About halfway through Matt Reeves’ sensational, haunting The Batman, I leaned over to a friend and said “This is pretty damn incredible!” To which he responded that there’s still 90 minutes left! I hadn’t felt any of that. All I knew was that Reeves’ take on the Dark Knight was everything it should be, both a fresh vision for casual fans of the character while deeply beholden to some of the characters’ best comic book storylines. And most surprising of all? Robert Pattinson’s portrayal of Gotham’s greatest detective and crimefighter is truly out of this world amazing.
The Batman is so far removed from previous adaptations by the fact that it’s less a superhero movie than a detective mystery, a crime thriller set in a city torn apart by corruption and privilege. Gotham is what it is, we’ve seen so many versions of this crime-riddled place they’re tough to tell apart. But Reeves goes the extra mile. Here, the hopelessness has sunk deep into the city’s core and into the bones of its citizens. Even its heroes come with a certain amount of acceptance that what they do is futile. Batman might fight for the people of Gotham, but he isn’t Pollyana about his odds of success.
Reeves spares us another flashback to Bruce Wayne’s parents’ murder by an unknown assailant. Their deaths drive him to ignore the family business and focus on his nocturnal pursuits as Batman. In this, just his second year in operation, Batman is more myth and physical presence. The petty criminals fear him, and seeing his Bat-signal in the air means it’s time to scram. The cops don’t trust this costumed freak much, either, with the exception of James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) who seems ONLY to trust him.
Wayne has seen his father Thomas’ dream of a mayoral run, and the ambitious Wayne Renewal project, turn to dust. There will be no renewal of anything but murder and crime in Gotham. Gangsters have taken over, from the Penguin (an unrecognizable Colin Farrell) to Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), and suddenly there’s a serial killer called the Riddler (Paul Dano) murdering key government and police officials connected to a major case.
This isn’t the dorky, neon green suit and orange hair Riddler from Jim Carrey’s performance. There’s no cheesy hat and goofy nursey rhymes. In an early scene, Riddler hides in the shadows, and savagely beats the Mayor to death. This Riddler is closer to a serial killer from a David Fincher movie. His brutality is only matched by his wit; dropping clues to a wider conspiracy, teased in an intellectual battle for the Batman’s eyes only. He remains a few steps ahead of everyone, including the Bat.
That battle of intellect between Riddler and Batman is another thing which separates The Batman apart from others. Batman’s analytical skills, his detective ability, is seen above all as his greatest talent. At times, the film feels like an episode of Law & Order, with Batman and Gordon pairing up to investigate Riddler’s many puzzles. There’s plenty of action, and Batman throws more than his share of punches, but his greatest weapon is his mind and that is too often ignored in the comics but definitely in the movies where being cinematic is key.
This emphasis on Batman’s investigative skills only makes Robert Pattinson’s casting more genius. I was skeptical in the beginning, and I think for good reason. Even as a “year two” version of Batman, Pattinson seemed unsuitable. But this is a Bruce Wayne consumed by his emotions. Regret and rage well up inside of him. He’s intense, angry, a bit wild and unfocused. Call him “emo” if you like, say he’s got daddy issues. All of it is true and the screenplay by Peter Craig and Reeves refuses to spare him. What makes Bruce Wayne think he’s so different from the other easily corruptible rich folks out there? Doesn’t his money and privilege cut him off to the plight of others, even as he fights for them? It’s interesting that in so many Batman stories his money is one of his many assets, but in a place like Gotham where people don’t trust the wealthy, wouldn’t it be a hindrance?
Of course, when the promos prominently tease “the Bat and the Cat”, Batman’s chemistry with Selina Kyle/Catwoman is key. As played by Zoe Kravitz, Selina is different from other takes on the character. That shouldn’t be surprised. The Batman is a Bat-movie unlike any other through and through. Her performance relies less on sex appeal, although she exudes it effortlessly. Selina is tough, resourceful, and arresting. She’s also fiercely loyal, and enters the picture when a friend with ties to the murders goes missing. She needs Batman’s help, he needs information. That Selina is a thief who targets the wealthy just like him doesn’t seem to be much of a concern, well, at least until she says that he “sounds like he comes from money.” She holds nothing back, he’s completely closed-off. And yet they find one another easily and believably. Just look at how their physical proximity during fights shows their burgeoning relationship. They begin as rivals, literally throwing punches and kicks furiously, to later shielding one another, literally, from those who would do them harm. I’ve never been a fan of the “violence as foreplay” model that is so often used in storytelling but it works here because there is trust in equal measure.
Reeves’ love for Batman and these characters is apparent, as seen in the many nods to stories such as “No Man’s Land”, “Hush”, and more. But there are just as many references to crime flicks and film noirs from the past, including Chinatown to capture Gotham’s seedy underbelly, draped in shadow and despair. This is a Batman movie that, even clocking in at just under three hours, never feels bloated. Action perhaps isn’t on the blockbuster level that some may expect, but what the action is indeed phenomenal, including one of the best car chases we’ve seen on the big screen in years with the Batmobile roaring through explosions that light up the Gotham night sky. Backed by Michael Giacchino’s eerie, symphonic score, The Batman is an all-encompassing experience that sucks you in.
Beyond Pattinson and Kravitz, performances are stellar across the board. Dano has delivered the definitive Riddler who is terrifying, brilliant, and exudes toxic white male privilege from every stinking pore. Farrell and Turturro are excellent in very limited amounts of time, and Wright brings that natural gravitas that we expect from him. Quietly, Andy Serkis does powerful work as Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s mentor and father figure, who sees the path of obsession his charge is going down but isn’t sure how to stop it.
Of course, time will tell how The Batman holds up compared to its predecessors. But I know when the credits rolled what my gut was telling me. This is the best Batman movie ever made. The Dark Knight remains phenomenal, as well as all of Nolan’s films and Burton’s first. But The Batman is such a grandiose cinematic achievement, crafted with a filmmakers skill and Reeves’ daring to do it his own way. For those who are tired of homogenized superhero experiences, The Batman could be the film that shows them their full potential.
The Batman opens in theaters on March 4th.