You thought Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman was realistic? Matt Reeves says “Hold my Batarang.” Reeves’ new film, The Batman, is unlike any Batman movie we’ve ever seen. It’s more of a detective procedural than a superhero movie. Law and Order blended with horror featuring costumed vigilantes. This is a Batman story told with a commitment to reality which instantly distinguishes it from all other films featuring the character. And it works incredibly well.
The story is a gritty mystery that’s gripping and exciting, coupled with several high-octane action scenes and tons of gorgeous imagery. However, the film’s dense story and long runtime create such a deep investment in this untraditional superhero story, it’s consequently a letdown when the film’s finale betrays that overarching vision. After being wowed by The Batman’s ambition and commitment to realism, everything flies right out the door in its finale, leaving us with a detached set piece that could have been in any other Batman movie before it. Thankfully, there’s so much good to be found before that, it’s only a minor gripe on what’s the most unique, and interesting, Batman film since The Dark Knight.
Co-written and directed by Matt Reeves, The Batman picks up two years into Bruce Wayne’s (Robert Pattinson) time as the Caped Crusader, when a mysterious new villain named The Riddler (Paul Dano) starts killing famous officials around Gotham City. At each crime, The Riddler leaves a card addressed “To the Batman,” and so Jim (not yet Commissioner) Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) brings him in. Most of the other cops don’t trust this masked vigilante who runs around the city at night, but Gordon does, and the two form a formidable crime-solving duo.
That’s the first of several things that make The Batman so captivating. While Batman is clearly the star, Jim Gordon is without a doubt the second most important person in the movie. From almost the very first scene, Reeves’ makes The Batman into Superhero Seven, with Batman as Brad Pitt, Gordon as Morgan Freeman, and Riddler as Kevin Spacey. Batman and Gordon go from brutal crime scene to brutal crime scene, looking for clues, solving riddles, each of which compounds this growing mystery of the Riddler’s motives.
As the case goes on, Batman runs into a waitress named Selena Kyle (Zoe Kravitz), who has a personal connection to one of the victims as well as The Penguin (Colin Farrell), a second in command to Carmine Falcone (John Turturro). With the exception of Falcone, who is every bit the crime boss we know from Batman lore, Selena and Penguin aren’t the comic book characters we know them as yet yet. Like Batman, they’re very early in their journey, and as the Riddler’s web extends out, they’ll get wrapped up in it, just like he does and we do. There’s just something oddly pleasing about watching a man in a Batsuit solving mysteries, stopping crime, and interacting with equally weird and wonderful characters.
The Batman is a movie about discovery — discovery of the truth but also the discovery of one’s self. Throughout the film, there are big, heroic moments that touch up upon an expected superhero movie grandeur… but then Batman slips up. He’s not the best at this yet. He makes mistakes. The same goes for Selina Kyle: she’s a very capable cat burglar, but her commitment to her missing friend blinds her. She teams up with Batman because she’s not quite ready for all of this, and that relationship reveals to each of them that life has more to it than just fighting crime and getting revenge.
Reeves explores lots of little subtextual threads like that. Several characters challenge both Batman, and Bruce Wayne, for his privilege in ways that feel almost shocking because it humanizes and cuts him down to size. The Riddler’s whole plan is centered on government corruption, and so Mayoral candidate Bella Real (Jayme Lawson) becomes a beacon of hope not just in Gotham City, but in ways the audience can relate to in their own lives. There are scenes that tackle gun violence head-on, some of which are more disturbing than others. The relationship between parents and their children is important throughout. Basically, almost every scene works not just in forwarding the story, but also in getting you to think about something beyond just the movie itself.
Lots of that comes from the performances too, which are fantastic across the board. Pattinson crafts both Bruce Wayne and Batman as almost different characters, making it clear that this version of the hero is much more comfortable with a mask than without. With it, he’s powerful, confident, and menacing. Without, he’s shy, guarded, almost scared. The same can be said for Kravitz, though her Selena is equally impressive with or without the mask. In both iterations, she’s crafty and cunning but also vulnerable and loving. It’s a very nuanced, welcome take on the character. Dano’s Riddler gets less screen time than almost everyone else in the film, especially out of the unsettling costume, but he’s electric whether he’s giving a simple smile or a piercing scream. Farrell’s boisterous Penguin is also a highlight, standing out from the other corrupt men he keeps company with played by Turturro, Peter Skarsgard, and others.
Speaking of highlights, Reeves’ work with cinematographer Greig Fraser is one. It’s stunning. The Batman is a dark movie. A very dark movie. And so when there’s light, it almost paints the frame, creating exquisite shots and sequences throughout, drawing your eye to exactly where the filmmakers want it to be. Plus, most of those sequences are so well done, the visual effects are all but invisible. Car wrecks, huge crowds, men soaring through the air. Truly, for two-thirds of this movie you know you are looking at visual effects. They have to be there, but it all looks so real, and their use is so subtle, you can barely see them.
It’s that “two-thirds” thing that holds everything back, though. As Batman, Gordon, and Kyle work to solve the Riddler’s shocking mystery, it all kind of wraps up — but The Batman doesn’t end there. It keeps going, and we’re treated to a massive third act action set-piece befitting of every major superhero movie you’ve seen in the past thirty years. Big action, obvious visual effects, etc. Which would be fine if, for the previous two-plus hours, Reeves hadn’t made a film that’s so sumptuous, grounded, and lived in that the Batmanness of it almost melts away. The divide between the ending and the rest of the film is a disservice to each part, and it leaves the movie off on a more awkward, ambiguous note than probably intended, even if there’s a lot of spectacle on display.
However, even with those missteps, The Batman is an impressive movie. It’s an engaging and entertaining movie. It’s not the rousing, over-the-top exciting superhero version of the character we remember from Tim Burton or Christopher Nolan, but it shouldn’t be. This is Matt Reeves’ Batman. And though he doesn’t completely stick the landing this time, the effect is something like Pattinson’s take on the dark knight: Batman is getting better at what he does every day. So thankfully, The Batman is unique and layered enough that there’s little doubt we’ll get the opportunity to see more of that growth in the future.
The Batman opens March 3.