathize or even really understand Riddler’s motivations. Dano’s performance as an unhinged psychopathic killer is praiseworthy and legitimately creepy, but like the fictional stories of serial killers that inspired this film, the audience doesn’t ever really understand why. However, the ambiguity works better when the story is about a serial killer rather than the primary villain in a superhero story. The best superhero stories develop the villain as much as the hero, giving audiences the opportunity to see both paths explored. The Batman makes a half-hearted effort to show us who the Riddler is, but the results fall short.
Further compounding the issues with the Riddler is that his riddles are difficult for the audience to follow. To be clear, the issue isn’t that his riddles are hard to decode, they’re supposed to be, it’s that the film doesn’t do a great job with laying the foundation of what Batman is even supposed to decode. We see Batman work with Alfred Pennyworth and James Gordon to solve the Riddler’s messages, but the solutions are rarely satisfying because it’s difficult to grasp what the questions are. Given how often the audience is placed directly behind Batman’s point of view, it fails to do so in the most critical aspects of a detective film featuring the Riddler.
With regard to Alfred Pennyworth, the stalwart butler played gamely by the endlessly talented Andy Serkis, I simply wish we got more. Screen time and relationship time with Batman is at a premium in this film between Jeffrey Wright, Selina Kyle and the villains. However, considering how critical Alfred is to the Bat family, and the incredible talent that Serkis brings to the role, the potential was unrealized. Reeves, Serkis and Pattinson are able to do a lot with a little, showing glimpses of both Alfred’s tactical capabilities as well as his paternal relationship with Bruce. There is one scene where Serkis and Pattinson are able to elicit more of an emotional bond between the two than most stories have been able to do with much more material. When the fully expected sequel films come, I hope we’re able to see Alfred given the kind of depth and development that this film gives to other characters around Batman.
Finally, and this is a relatively minor quibble, the Batmobile is severely underutilized. Probably the most iconic automobile in pop culture history, fans are often as excited to see a new version of the Batmobile as they are a new Batman. Indeed, some of the earliest teasers revealed for this film involved this new, hot rod inspired, version of the vehicle. Unfortunately, not only does Batman barely utilize the Batmobile, its appearance, fairly late into the story, doesn’t actually make a lot of sense. It just appears in a scene out of convenience in what is probably the most confusing moment in the whole film.
Batman and his bat family aren’t exactly known for their diversity. While comics in recent years have made more of a concerted effort to add some much needed diversity in the form of Damian Wayne, Cassandra Cain, Duke Thomas and even Luke Fox as a Black Batman, the films have lagged far behind in this area. Thankfully, The Batman is not only the best cast of any live-action Batfilm, it’s the most diverse (which isn’t really a coincidence frankly).
Selina Kyle and James Gordon are essentially co-stars in this film, and both Zoë Kravitz and Jeffrey Wright seem born to play their respective roles. Kravitz’s Kyle, inspired by Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, is fiercely strong and and confident. In many ways, she provides the inspiration that Batman needs early in his career to become the hero he is destined to be. Wright plays the grizzled and determined detective perfectly, bringing his customary gravitas to the loyal ally and incorruptible cop.
Not only is it a very welcome change to have both Kyle and Gordon as people of color, but having Gordon in particular be Black could have some even more welcome implications for future potential characters.
THE RATING – 4/5 Pocky
Ron is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of POC Culture. He is a big believer in the power and impact of pop culture and the importance of representation in media.