The more things change, the more they stay the same.
For instance, in my 32 years on this planet, I have now seen six different actors don the cape and cowl to become the venerable Dark Knight aka Batman.
Since 1989 there have been ten live-action films that the caped crusader has appeared in, fighting a host of villains from DC comics’ famous rogues’ gallery, with more than a few of them rebooted multiple times across this franchise. And this isn’t even counting all the live-action TV shows he’s been portrayed in…
The tone and style of the films change from director to director but a through line still remains relatively the same throughout. Batman films tend to tackle a plethora of themes related to his origin story from the nature of fear, dual personalities and the masks we wear among respectable people, and oh yeah, defending Bush-era politics regarding the War on Terror.
So, after three decades what does “The Batman” have to offer to audiences anymore at this point? We have probably seen Thomas and Martha Wayne gunned down in the back alley of a movie theater more times than we care to count at this point (Uncle Ben is rapidly approaching this too in the Marvel-verse). We’ve seen Batman talk about how sad he feels about it ad nauseam to the point we know his origins backwards and forwards better than many of us know our own parents. And we’ve seen The Dark Knight do his ninja shit beating faceless goons more often than we’ve seen virtually any other superhero in popular culture do so as well. So, again, what does director Matt Reeves have to offer with this latest iteration of the character?
Well of the many nicknames of The Batman (The Caped Crusader, The Dark Knight, The Defender of Gotham, etc), Reeves finally gives us “The World’s Greatest Detective” alongside Robert Pattison as this latest version of the character. The result is a film that is definitely too long but is nonetheless as engaging as it can get for a film that brings back a character we are all VERY familiar with.
“The Batman” follows a younger, rougher, moodier Bruce Wayne as he tries to solve the puzzle of a string of murders perpetrated by a serial killer known as The Riddler. As Bruce slowly uncovers clues The Riddler intentionally leaves behind for him, he begins to piece together that there is more to this criminal than simply a need to kill. The Riddler’s targets are deliberate and getting increasingly more personal and with the help of a cat burglar named Selina Kyle who is out on a vendetta against crime boss Carmine Falcone, they look to stop The Riddler before he can cause more chaos to Gotham.
The thing that will immediately stand out about “The Batman” is the cinematography. Matt Reeves and his team do a tremendous job happily bringing together the aesthetics of multiple Batflicks to give us probably the best-looking Gotham ever viewed on the big screen. The city is a nice mix of grounded noir like The Dark Knight trilogy movies with plenty of the Gothic visuals that made Tim Burton’s Batman pop in both his films. It feels both comic booky and something out of a Michael Mann flick at the same time to a certain extent and the result is eye-popping to say the least.
Action scenes especially are stunning visually as Reeves captures much of what makes this character cool; the way the character emerges and fights in the shadows, the way he can be both loud and silent in his violence, and, in by far the best sequence of the film, the way he drives the latest iteration of the Batmobile when chasing after the bad guys.
The original soundtrack by Michael Giacchino also continues a Batman film legacy of rich, gothic, beautiful musical scores that highlight these visuals alongside the character. Like the cinematography, the score is another happy merging of aesthetics from other Batman films. It captures the 1930s/40s noir and gothic-like feel of Danny Elfman’s work with the Tim Burton films, while also emphasizing the character’s brutality and violence like the work Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard put into The Dark Knight trilogy. The music he composed for Cat Woman though stands out especially as we get a memorable femme fatale theme that Zoe Kravitz plays up well to the emo-y Batman played by Pattison whose theme comes appropriately through Nirvana’s “Something in the Way.”
The cast is this film’s greatest strength, however. The sheer star power and charisma from top to bottom have few if any weak links and there isn’t a dull moment no matter who is onscreen at a given moment. Kravitz and Pattison are great and play off each other well giving us the best Cat Woman and Batman dynamic since Michelle Pfeiffer and Michael Keaton did it in “Batman Returns.” Collin Farrell is visually unrecognizable and hams it up to 11 in the best way as The Penguin. Jeffrey Wright is about as good a Commissioner/Lieutenant Gordon as we have had since Gary Oldman in “The Dark Knight.” And of course, Paul Dano steals the show as by far the creepiest, most vile version of The Riddler in any of these movies.
