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Batman and I have a complicated relationship.
Like most kids who grew up since Bill Finger created the Dark Knight with Bob Kane in 1938, I thought Batman was the coolest thing imaginable. A vigilante who instills fear into the bad guys in a city where everything had a shade of grey over it? What’s not to love?
I read all the classics, from the bombastic mystery that is Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee’s “Hush” to the legendary origin in “Year One” from Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli. I obsessed over the Tim Burton films for their absolutely insane nature and fell in love with the ‘90s animated series.
Still, my love affair with Batman eventually faded.
I still loved comic books and the stories of superheroes. But I was a contrarian, too cool for the ever-so-popular Batman. I thought he was overplayed and much preferred the more obscure side of the DC universe and the light that was Superman.
But alas, Batman has withstood for over 80 years for reasons beyond just his kickass aesthetic—which hasn’t hurt his lasting popularity—namely the exploration of a Bruce Wayne as a man, a detective and the protector of Gotham city.
Matt Reeves’ “The Batman” understands these reasons and embodies them. This movie just feels right. It feels like Batman.
Hot off his reinvention of “Planet of the Apes” in the back half of the most recent trilogy, Reeves writes, directs and produces this film by incorporating elements from every corner of the Batman mythos, on and off-screen, into a fresh yet familiar reintroduction to the Dark Knight.
Batman isn’t just cool because of how badass he is when he beats up criminals, something Zack Snyder’s “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” seems to forget. Batman is a tragic story of a man who shuts himself out from the world and chooses to exact his form of vengeance on the world, a broken man who reflects the broken city he comes from.
And Matt Reeves, with Robert Pattinson in front of the camera, understands this perfectly. “The Batman” is a look at the psyche of Wayne and what drives a man to do something so radical as putting on a cowl and a winged cape.
“When that light hits the sky, it’s not just a signal. It’s a warning.”
This line is one of the first spoken by Batman in his journal-like narration. And it instantly lets the audience know what kind of film this is.
From the first moment we see and hear the titular Caped Crusader, the film shows us the psychology of both Wayne and his prey. Pattinson doesn’t blink much in the cowl, focused on his mission to instill fear with a soulful devotion. And his prey, they turn their heads, slipping up, expecting to see him in the shadows when the Bat-Signal shines.
Bruce is also depicted as a socially inept man here, something we have not seen since Burton’s films with Michael Keaton. Batman is a man who grew up in isolation that has little connection to the real world, an upbringing not suited to create someone as well-rounded as Christian Bale’s depiction in the Christopher Nolan trilogy; he’s a weirdo.
Instead, Pattinson does a brilliant job portraying Wayne as borderline emo, listening to Nirvana, wearing eye makeup and rarely showering. This character interpretation is simultaneously fresh and reminiscent of a version of Batman comic readers have known for decades, starting with Miller’s “Year One.”
More so than any Batman film before, this film is also tactile.
Both hero and villain take a beating in this movie and it is felt with ferocity. The action here is something out of the “Batman: Arkham” video game series, visceral in all the nice ways. But at the same time, it doesn’t forget the two rules of Batman: no guns and no killing.
Utilizing similar live screen technology to Disney’s “The Mandalorian,” the environments in this film feel real because they are. This film uses these tools to create a Gotham City that feels more real than any version of the fictional city before it.
While the Nolan Dark Knight Trilogy turned real places like Pittsburgh and Chicago into Gotham City, Reeves turns Gotham City into a real place with real history, unique in its own way. Landmarks like “Gotham Square Garden” are apparent allusions to the real world, but the city never feels like Manhattan, as it did in the Nolan films.
This city has gothic spires, a crowded skyline with a disturbing number of neon signs, a central landmark in Wayne Tower that looks more akin to a castle than a skyscraper and an almost constant flow of rain. Seriously, it is always raining and, paired with the brilliant metronome of the Michael Giacchino score, “The Batman” transports you to a nightmare city entirely its own.
