The Batman makes Batman Returns look like Mary Poppins. And just for the record, Batman Returns starts with parents throwing their disfigured baby off a bridge.
We’ve seen many versions of Batman on the silver screen, but this is the first time the Caped Crusader comes off as legitimately unhinged.
The first time we see Batman (Robert Pattinson), he emerges from the shadows like a ghoul in a horror flick. As he brutalizes a gang of thugs with bone-breaking glee, something feels off. It’s clear the beatdown isn’t about fighting crime. We see the Dark Knight can’t fight back his insatiable bloodlust.
This edgier version of the Dark Knight is a far cry from the hero moviegoers have come to expect.
Writer-director Matt Reeves’ The Batman is the first entry in Hollywood’s latest Batman franchise. And even though it introduces viewers to a new world of characters, it’s not a by-the-numbers origin story. Thank goodness it doesn’t go that route because the movie clocks in just shy of three hours. Reeves yada yada’s past the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents and dives right into the new bits of mythology fans paid to see.
This version of Bruce is a young and inexperienced vigilante. He’s been fighting crime as Batman for over a year. Even though crime and corruption in Gotham still rage out of control, Batman’s presence has drug-pushers and gangbangers looking over their shoulders when breaking the law.
When the story begins, Batman already has an alliance with police lieutenant Jim Gordon, one of the few straight cops in their crooked city. Gordon needs help with a major case. Someone murders Gotham’s mayor and uses the homicide to play a twisted game of cat and mouse. The sadistic Riddler (Paul Dano) leaves behind a series of riddles for Batman to crack.
As more of Gotham’s elites turn up dead, Batman teams up with future Catwoman Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz). Selina’s criminal associates have ties to the high-profile killings. Further complicating matters, Riddler’s crime spree is somehow connected to Bruce’s parents. Before Batman can take down Riddler, he must unearth the Wayne family’s long-buried secrets.
The Batman features a version of Bruce Wayne/Batman that we’ve yet to see outside of the comics. This tortured version of the Caped Crusader has a savage streak that feels primal. He’s not the master tactician we’re used to, and his rage issues make him reckless at times.
Bruce’s all-consuming quest for revenge blurs the line between the man and his alter ego. He doesn’t slip into character when he puts on the mask because he’s always aloof and bitter.
This version of the character truly gives no f#<s about anything besides hunting criminals. He’s not witty or charming and doesn’t even fake that blustery playboy swagger Keaton and Bale brought to the role.
Pattinson is in top form as Bruce Wayne and Batman. He excels as both a tortured billionaire and a rugged action star. He conveys Batman’s emotional turmoil without sliding into camp (which is a tough job when you’re fighting clowns while dressed as a Bat). And yes, Pattinson has an excellent Batman voice. It has gravitas and an air of mystery without being distracting.
Dano’s Riddler is one of the weaker Batman movie villains. He’s an imposing force of evil but not at all compelling as an antagonist. Dano brings the intensity, but the performance lacks nuance. He’s all crazy, all the time, and his ranting and screaming hurt my ears.
The standout Batman villains attack Batman on an existential level by challenging the principles that define him. This Riddler is more of an obstacle than a fully formed adversary like Joker and Bane. Riddler’s killing spree drives the plot, but he’s less interesting than one of Law & Order’s random killers of the week.
In the comics, Batman is known as the world’s greatest detective – think of him as Sherlock Holmes, but also a ninja. We’ve seen his world-class detective skills in other films, but this is the first Batman flick that is also a straight-up detective movie. The Batman has more in common with Chinatown than The Avengers. It’s a pulpy and violent serial killer story in the vein of Fincher thrillers like Seven and Zodiac.
As much as I enjoyed the film, Reeves’ decision to ground the story in the real world doesn’t sit right with me. Nolan made the same choice developing his Dark Knight trilogy. It’s a move that screams out that serious comic book movies need to discard comic book-y elements like superpowers, iconic costumes, and actual superhero names.
I’m not saying every superhero movie franchise needs to lead to an Avenger-like team up, but why throw out so many elements that define these heroes? Can’t we take these films seriously without grounding them in a realistic world?
Black Panther received a Best Picture nomination, and it features an invisible city and a villain who shoots laser bolts out of his wrist. Don’t fans deserve a Batman series that includes metahumans as well as gangsters and terrorists? Bring on characters like Clayface, Poison Ivy, and Man-Bat.
Cinematographer Greig Fraser once again shows why he’s one of the best DPs in the business (he’s worked on sci-fi epics like Dune and Rogue One). The Batman’s Gotham City sits somewhere between the Burton-era films’ hyper-stylized urban nightmare look and the ultra-realistic Gotham City seen in the Nolan movies. It has the decaying, trash-strewn look of Todd Phillips’ Joker, but with the sleek, contemporary neo-noir vibe. Gotham looks like a lo-fi, take on Blade Runner’s Los Angeles.
This comic book flick may be a grounded in real-ish physics, but the film features several unreal action sequences. The hand-to-hand fighting here is leagues ahead of the stilted combat in Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.
The hard-hitting fights have an excellent rhythm to them. They’re fast-paced, chaotic and most importantly, easy to follow. The film doesn’t feature John Wick-calibre fight choreography, but it’s badass in its own right and makes sense for this Batman and his gritty world. The fighting isn’t slick and fluid, but it’s beautifully staged. I’ve seen the film once, and several action beats have already seared themselves into my brain.
It blows my mind that Warner Bros. went along with such a dark Batman story. It’s PG-13 but feels like an R-rated serial killer movie. The film opens with Riddler bludgeoning a man to death. Sure, Batman has always been a borderline insane character, but the movies never felt this dark and disturbing. So consider the film’s bleak tone before watching this one with your Batman-loving 8-year-old.
I’ve loved Batman movies since I was a child, but my relationship with the character has shifted in recent years. I find that stories of vigilantism take on new resonance in 2022. There is a tear within our nation’s social fabric that refuses to be mended. People seem as divided as ever. They have lost faith in institutions that protect them, and they feel emboldened to take the law into their own hands.
I’ve seen right-wing media champion scumbags charged with gunning down unarmed men. And I’ve watched hateful mobs overrun our nation’s capital posing under the guise of civil disobedience. Yet, somehow the difference between freedom fighters and domestic terrorists hinges on which political party you side with.
Reeves is one of the most talented filmmakers working today, and he’s aware Batman walks a razor-thin line between vigilante and villain, hero and fascist. Reeves uses the Caped Crusader as a lens to examine today’s corrosive cultural divide. The film serves as a blunt cautionary tale about what separates fighting for the greater good from destroying what we oppose.
Batman may fight psycho clowns and crime lords, but the battle at the heart of the film is for Bruce’s humanity. Busting criminals’ heads makes him a vigilante, inspiring the Gotham’s citizens to be better people; now that’s heroic.