There are a million different ways to do Batman. He can be blue, gray, black. He can be clad in spandex or encased in body armor. Sometimes his neck moves, other times it doesn’t. Sometimes he kills people, other times he steadfastly refuses. He can be a hulking strongman or a wiry acrobat. Guns? Sure! But also no, NEVER! Sometimes he exists in the real world, other times he’s surrounded by explicit magic. Camp? Sure! Excessive seriousness? Works for me! Is Bruce Wayne a playboy? Yeah, he can be, but sometimes he’s faking it as cover, while other times he’s legitimately horny and ready to flash his cash to smash some gash. He works alone, but sometimes he works with a partner. He’s stoic. He’s silly. He’s young, he’s old.
Again, there are a million different ways to do Batman, so if anyone gets into declaring what Batman does and doesn’t do, feel free to invite them to kick rocks. Batman does whatever the writer says he does and that’s that.
As such, with each new Batman movie, it’s interesting to see which traits are carried over from previous entries and which have been discarded. While Batman Returns remains the peak cinematic iteration (in my humble and correct opinion), Matt Reeves’ new take on the character, The Batman, does an excellent job of cherry picking some of the most successful elements from Batman’s live-action history to deliver something we haven’t really seen outside of the comic pages. Namely, this is the first time that Batman is portrayed as a detective rather than a proto-Bond with a Bat fetish. This isn’t to say that Robert Pattinson’s Caped Crusader doesn’t have a Bat fetish, just that the film isn’t interested in exploring the Wayne/Batman psyche as much as some of its predecessors. The Batman, in avoiding these well-worn paths, is ultimately much stronger for it.
DC Comics is short for Detective Comics, and one of their flagship properties is Batman, aka The World’s Greatest Detective. The Batman leans into this pretty hard (or, more accurately, leans away from gadgets and action), and even though the Batman we see on screen isn’t quite the world’s greatest – not just yet – he does much more by way of detecting than he does by way of smashing skulls and blowing up clown gangs.
The film opens two years into Batman’s tenure as Gotham’s mythological crime fighter. He has a single friend in the police force. You know him, you love him, I’m talking about Commissioner Gordon (Jeffrey Wright — galaxy brain casting right there). He’s not Commissioner yet, but come on, that’s his name. No one knows whether or not to trust Batman, but as opined in his opening screed, this fear is part of his mission. When the bat-signal is lit, criminals assume that any dark alleyway could contain the bat-man, and as evidenced by a propulsive and scary opening fight scene, they’re right to be scared. Batman has a thing for breaking noses (in fact, one of the small amounts of levity in this bleak flick takes the form of Bruce Wayne being able to recognize crooked cops by their swollen faces — if Batman smashed their nose, we can assume they’re up to no good). Batman’s nightly patrols are soon interrupted by the dawn of a new serial killer (Paul Dano). He goes by ‘The Riddler’ and his MO is far from stealing brain waves via 3D televisions. No, this time around he’s killing members of the Gotham elite for mysterious reasons. He’s not in green spandex either. Remember the suit that the Zodiac killer wore when he stabbed those poor kids by the lake? The Riddler’s new digs are very similar to that, and much like Zodiac, he leaves behind coded messages addressed to Batman.
There is no origin story for Batman here, nor is there a wife and kids to anchor Gordon to anything. Despite having nearly three hours of runtime, there’s just no time for that. The Batman is a noir-infused police procedural first, and a damn good one. And while elements of the crimes do tie into Bruce Wayne, Batman, and his effects on Gotham at large, this is all secondary to saving the day. The Dark Knight took a similar approach: now that the leg work is out of the way, let’s just get Batman on a mission.
And of course no Batman story is complete without Catwoman (Zoe Kravitz). She’s a cat burglar here, not an undead magical kink-ethused cat/human hybrid. Short of the ear-like protrusions on the top of her mask, there’s nothing expressly depicting her as a anything but one of Gotham’s maltreated young women. She does have a lot of cats in her apartment, but that’s just because cats are awesome and, to quote her, she has “a thing for strays.” Ha.
The Batman uses the armor-like Batsuit from the Nolan trilogy, but adheres to the logical framework of Tim Burton’s original Batman film. What I mean to say is that the Nolan trilogy, as awesome as it was, spent too much time trying to explain why certain things are the way they are. It was so concerned with placing Batman into the real world that it steps on its own toes a bit in doing so. Every gadget has an explanation and a source (there is a scene in Batman Begins that explains from where Batman orders his masks in bulk, and how he goes about creating parallel orders under other names so as to not draw suspicion — fun, but shut up). Burton’s Batman doesn’t take place in the real world, nor does it waste time on explaining how the Joker was able to get himself a Joker-branded helicopter, or how he synthesized a chemical that makes you die laughing while morphing your face into an insane smile. The Batman finds the perfect middle ground: the film absolutely takes place in the real world, but certain logical leaps must be taken simply BECAUSE BATMAN. It’s like that famous quote from writer Grant Morrison:
“Kids understand that real crabs don’t sing like the ones in The Little Mermaid. But you give an adult fiction and the adult starts asking really fucking dumb questions like ‘how does Superman fly? How do those eyebeams work? Who pumps the Batmobile’s tires?’ It’s a fucking made-up story, you idiot! Nobody pumps the tires!”
