In my lifetime, the following actors have physically donned the cowl of Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s legendary detective Batman: Adam West, Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Christian Bale, and Ben Affleck. With each actor came a distinct version with an underlying theme, something being explored throughout the story. Giving us the best detective story to date — yes, including animated film Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993) — is co-writer/director Matt Reeves’s The Batman exploring the Dark Knight (this time with Robert Pattinson taking his turn) in the second year of his crusade to convert a cesspool of a city into something redeemable by serving as a figure of vengeance. But what is vengeance but an endless cycle of violence? This is where Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig (The Town) find their voice, their unique perspective on The Bat, creating The Batman for a new generation.
In the two years since Batman surfaced in Gotham City, he’s been able to build a presence so that minor criminals have begun to fear the dark corners of the city streets. Considered a lawless vigilante by law enforcement, he hasn’t earned any kind of carte blanche on crime scenes, with the exception of the relationship he’s developed with Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) of the Gotham City Police Department. This relationship comes in handy as a new serial killer with a penchant for puzzles has begun killing high profile Gothamites, teasing out a dark truth regarding Gotham.
If all you know of Reeves’s past works are the two Planet of the Apes films Dawn (2014) and War (2017), then you should be plenty excited to see what the writer/director does with one of DC Comics’s pillars. Though the cinematography from Greig Fraser (Dune) is striking and the score from Michael Giacchino (Let Him Go) imbues the film with a persistent encroaching dread, it all comes down to the screenplay, for better or for worse. Reeves uses every moment of the nearly-three-hour runtime to build up a mystery we haven’t seen executed except in the comics. For once, dear readers, we actually get to see Batman detect, something typically minimized in all the other films. In The Batman, Reeves and Craig offer up someone new who is still learning and adaptable but is yet unable to see past the mission, requiring that the film be as methodical in its narrative approach as the character would be on the page. In cinema, however, a puzzle needs to be difficult enough for only the clever to solve, yet styled in a way to at least retain interest in the solution for those who can’t. The script does a mostly fine job of this, finding its footing in the thriller portions of the film and Bat-centric sequences, losing it when trying to delve into Batman’s alter-ego Bruce Wayne (always the hardest portion to nail in the films). Credit to Reeves and Craig, though, because every time I had something figured out, a turn would inevitably arrive which would make my deductions the result of incomplete data. Thus, I caution you not to fall into the same trap of expectations: allow yourself to see the whole film before determining if it’s for you or not.
That might seem like a strange thing to write “see the whole film,” but this is the rare comic book film where scene-to-scene everything shifts. I recommend going into the film without the expectation of “masterpiece” or “trash” being the only thing you’re looking for, but also being ready to consider the themes that the script sets forward. It’s mighty fun watching Batman beat the crap out of goons Arkham City-style, but what does it mean to be a figure of vengeance? Batman’s origin is written on the cold Gotham City street, scrawled in his parents’ blood. Without the fore-knowledge that every choice, every act, made by Batman is in the service of the greater good, what separates Batman from any other criminal as they both break the law? From moment to moment, the script pushes the audience to consider their own preconceptions of not just of what Batman represents, but the radiating impact of his choices, and, from there, examine them. When is vengeance justified? Where is the line? Consider a very specific shot of Batman lumbering toward Oswalt Cobblepot, a.k.a The Penguin (Colin Farrell) post-car chase (shown in the trailer), flames of an explosion lighting him from behind: the camera is upside down. This is what Penguin sees coming toward him. This is not a servant of justice coming toward him, it’s a force of rage, something fueled by hatred. The unofficially deemed Batmobile appears to be a customized muscle car (built for power and punishment) with a mostly white flame blazing out the back and Batman, with his pale skin, appears to be riding a similar pale horse — does this sound like the Batman you’d read about now? Sure, this one is young, only two years in, and has a backstory that borrows from the comics but makes something entirely new (presenting potentially rippling consequences for this latest interpretation of the character). This is a new take. However, unlike the versions in Batman (1989) or even Batman Begins (2005), Pattinson’s Batman is absent the humanity that makes him Gotham City’s bagman. From first frame to the last, The Batman is about exploring the path Batman’s on and what his pursuit of violence begets the city he is trying to protect.
This, of course, brings us to Pattinson himself. As with all the Batmans before him, there are bound to be folks who enjoy his performance while others do not. This version of Batman is insular, giving very little of his thoughts or intentions, making every line important and every portion of the physical performance conveying all that remains. Pattinson is magnetic in the suit, believable as an immoveable object in the traditional character-driven scenes, and frighteningly kinetic execution in in the physical confrontations. Pattinson delivers a brutality in his interpretation of the character that we see with each puzzle solution or punch. The character doesn’t mince words (the script doesn’t allow for that kind of time), making us believe that the character is driven by pain and trauma, in reaction and deed. The weakest aspect, if you will, of the performance comes when Bruce Wayne must make an appearance; however, my defense of this is that it seems purposeful when considering the whole film and the character’s journey. In other films, only Bale’s Batman had to learn within the scope of the story how to be Bruce Wayne, public figure and socialite. Here, there is no Bruce Wayne, only the cowl. In the comics, it’s frequently mentioned that Batman is the true face with Bruce being the alter-ego. Based on Pattison’s performance and the evidence within the script, it appears that this version of Batman possesses the same pathology, thus the lack of warmth, the absence of presence separating the two performances is intentional as there is no Bruce. Not yet.
The longer I sit with The Batman, the more it moves me. Something similar occurred with War for the Planet of the Apes due to the ideas within it being a result of a stirring collaboration between cast and crew and from performers executing on all cylinders all the way down the line. Paul Dano as The Riddler offers the kind of creepy performance one expects from the acclaimed character actor, yet he never pushes so hard as to fall into Jim Carrey-like hysterics. There’s terror and dread at every appearance, his puzzles are thoughtful, deadly, and signs of a dangerous mind. Zoë Kravitz as Selina Kyle/Catwoman steals (no pun intended) each scene she’s in, bringing the vibe up a few notches against Pattinson’s stoicism and offering a street-level perspective the Bat misses from the heights of Gotham he frequents. Her version of Catwoman channels the spirit of past performances while making it all her own: confidence, vulnerability, agency, and being more than capable of going toe-to-toe with Batman, Cobblepot, Falcone, or the GCPD (as expected). Frankly, we don’t get enough of Farrell as Cobblepot, but what we do get is as clever and fiercesome as one expects from the conniving businessman. Strangely, his performance evoked the essence of a young De Niro and it’s a perfect fit in this interpretation: controlled yet visibly volatile. Each of these performances (including Pattinson, Wright, and John Turturro as Carmine Falcone) elevates each other and imbues a desire in the audience to see what story Reeves and Craig might conjure next to the point where even the things that bother me (a slightly slow paced middle section, the lack of clear geography, some scenes too dark to clearly track content) are forgivable when considered against the whole. Even the alterations of character origins make sense within the rules and narrative needs of the film. This is the kind of smarts we’ve seen before in the Planet of the Apes pictures that made Reeves such an inspired choice take the helm here.
The Batman sets up a true infinite set of possibilities of where a new story could go, especially in light of the changes made to Bruce’s origin and the origins of others. With the unexpected comes a certain deliciousness, not for what violence Batman or his gallery of rogues may do, but for how Reeves and company might confront vengeance next.
In theaters March 4th, 2022.
For more information, head to the official The Batman website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.