There have been countless variations on Batman throughout the decades since his creation, and our understanding of the character is often formed by the one we grew up with. As a child of the 80s myself, my first exposure to the caped crusader was through reruns of the 60s Adam West show coupled with Saturday mornings with Superfriends. It’s a campy, vaguely self-aware but not really, classic superhero variation. It’s a far cry from the more mature Tim Burton era Batman, and even further away from the gritty, arguably nihilistic Dark Knight trilogy and Zack Snyder Batmans. But to understand his latest incarnation in Matt Reeves’ The Batman, it’s actually going to be necessary to reconcile the fact that all of those variants are just different sides of the same character.
As the film begins, Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) has spent two years fighting crime as Batman. The people of Gotham are in general not fans of his vigilante justice, but then again, the forces running the city are horribly corrupt except for police lieutenant Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) and the small contingent of the police force that follow him. When a serial killer calling himself The Riddler (Paul Dano) begins murdering city officials, Batman and Gordon team up to get to the bottom of things. They’re occasionally joined by the mysterious cat burglar Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), who has her own tangled connection to the case.
WARNING: MILD SPOILERS MAY BE INCLUDED IN THIS REVIEW!
Let’s get one thing out of the way right away: this is not a superhero film. This is a dark detective neo-noir with some superhero trappings that tests the absolute limits of the PG-13 rating. It’s not even a proper DC Extended Universe film, despite what DC’s sizzle-reel for 2022 might imply. It’s intended to set up a separate Batman shared universe of its own. Which is good, because aesthetically, artistically, and thematically, it is fundamentally incompatible with the DCEU as we know it today.
Now, that’s not meant as a slam against the DCEU. It’s just that The Batman has such a practical, grounded, intellectual take on its characters that pairing this Batman up with, say, Zachary Levi’s Shazam would be a discordant mess. This film isn’t interesting in setting up any broader universe or teasing other characters. This film is an examination of Bruce Wayne, Batman, and the world he personally lives in, not the world he shares with other heroes across the river. This is a dark film, both metaphorically and literally, and the kind of rainy, Dark City atmosphere that would probably only work with Batman, and likely only with this specific version of the character.
To that end, The Batman is kind of fascinating in its relatively languid approach to things. Matt Reeves doesn’t totally stick to the traditional rising-action approach to superhero film at all. Things are pretty tense from scene one, and they stay that way for the next three hours in a very slow, evolutionary crescendo. Many scenes even seem to have their own internal three-act structure, with the energy often helped by Michael Giacchino’s brooding but unequivocally intense score. (The motifs of Schubert’s Ave Maria never sounded so shadowy before.) It leads to a lot of gripping scenes, many of which don’t even feature huge fights or set pieces, but it can also lead to emotional fatigue. The third act alone seems to have several climaxes piled on top of each other, and given the film’s excessive run time, it starts to cause some exhaustion.
If it sounds like I’m kind of harping on the film’s length, I am. With credits, the film is just about three hours long, and it’s at least 20 minutes longer than it has to be. While Reeves’ pacing is very even-handed and digestible, a lot of his scenes move very slowly. And this is not an issue like a Snyder-esque slo-mo fetish. In some scenes, the characters themselves move slowly and deliberately, drawing out simple actions or reactions, occasionally to comedic levels. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but by the end of the film it gets to be a little bit tedious.
That being said, what Matt Reeves has created is hypnotic, visually striking, and twisted with intrigue in a way that’s honestly refreshing. This is not a standard hero comics film; it’s not even a standard Batman film. Reeves leans into Batman’s detective side quite heavily, especially in the film’s first half, with fight scenes acting as accents rather than main events. The labyrinthine mystery Batman finds himself in requires brains more than brawn, with fists not always being the first resort. There’s a maxim in musicals that when your emotions are too much for speaking, you start singing. Here, the songs are fistfights and in one instance a prolonged car chase.
The other compelling part of Reeves’ film is its examination of The Batman himself. Bruce has not been Batman for long. He has the gear, and he has the set-up, but he’s yet to develop himself as a crime-fighter. He fights hard, but he fights without balance. He states his mantra early on as “I am vengeance”, but even he doesn’t know exactly what that means, and he finds his sense of purpose continually challenged by his circumstances and encounters. The film’s title comes from Bruce going from just being Batman to being THE Batman. The more Bruce uncovers in the case, the more he has to re-examine his relationship with the persona of Batman and with Gotham. Taken as a whole, it’s also a meditation of how we, as an audience watching a movie, perceive the myth and character of Batman himself.
Reeves throws elements of multiple iterations of Batman into his variant, and it’s important to acknowledge all of them when approaching the film. While the Dark Knight versions are clearly the most obvious here, and honestly executed in new and exciting ways, Reeves does not shut out the campier and meta-textual aspects of The Bat, either. There is a subtle level of absurdity that occasionally peaks out. It’s never enough to suspend disbelief, but it’s there bubbling under the surface. The first time the Batmobile’s turbo engine revs up, it’s impossible not to laugh a little to ourselves as Reeves draws out the sequence, highlighting how relative ridiculous it seems to the otherwise down-to-earth noir around it.
In terms of cast, Reeves has given us a royal flush. Robert Pattinson proves himself to be extremely capable when it comes to playing both Bruce Wayne and Batman. Bruce is a haunted man, and Batman is something like a drug addiction to him to the point where he seems to be physically transforming. Pattinson is so good at keeping himself at a point of simmering tension that when he rises to a highly emotional level, the impact is that much more intense. He might not be the best Batman ever, but he’s the best Batman for this film. It’s hard to imagine Ben Affleck’s brutal brawler or Christian Bale’s wizard-tech avenger in this setting.
Zoë Kravitz’s Selina Kyle (she’s never outright called Catwoman) works beautifully as a perfect counterpoint to Pattinson’s Batman. If this Batman is all masculine aggression, this Selina is the feminine mirror. Batman works his way in from the outside, while Selina works her way out from the inside. It’s a perfect balance of energies, and Kravitz possesses an alluring grace and subtle menace in the role. She’s a kind of danger you can’t help but be drawn to.
Batman’s rogue gallery gets a very…interesting start here with Paul Dano’s Riddler. Without going too much into his motivation or goals, it’s safe to say that this might be the most extreme adaptation of the Riddler on a screen yet. He comes off more as someone like Jigsaw or the Zodiac Killer, a far cry from the jumpsuit-clad trickster of old. He is merciless, sadistic, and psychotic, which taken out of context can be seen as rather jarring. However, the longer we sit in Reeves’ setting, the more he makes sense. Alongside the Riddler, an unrecognizable Colin Farrell appears in a smaller role as The Penguin, here imagined as a minor crime boss. While Farrell does a great job in the role, he doesn’t really get a ton to do and is only a minor influence on the plot.
Matt Reeves has created a superhero film that isn’t really a superhero film. This is a tense examination of the myth of The Batman wrapped inside an action-noir that not only forces its characters into self-examination but the audience, as well. It asks us to reconcile how we’ve personally come to see Batman as a kind of avenging dark knight and what that means in practice. While its action is appropriately theatrical and its mystery appropriately intriguing, in the end this is a film that lives and thrives on its thematic resonance. It lives in the brain instead of passing through it…and that’s just probably how Batman would have wanted it in the first place.
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / A-