They’re right, and Matt Reeves’ script takes this advice to heart. Batman has tasers in his gloves because he does. Batman has a Redbull Wingsuit sort of thing built into his cape because he does. How did all of those goons with gigantic guns get into the rafters of a mayoral inauguration? BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT HAPPENS IN GOTHAM! Do you want Batman to have a movie to be in or not?!?
At the same time that the Riddler is shaking up Gotham elite, the mobsters of the city are at risk of having their ties to the elite exposed. Somewhere in the middle of this criminal hierarchy is Oswald Cobblepot, aka The Penguin, played here by an unrecognizable, fat-suited Colin Farrell. We can hem and haw over the propriety of hiring a notable name and a face only to dress them up as a character actor, but wherever we land on that, within the shell of The Batman, Colin Farrell is a weird choice. First, he doesn’t get much screen time, and second, there’s nothing unique that Farrell brings to the role. He does a fantastic job, but this is one of those cases where really, anyone could have played the character (Burt Young would’ve been ideal for this version, say, 25 years ago). That said, there is supposed to be a spin-off show about Gotham City police that The Penguin is allegedly going to be a big part of, so maybe there’s more to the character than we get here. I hope so. I’d like to see some of Farrell’s inherent weirdness emerge from behind his prosthetics. Credit where its due: Jared “I’m insane” Leto managed to validate his casting in House of Gucci, and Farrell is a better actor in my humble, and again correct, opinion.
Across the board otherwise, the casting is great. Any doubt about Pattinson can be put to bed. His Batman is excellent. Equally believable and terrifying. His Bruce Wayne, albeit a more morose, reclusive version than we’re used to, tracks with his Batman. And at the end of the day it really comes down to how he looks in the bat-suit, and he looks awesome. Kravitz is an excellent Catwoman as well, and perhaps the most well-motivated of the non-magical Catwomen. As previously mentioned, Wright is perfect for Gordon, and I imagine we’ll get to see him do more than he gets to here once the aforementioned spin-off show gets off the ground. Andy Serkis is our new Alfred, a character just as historically malleable as Batman. The notable difference here is that he and Bruce don’t really get along. Bruce is downright cruel to him at points, but the care that they have for one another remains, largely due to the nuanced performance by Serkis. The real winners here, however, are Paul Dano and John Turturro as The Riddler and Carmine Falcone, respectively. Dano is deeply frightening, and Turturro, typically relegated to more pathetic characters, shines as bright as any Scorsesian mobster ever has.
Side note: Between this and Uncut Gems, Turturro and Sandler seem to be slowly morphing into one another. They will soon meet in the middle and it will be glorious.
Deliberately paced and very, very long, The Batman runs the risk of being turgid and boring, but luckily for us, it’s riveting from moment one all the way through to the end. A mix of Fincher’s Zodiac, Polanski’s Chinatown, and literally all of the Batman films that came before it, The Batman is impossibly entertaining and ultimately very compelling. This is helped by Michael Giacchino’s absolutely stellar score. It doesn’t quite reach the infectious, iconic heights of Elfman’s work on Burton’s films, but it certainly has more of a hook than any we’ve heard since. It, too, absorbs some previous Batman material. Whenever Catwoman is on screen, the strings introduced to the sound are evoke those applied similarly in Batman Returns. Smart move. It works well to create the vibe, and at the risk of sounding like and old man trying to talk like kids these days, The Batman is all about viiiiibes.
In the days since seeing the film (during a nasty bout of food poisoning, mind you — credit to the film for keeping me riveted while my stomach churned) it’s the vibe that has stuck with me most. The Gotham of 2022 is a bit of the old, a bit of the new. The Batman of 2022 is a bit of the old and a bit of the new. Matt Reeves, who masterfully brought home the back half of one of the best blockbuster trilogies of all time (Planet of the Apes) takes the same approach with The Batman: honoring the past, forging something new, and delivering as technically proficient of a picture as one could imagine.
And Batman has taser fingers.
Directed by Matt Reeves
Written by Matt Reeves, Peter Craig, Bob Kane, Bill MUTHAFUCKIN Finger
Starring Zoe Kravitz, Robert Pattinson, Paul Dano, Jeffrey Wright
Rated PG-13, 175 minutes