Every naysayer is going to be eating a lot of bat, er… crow, as director Matt Reeves delivers in The Batman not only one of the best films among the Caped Crusader’s silver screen appearances, but most importantly, simply a great film.
This outing is unlike every other iteration of Batman we’ve ever had, unlike anything we’ve seen in the broader attempt at a DC Comics extended cinematic universe, and also so true to the essence of what makes the character work. Robert Pattinson delivers a hit to the solar plexus of a complex character, and, surprising for many Batman or other comic book movies, the character actually has an arc and growth. He’s matched in Zoe Kravitz‘s stunning portrayal of Selina Kyle as well as Paul Dano‘s scene-chewing madness as The Riddler, the latter of whom really elevates this material. But most importantly, the film feels poignant, delivering a message that fits the zeitgeist we find ourselves in.
This should be no surprise to those who are familiar with Reeves’ work with the Planet of the Apes franchise. His attention to character and theme are perfect for Batman. And while fans may find a lot of similarities between Reeves’ film and the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy, this manages to be very much its own thing. In fact, really the only similarity is that both directors are committed to elevating the material and focusing on character. This Batman is really the first time we see “The World’s Greatest Detective” actually do detective work as he tries to unravel the mystery of what The Riddler wants. The Batman actually owes more to films like The French Connection, Chinatown, and David Fincher’s Zodiac and Se7en than most of the other Batman films. In fact, the Batman property this film most resembles is the Bruce Timm directed Batman: The Animated Series and the cinematic release The Mask of the Phantasm. But darker. And also? Longer. This movie is LONG, and it is slowly paced. If that is a problem for you, you may not enjoy this. But if you like the slowest of burns, this pays off.
The central mystery of the film? (No spoilers) The Riddler keeps murdering some of Gotham’s top officials, leaving behind cryptic clues for The Batman and threatening to spill everyone’s secrets. The Gotham PD are none too excited when the masked vigilante shows up at crime scenes, summoned by Detective Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) to help unravel the mystery. The two make a really good police partnership, again echoing the best parts of detective movies past. But Batman soon finds the case leads to Gotham’s underground including Oswald Cobblepot aka the Penguin (Colin Farrell) and his boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro). And when Selina Kyle and Batman’s investigations into the same people cross paths, they form a temporary and untrusting partnership.
What happens next? Everything you think it does. And it is glorious.
When there is finally a moment when the Batmobile shows up and revs its jet engine, it is primal how happy it can make you feel down deep inside. And what follows is one hell of a car chase, some bits of which we’ve already had spoiled in the trailers. But needless to say, it’s amazing.
It’s also wet. This movie’s rain and water budget must have been huge. Gotham is apparently more like Seattle in this iteration, with constant rain and darkness. It’s an effective mood, especially punctuated by Nirvana’s brooding “Something in the Way” which gets dropped multiple times and is given multiple motifs in the score.
The acting is superb, the dialogue crisp, the puzzles and riddles fun, and the mystery is worth solving. Along the way, we also delve deep into Bruce Wayne’s family and his psyche. We plumb the depths of what he is really doing and why, and the film asks if that’s really the best way to go about creating the change he wants to see in the world. It’s incredibly reflective, and what makes it so poignant is it feels like it probes each one of us as well. Are the things you think you’re laboring for really aligning with your values and desires? Or is a lot of it a smokescreen and bull$#!t? In this, it feels very 2022: a time when we all need to take a look around at our mental health, our values, and our institutions and decide what changes need to be made in an increasingly untenable status quo.
There are also tiny threads that it feels like Reeves is weaving in to make some specific statements. For his second film in a row, he pits his heroes against a disaster in its third act that is natural in origin, but manmade/triggered in what feels like an homage to the crisis we face against climate change. But really, the actual threat comes from people who have been marginalized by society, slipped through whatever safety nets we’ve tried to create, and then radicalized and armed. In it, the citizens of Gotham must face their own demons, confront their own trauma, just as the other main characters do as well. Again, very 2022.
Just as Dano’s Riddler wants to make Gotham face its lies about its history, institutions and elites, so too must we unmask the truth about our own complex history and face a reckoning on issues of race, genocide, patriarchy, and all other forms of oppression that have been woven into our narrative from the beginning.
One of the things that makes this film so effective is that Bruce/Batman goes on a journey in this film. One of the joys of film is with its limited runtime you have precious little time to help your characters grow, so it becomes a part of the artistry of film writing and directing to efficiently move things from A to B to C. One of the problems with films based on comic books is that these characters are as much archetypes as anything else, so they’re not supposed to change. So it’s incredible that Reeves is able to make Bruce Wayne engage in a lot of self-reflection about his own trauma, how he is reacting to it, and how healthy that truly is both for himself and for Gotham. “I am Vengeance” is the Batman mantra that strikes fear into the hearts of Gotham’s underworld. But are there limits on what avenging his dead parents can do?
Or? This is just a movie about a rich guy in body armor who drives a really cool car. You decide. Either way, you will enjoy this.
Prepare yourselves for The Batman. Prepare for its extremely long runtime. Prepare to reassess everything you though you knew about Robert Pattinson. Prepare to be humming Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” for a week after. Prepare for the truth about The Batman.
* * * *
4 out of 5 stars