A gothic Gotham and dark knight.
In the genre of comic book movies, few characters have been done and redone as many times as Batman has. In the past 10 years, we have seen five different iterations of the caped crusader on the big screen. This year alone, we’re going to see three different big-screen Batmans, two of which will be in live-action. In this day and age, the greatest challenge that comes with the dark knight is redoing and rebooting the character over and over again and making him feel different every time.
Thankfully, Matt Reeves’ The Batman achieves this in spades, reintroducing the world’s greatest detective not as this mythical entity criminals fear late at night, but as one man at his wits ending fighting one city and the entirety of its corruption. Never before has Batman felt so grounded in a film. Yes, that even includes Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.
Taking place two years after he first donned the cowl, The Batman follows Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) at the start of his crime-fighting career as he hunts down Gotham’s worst. But as he begins to strike fear and vengeance into Gotham’s heart, a new serial killer calling himself the Riddler (Paul Dano) enters the fray, claiming responsibility for a string of murders happening throughout the city. Now determined to track down this killer, the Batman scours the criminal underworld looking for clues connecting him to Gotham’s newest criminal mastermind.
One of the most essential elements of any big-screen Batman adaptation is how the city of Gotham is portrayed. In Tim Burton’s Batman movies, Gotham is portrayed like a bleak slum reminiscent of a graveyard, shrouded in shades of charcoal and dark blue. In Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Gotham mimics the look and feel of a modern-day Chicago. And in Batman V. Superman, Gotham is… apparently across the bay from Metropolis. But we don’t need to talk about that film.
So how does Matt Reeves handle his iteration of Gotham city? Pretty amazingly, actually. In fact, The Batman has quite possibly the best realization of Gotham yet. While previous films have shown Gotham as a dreadful, decrepit city that desperately needed saving, The Batman illustrates Gotham as a swamp of greed, crime, and corruption, sharing more in common with a diseased leper than a highly populated metropolitan city. In previous films, there was a glimmer of hope that Gotham could change and be saved. The Batman illustrates Gotham as a truly desolate, hopeless place that we honestly question if it’s even worth saving. In many ways, Gotham is a character in and of itself, and it really informs why Bruce constantly feels the need to suit up at night as the Batman.
But it isn’t just Gotham city that Matt Reeves nails so well here: its also the dark, eerie, unsettling tone that persists throughout the whole film. The opening sequence alone brilliantly sets the stage, with Robert Pattinson delivering a haunting voiceover about being a predator on the hunt at night while criminals cower in fear as they see the Bat Signal light up the sky. Most other Batman films have great introductions to their characters, but The Batman is the first to show the full scope of it and how everyone in this world reacts and responds to a prowler stalking the city late at night. It sets the tone so, so wonderfully. Out of all of the films that have been previously released, The Batman feels the most atmospheric and stays with you long after you’ve left the theater.
I also really like the ultra-realism that Matt Reeves aims for when adapting this big-screen Batman. While most Batman films feel implausible or far-fetched at one point or another, The Batman always feels completely realistic, sometimes nearly to its detriment. Instead of having countless bat gadgets and weapons at his disposal, this Batman carries only one bat-blade and a grappling gun, and that limits how much he’s able to do alone as one man. Instead of having a heavily-armored vehicle like the Tumbler or the Batwing, the Batmobile instead feels like a suped-up muscle car, yet equally capable in its speed and destruction. And instead of being able to fly with his cape, here he has to literally suit up in a flight suit just to be able to glide through the air. More than any other Batman film, The Batman feels the most like it could actually happen. That gives it a level of authenticity and believability that few Batman films have, and even fewer superhero films on top of that.
The cast is exceptional in every way imaginable. Zoe Kravitz brings us the best version of Catwoman to date, playing her not like a whiskers-twirling supervillain, but as a morally-conflicted cat burglar who sees the world through the shades of gray that she grew up in. Colin Farrell is straight-up unrecognizable as the Penguin, playing him as this cartoonish wannabe mob boss that wants to be taken more seriously than he actually is. And without giving too much away, Paul Dano’s Riddler serves as the perfect foil to Pattinson’s Batman, offering a chilling, disturbed performance of a twisted man who wants vengeance from the city that wronged him. I honestly think Dano’s Riddler might be my favorite supervillain performance in a Batman film. That is, after Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight.
This begs the question of how well does Robert Pattinson do in playing the caped crusader? Well, he’s a mixed bag. On one hand, his performance as Batman alone is mesmerizing and powerful, beautifully illustrating a man tortured and haunted by his demons and who is guided by his grief and trauma. His sheer presence inspires fear and tension, and that is exactly what you need in an actor to play Batman. His voice is also the darkest and most grim Batman voice in the past 10 years. I’d even go so far as to say his voice is my favorite out of all the Batman actors. It’s definitely an improvement over Christian Bale’s growly snarls and Ben Affleck’s garbled autotune.
In terms of playing Batman, Pattinson’s portrayal is perfect — maybe even the best on-screen Batman we’ve ever gotten. The problem is, he isn’t expected to just play Batman: he’s also expected to play Bruce Wayne, and this is where Pattinson’s performance begins to falter. While Pattinson’s Batman is dark, intimidating, and brooding, Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne is… the exact same. There’s no indication that he is the billionaire playboy that the press loves to flaunt on their front pages, or that he’s even capable of playing that part. While at night Pattinson is great at playing the shrouded predator that makes criminals shake in their boots, his performance as Bruce Wayne is the exact same and offers zero nuance beyond his scowls and eye-piercing glares.
Sure, you could make the argument that this is Bruce early on in his crime-fighting career and that he just doesn’t know how to delineate between his public and his private personas. But that implies that this version of Bruce is not smart enough, or at least aware enough, to know that he may need a public persona to fend off wavering eyes. I don’t buy that for a second. This is a guy who can solve riddles, find far-reaching clues, and piece together mind-boggling mysteries like a master detective, and he doesn’t even have the self-awareness to think “Hey, maybe I should B.S. the public so nobody suspects I’m secretly a vigilante?” Give me a break. There’s even a moment in the film where Bruce fears that somebody quietly suspects that he may be Batman. I mean, duh. What else do you think all of that eye shadow is for? A Panic! At The Disco concert?
All in all, The Batman is a bold and brilliant retelling of the dark knight, even if it falters with some creative decisions here or there. I find it fascinating that nine years after Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy ended, The Batman doesn’t feel tired, redundant, or exhausted in its execution. Instead, it feels fresh, exciting, and deeply challenging to the caped crusader and his mythos. Yet, the biggest surprise I found with the film wasn’t how dark, how bleak, how hopeless Gotham really felt. The biggest surprise was after leaving Gotham when the movie was over, all I could think about was how badly I wanted to go back.