The terms “dark,” “gritty,” “grounded,” and “realistic” are commonly thrown around when referring to Batman’s recent acclaimed theatrical ventures. Those aren’t new developments for a Batman movie, but since Christopher Nolan saved the brooding superhero’s reputation from its mid-to-late ’90s low point with The Dark Knight Trilogy, those adjectives are practically compulsory for a new live-action movie. Following the tumultuous DCEU rollout and Ben Affleck’s original script having to be converted into a reboot, director/co-writer Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, War for the Planet of the Apes) had a monumental task in giving audiences reasons to care about a third rendition of the tortured hero in 10 years — and he delivers with the Robert Pattinson-led The Batman.
Co-writers Reeves and Peter Craig (The Town, Bad Boys for Life) have certainly put together the grimmest takes on the Dark Knight’s corner of the DC universe, but it’s not without purpose as it marries the superhero genre with the thrilling crime-noir mysteries of David Fincher’s Zodiac and Seven. Those are references countless critics have made after seeing The Batman, but it’s with good reason as it borrows elements from those movies in terms of the antagonist — Paul Dano’s chilling Riddler — and the genre as a whole. And even in the midst of all the grim and grittiness, The Batman never misses the forest for the trees in delivering an engrossing murder mystery that still compels its somber hero to find the light buried in the shadows of Gotham City.
Tim Burton’s fan-favorite Batman and Batman Returns, as well as the acclaimed theatrical reinvention of the brooding superhero in Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, were inarguably successful, but neither director homed in on one of the most important — yet overlooked — characteristics from the source material. Batman debuted in 1939 in Detective Comics No. 27 through the lens of pulpy crime stories, and Reeves’ dark incarnation of the character finally balances his “Dark Knight” epithet with his “World’s Greatest Detective” moniker. While still punctuated by exciting action sequences, the story is an intricately written detective-thriller throughout, with a villain opposite Pattinson’s Batman worthy of testing his sleuthing mettle.
That worthy adversary was given a fitting reimagining for the premise and subgenre of The Batman, with a Riddler that sheds the bombast and raging inferiority complex with a Zodiac Killer-themed wrapping. Dano’s performance can’t be praised enough for how imposing, ominous, disturbed and disturbing he’s able to make the Riddler — even when he’s not physically in the scene and wearing a grotesquely duct-taped mask. Given that the last live-action theatrical version was the zany Jim Carrey version in Batman Forever, this one will be a breath of fresh air for a modern, grounded setting.
Riddler’s killing spree brings out the worst in Gotham City and challenges the heroes’ physical and mental limits while dissecting the anatomy of systemic corruption. This obviously emphasizes Batman himself, as we are given an adaptation of a character who has zero interest in Bruce Wayne. The public “persona” is barely public and merely serves as a vessel to carry out the Caped Crusader’s nocturnal quests for vengeance.
Pattinson expertly emphasizes the tortured soul of Bruce Wayne in his scenes out of the Batsuit in ways no other actor has. And more than in any other movie, Pattinson does so through the beast that is the Batman identity. This is very much a Batman who’s struggling to strike the right balance between being the criminal underworld’s mythological terror of the night, and a heroic inspiration for Gotham’s neglected — all while learning to let Bruce Wayne in more.
Veteran Batman and DC Comics fans will more often than not tell you that Gotham City is more than just stage dressing. In selecting the locations to film The Batman (Glasgow, Liverpool, and London served as the main shooting locations), Reeves succeeds in crafting a Gotham City that feels more alive and like a character since Burton’s aforementioned gothic and stylized vision. Credit for that goes to the natural and seamless worldbuilding of Reeves, including the characters populating it.
It’s what makes the supporting cast of characters surrounding Batman so important, including Zoë Kravitz’s definitive Selina Kyle/Catwoman and Colin Farrell’s transformative Oswald Cobblepot/Penguin. Kravitz especially brings a great balance and perspective as the proto-Catwoman, with Pattinson’s tunnel-visioned and traumatized Batman still more concerned with being a blunt weapon and force of nature. She helps ground Bruce and compels him to see the bigger picture, but just as importantly, she retains her identity as a fleshed-out character on her own merits. Selina has an emotionally resonant character arc throughout the movie, all while maintaining an electric dynamic with Batman.
Meanwhile, Farrell’s up-and-coming mob boss is the most charmingly villainous character in the movie, proving that — apparently — you can have a realistic live-action Penguin that looks akin to his comic book counterpart. He’s presented as conniving, yet also serves up some tasteful (and welcome) doses of comic relief. His presence is relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, but Penguin’s role in the story is handled efficiently.
Gotham itself as a character complements the sprawling mystery plot as the latter naturally introduces pieces of this world’s lore. Nothing feels forced, with every bit of information concerning the shadowy machinations of the city being introduced as needed. Likewise, for those not as clued in on Batman’s mythos, what audiences are being shown and told isn’t overwhelming or confusing.
All that helps inflate The Batman‘s runtime, which at a hefty two hours and 47 minutes (excluding the credits), can’t be ignored. While some may feel the length to be unwieldy, one of the many strengths of the movie is its pacing. Nothing feels particularly bloated, with every scene moving at a brisk pace and having something crucial and engaging going on before transitioning to the next.
Visually, of course, big thanks have to go to the artistry that cinematographer Greig Fraser brings behind the camera. Every shot is framed to show the gloomy, grimy brilliance of Gotham City, complete with the neon lights of the city’s nightlife. Similarly, composer Michael Giacchino’s grandiose score sounds and feels like a loving blend of past live-action Batman movies and the timeless Batman: The Animated Series, specifically Mask of the Phantasm, the latter two of which were largely scored by the late Shirley Walker. It’s equal parts supplemental to the noir atmosphere and heroically inspiring, helping put a nice bow on top of an iconic Batman tale.
There’s no denying the story and world are bleak and not your typical superhero fanfare, but that’s what makes it so refreshing. The Batman is completely focused on telling a complete story in its own right, while still planting the seeds for the future. And as grim as things may get, it doesn’t leave out optimism while chronicling a well-earned story of a Batman steadily learning to instill hope in the downtrodden, rather than give in to the vengeance that has consumed him and his city for far too long.
The Batman is playing in theaters now.
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