We live in a rarified air as Batman fans. Every few years we get a new Batman, a new adventure in the streets of Gotham City. And the character, though rigid in his moral code (hopefully), is incredibly malleable in terms of adaptations. Mega-campy or shockingly realistic, Batman can fit any style. But that also means everyone has their own Platonic ideal of a Batman story, depiction, and aesthetic. Though I’ve definitely enjoyed most movies that have featured the Caped Crusader, my specific favorite take on the character has never hit the big screen. Until now. Matt Reeves’ The Batman is, for me, the very best Batman movie ever made.
Now I know that’s a big, bold statement. For most, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is number one with several bullets. That’s a good movie, no question. But for all its visual prowess, I don’t think it got the characters right. That series tries to make Batman realistic to a fault, foregoing all but the most necessary (and often the most preposterous) of fantastical elements. Reeves’ take on Gotham City is grounded and gritty but still rooted firmly in comic book mentality. And, chiefly for me, it’s an actual detective story plot. Finally, the “World’s Greatest Detective” gets to earn that title on film.
The Batman also takes heavy influence from horror. It’s not merely that Batman as a character uses fear, the way he has since his inception. The movie itself feels like a crime-horror story, like Fincher’s Se7en or (very pointedly) Zodiac. It’s intense and thrilling, but also suspenseful in a way I had not expected.
We open with Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) having donned the Batman persona for two years. Two years patrolling the streets of Gotham, but feeling like he has hardly made a difference. Certainly not a positive one. On Halloween night, someone calling themselves the Riddler (Paul Dano) murders the mayor on the eve of an election. He leaves a message for “The Batman,” and Lt. Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), who is the vigilante’s lone supporter in the GCPD, brings in the mysterious crime fighter for help.
As clues turn up, and more prominent members of Gotham’s high society end up dead, Batman begins down to unravel a seedy plot involving the rich and powerful on both sides of the law. During his investigation, he crosses paths with Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), a petty thief and a cocktail waitress at the Iceberg Lounge. The Iceberg’s owner, the mob enforcer the Penguin (Colin Farrell), works for mob boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), and both know more than they let on. The Riddler’s motives have something to do with all of these people, and with Bruce Wayne and his slain parents. But what?
The Batman is the first film that really makes Gotham City feel like a lived-in city collapsing under its own corruption. The denizens of the city in the comics pass in and out of Batman’s purview as he, Gordon, and Selina try to get to the bottom of the Riddler’s terrifying machinations. To Matt Reeves and cowriter Peter Craig’s credit, though the movie is very long (nearly three hours), the story and characters are strong enough to support its considerable weight. The story goes many places, but all of it feels necessary.
This certainly isn’t just a comic book writ large. This version of Gotham City is a vibe unto itself. This is maybe the gloomiest version we’ve ever seen. But unlike the Tim Burton movies, it still feels like a real place. Cinematographer Grieg Fraser makes the darkness in the heart of the city seep out into every frame. If not for the bright contrasts of fire or sunset, you might thing Gotham is a city without hope. But for all the movie’s brutality, the story is about finding hope where you can, even in the face of oppressive badness.
Whenever a new actor takes over the role of Batman, their ability to pull it off is front and center in people’s minds. Robert Pattinson’s take on Batman is unique among the screen versions. This isn’t a Bruce Wayne who pretends to be a playboy to cover up his nocturnal activities. This is a Bruce who is a complete recluse, fully devoted to the ideal of his Batman project, a self-proclaimed agent of vengeance with no other thought in mind. As such, he’s the first version of the character who feels more himself as Batman than Bruce. He seems uncomfortable in any clothes that aren’t the Batsuit or his slovenly disguise for reconnaissance. He emotes through the mask, which is truly a feat.
Kravitz and Wright are wonderful in their takes on Catwoman and Gordon, respectively. They end up as Batman’s two most trusted allies in this particular war. Though they’ve had a romance in both Batman Returns and The Dark Knight Rises, the Batman/Catwoman would-be relationship here feels the most well rounded, the most endemic to the characters. Kravitz and Pattinson have bananas good chemistry which I absolutely did not expect.
But what is Batman without his villains? These run the gamut. Farrell is essentially doing a Robert De Niro impression the entire time underneath his heavy makeup. It’s silly, but it’s also somewhat endearing after awhile. His Penguin is the closest the movie has to true comic relief, yet he still feels incredibly dangerous.
Dano as the Riddler is nothing short of terrifying. His screen time is limited, especially early on, but this only gives his appearances, and especially his distorted vocal performance, a great deal of heft. Making the Riddler akin to the Zodiac Killer is definitely a choice, but it pays off in interesting ways. Once we learn the true breadth of his scheme, it’s a real shock and adds a different kind of horror to the already scary portrayal.
If the movie has one aspect that felt underdeveloped, it’s the relationship of Bruce to his faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth (Andy Serkis). Serkis is excellent, a sort of Guy Ritchie take on the manservant father figure, but I could have used a lot more of it. But the movie is packed, and I’m hoping we get more in future installments.
I’ve already gone on and on, but suffice to say I bloody loved The Batman. This isn’t just a new take on a popular comic book character, it’s a fully realized vision for a world. One like we’ve never gotten before. Reeves has already said he’d love to do his grounded take on the more fantastical villains like Mr. Freeze or Clayface, and boy am I here for it. This movie is smart and sexy and scary in equal measure, and Michael Giacchino’s driving score feels as much like a Baroque piano concerto as it does a superhero theme.
This isn’t a slavish adherence to comic book lore by any stretch; more, it keeps the most important elements of who these characters are and takes them in their own direction. Batman uses his brain as much as his brawn, and even when he’s knocking seven bells out of thugs, the compassion and innate heroism rings true. He’s not a right-wing power fantasy, he’s a damaged individual trying to make a difference in a terrible world. One man standing up for what’s right. That’s the most Batman thing there is.
4.5 out of 5
Kyle Anderson is the Senior Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!