We’ve had so many iterations of this character within my lifetime that it’s sort of grown exhausting. When Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy” wrapped up a decade ago I thought I’d had enough for a while. Ben Affleck’s turn in the cape and horns didn’t do a whole lot for me, though I think the actor got saddled with bad writing more than anything else. Affleck was meant to direct and star in this new film, but after a series of rewrites and handoffs it wound up in the hands of director Matt Reeves (War for the Planet of the Apes, Cloverfield) and actor Robert Pattinson (Twilight, The Lighthouse).
We lucked out pretty hard on that one.
The Batman is a superhero film for the modern age, one that is achingly depressed and excessively online. While Burton’s Batman was a gothic totem, Nolan’s a representation of Bush-era domestic terrorism, and Snyder’s a grim-dark alcoholic, Reeves has decided to strip this thing down to one idea – Batman. Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) can barely function outside of his armor, a slight and sickly pale recluse that is always just aching for an excuse to put his cowl and black eyeliner back on. While all previous caped crusaders have confronted the struggle to disguise the voice of their daywalker identity, Pattinson’s character is almost wholly uninterested and his Batman persona has taken over completely. While he treats his alter-ego as a hell-bent mission for vengeance against the world that took his parents, the costume is more of a heavy-metal band-aid for a wound that’s cut deep and that he doesn’t fully want to heal. While we’re graciously spared yet another onscreen depiction of the murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne, their death looms large and their lives serve as a setup for the final act of the film in which Bruce must confront a past and a history that has shaped the future for all in Gotham.
Our lead hero of Detective Comics is finally allowed to be…well, a detective. I’ve longed for this sort of Batman film since I began reading weekly issues about twelve years ago, patiently waiting for his gadgetry and focus to be more on solving the mysteries of Gotham’s killers instead of merely punching them for their clumsiness. We’ve finally achieved that, with everything from contact lenses that can scan a crime scene to actual deductive reasoning. It’s a breath of fresh air, even combined with what little brutal action the film has to offer (there’s a car chase that is an absolute riot, perhaps the best action sequence in the film).
The Dark Knight is matched by perhaps the best onscreen Gotham City yet, one combining footage from New York, London, and Chicago to create a megacity that still feels contained. Gone is the globetrotting of Nolan’s Batman, returning us to a hero that feels local in a huge way. It’s a refreshing turn, but one that will pour sand in the wound of those that want the larger-than-life totemic figures of previous iterations. The underbelly is painted in black and red, the daylight city perpetually in twilight, and it makes for a very moody Gotham that rivals that of Bruce Timm’s Batman: The Animated Series. Bruce’s home makes for another wonderful bit of set design; a gothic tableau of wooden artistry that resembles the Sharpe Mansion of Crimson Peak and feels like a mausoleum.
Since we’re speaking of previous iterations I think it’s only fair we now spend some time dwelling on Zoe Kravitz’s Selina Kyle, a cat burglar that is investigating the disappearance of a friend. Never before has a Batman film focused so hard on pulling from the comics of Tim Sale and Jeph Loeb (the IMAX premiere screening came with issue number one of The Long Halloween, complete with new cover art), and Kravitz is more than a match for the material. There’s a physicality to her that actually feels dangerous, a menacing hiss instead of a sleek purr. Don’t get me wrong, she’s capable of bringing the sexiness the character needs, but it isn’t always in service of adding the horny energy that’s sexualized the character for years (though there’s a considerable amount of horny chemistry between Kravitz and Pattinson, something we haven’t seen in a blockbuster for ages). Selina, like most other characters in Matt Reeves’s The Batman, wants to be seen.
With that, we have to come to the underutilized MVP of this film – Paul Dano. Jim Carrey’s Riddler still haunts my childhood (in my dreams I still see his dick and balls, clad in a sparkly silver onesie, thrusting at the screen over and over while he shouts “awooga” or some shit), silly in a way that did indeed work for what Joel Schumacher was going for but never quite sitting well with me. Dano’s turn on the puzzle master is a direct reference to the Zodiac Killer and that individual’s affinity for puzzles, leading the film into a territory that has more in common with David Fincher’s Se7en and Zodiac than it does any other superhero flick. Menacing, unhinged, calm, and also desperate to be noticed, Dano’s Riddler is a match for Pattinson’s Batman in almost every way. Capturing the parallels between Batman’s persona and that of his villains is always a part of these cinematic affairs, but this one is a story of a detective that wears his cases as an identity and a serial killer that sees his hand and raises.
It’s a shame that Dano spends much of the second act away from the action, cloistered away as we focus more on the corruption his Riddler is fighting. The lovely thing is that we get to spend time with our mobsters – “Oz” Cobblepot (Colin Farrell in about a hundred pounds of absolutely divine makeup) and Carmine Falcone (John Turturro). The film successfully turns into the skid as it focuses more on the mobsters and hidden agendas of Gotham’s elite, with Farrell doing his best DeNiro impression and Turturro a swaggering ham sandwich, but it does feel like a diversion from the main event and bogs the second act down a bit. I love it, but some parts of me wanted more focus.
We have to talk about the score for a minute. I’m not a fan of Michael Giacchino, the ‘member berries of musicians who mostly works with the music of better composers to shocking acclaim. In Matt Reeves’s The Batman he’s playing a slightly different game, still utilizing the ideas laid down by Hans Zimmer and Danny Elfman before him, but it cooks down into a sauce that I can’t help but find myself satisfied by. Batman’s theme is now a blaring march, one that plays under the entire film as the hero stomps and bashes his way through a mystery so sprawling and deep that it sometimes feels as though he’s wading through rising water. I sort of adore this score, but I’ll admit that it’s perhaps a career-best from a composer that clearly has talent and underutilizes it to a startling degree.
Look, you’ve already decided whether or not you’re going to go see The Batman. Those of you that are feeling cynical about this should tuck those fears away, as this is the best play by the character we’ve gotten in almost fifteen years. Haunting and haunted, clever and primordial, Matt Reeves The Batman is a wonderful story that breathes new life into many a character that I’d long given up for dead. If we’re going to try to squeeze this IP for a few more drops I’m glad we got what we did from it.
The Batman will be released exclusively in theatres on March 4th.