But what differentiates this movie the most from the other Batman films is the heavier emphasis on the detective side of this character. Batman is known largely as a mystery/problem solver in the comics and much of this side of the character has been neglected in previous iterations on the big screen. Keaton’s Batman does some detective work in his movies, but the emphasis is much more on the duality of Bruce Wayne. Bale’s Batman has more mysteries solved for him by characters like Lucious and Alfred than he does himself because Nolan was more focused on the pathos of Bruce Wayne the man and the exploration of the themes around fear. There’s nothing wrong with either approach but somewhere along the way, whether it was the director’s choice or the studio’s, the writers just forgot that Batman is a detective and his comics are largely neo-noirs in a hyper fanciful, power fantasy sense.
But in this film, pretty much from The Riddler’s first kill until the film’s ultimate (albeit anticlimactic) finale, Batman is solving mysteries and putting together the clues to solve the crime. These clues and puzzles left by The Riddler come in often funny puns that at times can induce a bit of eye-rolling but the point of this film, unlike its predecessors is to get the audience more acquainted with this side of the character. Batman’s greatest trait in the comics is that he solves mysteries and comes up with complex solutions to fix difficult problems and the film does a good job of showing this for the most part.
This emphasis helps drive home the fact that Batman, in this movie, is kind of an obsessive maniac who really only thinks about fighting crime. It thus plays into the main theme here which is about Batman’s more brooding nature. This is of course not unknown to anyone who knows anything about the character but what we get with Pattison’s portrayal is perhaps the moodiest interpretation of The Dark Knight to date.
Pattison’s Bruce is really just Batman all the time here, which is of course the point of this particular story. Unlike the previous Batmen (you might be sensing a theme here with how I’m writing this btw) Bruce doesn’t code switch when the cowl comes off in this movie. He is still a deeply depressed, dark, brooding, and miserable human being whether he is in costume or not. He doesn’t change, he is exactly who is all the time, and doesn’t stop being Batman ever in this movie.
He’s emo Batman in the best way and if anything maybe the most realistic depiction of what such a character would be like in the real world to date, even more than the “dark and gritty” Nolan-verse Batman. Batman/Bruce Wayne is/has always been a big moody weirdo and the script doesn’t hold back on this in this regard.
The movie is again too long but the good news is it’s hardly ever boring from scene to scene. Again, the cinematography is great, the musical score is beautiful, the cast is tremendous and carries each scene on star power alone, and the story is pretty solid all-around for a Batman film.
The only real issue with the film is, again, as much as things are different about this compared to other versions of the story it’s still at the end of the day a character we are already very familiar with and thus we’re not really getting anything thaaaat new or refreshing about Batman here.
Sure, the emphasis on “The World’s Greatest Detective” is a good change of pace from Nolan’s and I guess Zack Snyder’s rich, playboy, brooding ninja warrior of the most recent iterations of the character but this is still not really anything we haven’t seen before. Hell, if we’re counting animated versions of the character Kevin Conroy already gave us “The World’s Greatest Detective” in the “Batman: The Animated Series” during the 90s and frankly I don’t think any actor or writing team has done it better since.
The movie attempts to do some deconstructing of Batman’s cop-friendly agenda too and even to a certain extent tries to bring the character into the modern conversation surrounding law enforcement but as someone who REALLY can’t ignore this part of the genre anymore, I’m here to tell you it doesn’t say anything actually meaningful about it here either. If anything, it still endorses the status quo but with a sheen of “woke” politics.
This isn’t to say “The Batman” isn’t worth seeing, of course. If you have a strong affinity for the character or simply just want to watch something fun and fanciful for (jfc) three hours then this is preeetty good for yet another Batflick.
But if you’re looking for something truly refreshing this might not be it. It’s like getting a new menu item at your favorite burger chain restaurant. It’s a bit different but the flavor is still familiar cause it’s still part of a franchise but hey, it’s still not bad and it’s not like you’re not going to eat it if you’re hungry, right?
But then again, at this point, there isn’t a ton left to say about this character (we’re rapidly running out of things to say about Spider-man too these days) and that’s ok. These movies can just be fun, little escapist pieces of entertainment (even if it is still problematic) and on that level Matt Reeves’ “The Batman” more than succeeds and if anything is somewhat of a triumph given how many predecessors it had to stand out against. At the very least it feels very much like Matt Reeves’ artistic vision which is faaaar more than I can say about another series of superhero movies…
Chances are we’ll all get five or six more versions of this character before we all die anyway with the way Hollywood rapidly repackages existing IP to sell it back to audiences but for 3 hours at the movie theaters, it’s not a bad time by any stretch.
Just don’t go in expecting anything truly different but then again, after 10 movies, what do you expect?
What even is there left to expect?…
4 out of 5