Gotham is a unique place with a unique character and politics all its own in Reeves’ version, another element that the film gets right from the comics and even the animated adaptations.
And this is all in the environment without a single person present.
The acting is also top-notch. It finds an excellent medium between the subdued, with a few clown-shaped exceptions, from the Nolan trilogy and the more bombastic nature of the Burton films.
Pattinson’s Batman himself, as mentioned before, is a more nuanced, conflicted character. And that shows in his acting. The costume he wears beautifully allows his eyes to do most of the work while he stands, unflinching.
His romantic counterpart, Zoë Kravitz’s Selina Kyle, is equally impressive. Catwoman’s story is as important here as Batman’s, and the absolute determination Kravitz gives to her role is to be commended. She represents the femme fatale in a way the previous outings just haven’t, understanding her draw to the light, while a dark past holds her back from heroism.
Bruce’s other counterpart James Gordon, portrayed by Jeffrey Wright, is the standout here. His physicality may not match Pattinson, but he goes toe-to-toe with him mentally. The pair’s relationship was the focus of the Nolan trilogy and is the focus of this film. Still, the relationship is shown to us in a more natural way, allowing them to play off each other as detectives.
The emotional core of this film comes through Andy Serkis’ Alfred, a more grizzled version of the butler we are familiar with. He grounds Bruce here with a tortured bit of acting that is haunting. After Pattinson tells him he is not his father, Serkis brilliantly just puts his head down, “I am well aware of that fact,” he says. Nuanced and tragic in the best way, Alfred is the heart of any Batman story, this one included.
Reeves also brings in an unrecognizable Colin Farrell as the Penguin, now portrayed as a Sopranos-style Italian gangster.
“Whoa! Take it easy sweetheart!”
It’s lines like this that make the hilariously scummy Penguin a force of corruption that expertly accompanies one of the surprise antagonists, John Turturro’s Carmine Falcone. The latter mobster is a more traditional, well-kept criminal. Penguin harkens back to the more bombastic acting of previous Batman films in moments that are among the amazing, subtle humor that doesn’t distract from the film.
And that brings us to the Riddler, who Paul Dano portrays in a horrifyingly realistic way. One part Michael Myers, one part Zodiac Killer, the Riddler follows the tradition of Danny DeVito’s Penguin and Heath Ledger’s Joker in terms of the absolutely jaw-dropping performances.
The rest of the film’s nuance is out the window with Dano, playing a horrifically sadistic serial killer who duct tapes his enemies’ faces while they breathe. A drastic reinvention of the character, sure, but in a world combining the grit and realism of previous Batman films with a gothic thriller, it works to great effect.
At the heart of this story is the Riddler’s plan to uncover the conspiracies of Gotham that involve the Waynes, the crime families of Gotham and political actors, and bring them to light. A story that’s been told many times before in tales like “The Long Halloween” and “Court of Owls,” lifting elements directly from the former, the story reinvents it in a way that keeps the thrilling nature of the story up for its nearly three-hour runtime.
Simultaneously, the story is still a personal, character piece about Bruce Wayne, what he means to Gotham City and what the city means to him. Over the course of this film, Bruce learns what it means to protect his city. He learns the cost of his one-man war on crime, and with moments of quiet meditation for both the audience and him, these lessons sink in.
And they are ruminated on by both Bruce and us alike by the time the credits roll. Once this movie wraps, it is clear that Gotham is no longer the world of organized crime. It is the realm of super-criminals.
And that’s what I have wanted from a Batman movie since opening the pages of “Batman: Year One” and “The Long Halloween” all those years ago.
This film has shown me what Batman can be once again. This film represents the Caped Crusader in the same way that the late Richard Donner’s 1978 “Superman: The Movie” represents the Man of Steel. These two films could not be any more different, yet they create the same flawless transition from page to screen.
Matt Reeves, thank you for reigniting my love for Batman. Thank you for creating a perfectly flawed Gotham City. Thank you for making my new favorite Batman movie.