Premise: When the Riddler, a sadistic serial killer, begins murdering key political figures in Gotham, Batman is forced to investigate the city’s hidden corruption and question his family’s involvement.
Matt Reeves’s dark and angsty noir take on Batman finally hits theaters this week following production hiccups and multiple release date changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Batman finds a young Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) struggling to make a difference in Gotham two years into his nocturnal crime fighting. Following the biggest drug bust in Gotham City PD history, a cryptic serial killer begins murdering Gotham officials and leaving notes at each crime scene.
The Batman paints the titular hero as young but not naive. As he uncovers Riddler’s (Paul Dano) clues and motivations, he exercises his detective skills quite well as the film leans heavily into the “world’s greatest detective” moniker he carries. He works closely with Lt. Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) and Alfred (Andy Serkis) even gets a piece of the investigating action. Bruce is a man struggling to find his footing as a crime fighter but still determined to make a difference in Gotham two years into his shaky project. So the way the film puts the Riddler’s intentions front and center and makes for a compelling detective yarn seeping with noir darkness that compliments the grungey angst in Bruce/Batman.
For years, DC has struggled to bring the Caped Crusader back to the big screen in as satisfying (and box office appealing) way as Christopher Nolan did in his Dark Knight trilogy. The DCEU has its fans, but for the most part Ben Affleck’s run as Batman was hampered by an extended universe rushed with a lack of vision. The LEGO Batman Movie was in the upper echelon of Batman films, but was perhaps a little too reliant on mining the history of Batman adaptations for comedy. However, now that Todd Phillips’ Academy Award winning Joker proved to be a hit, DC has doubled down once again on the gritty realism of Batman’s adventures.
This is both a positive and a negative for The Batman. Reeves seems to have a much clearer vision for the character than whatever Zack Snyder had in mind. That much is clear. The film is visually stunning as Reeves and cinematographer Greig Fraser find ways to inject a muted red glow into several scenes and action sequences. The depiction of Gotham is appropriately rundown and feels like the city is a breathing organism of corruption. It works well.
Conversely, it’s hard to separate the influence from the finished product. DC doubling down on dark and gritty realism is fine. However, it’s in the way the film draws its inspiration from David Fincher that doesn’t connect fully. Joker was Todd Phillips riffing (some might say ripping) off Scorsese’s The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver. Here, Matt Reeves takes his tonal cues and visual inspiration from Fincher’s Se7en. It isn’t quite as pronounced or egregious as Joker‘s Scorsese influence, but it does make one wonder if this level of homage will lead the powers that be at WB and DC to form an algorithmic assembly line of Batman movies that follow a “What if (insert movie) but with Batman?” line of thinking.
That’s a bleak and, frankly, ridiculous extreme to reach in this review. However, the point still stands that Joker and now The Batman are two DC films that have taken elements of classic and acclaimed films and pasted Batman characters onto them. That’s not to say it doesn’t work in The Batman, mind you. It’s just a potentially alarming trend in these two specific films.
The Batman isn’t solely a Se7en homage, however. There are wonderful elements of noir thrown into the film that helps paint Bruce/Batman as the lone wolf crime fighter of Gotham. The film opens with a compelling narration by Pattinson as Batman goes out on his patrol on Halloween night. It feels like a classic noir set up and is also reminiscent of Rorschach’s journal in Watchmen. It works very well to establish the isolation, loneliness, and self-doubt Bruce feels about his crusade. Given how closed off the Batman character is (and, by extension, Bruce as well), the narration is a perfect substitute for another tired Batman origin sequence. It brings us up to speed and into the fold of Pattinson’s Batman.
As Batman (and Bruce), Robert Pattinson gives a strong performance and leaves you eager to see more films with him as the dark knight with Reeves behind the camera. Since this iteration of Bruce Wayne is reclusive and mysterious to the citizen’s of Gotham, the film is able to focus much more on Batman rather than having a dual narrative of Batman and Bruce. We get plenty of Pattinson as Bruce Wayne, especially later in the film, but it’s tied heavily to the plot and never feels like we’re taking a break from Batman so we can see how Bruce balances his vigilantism with his public persona. It’s refreshing how both identities work together in the film.
Paul Dano’s turn as the Riddler is eerie as the film makes him into a mad serial killer who is seeking to uncover mass corruption within Gotham. Any Batman villain performance will invariably be compared to Heath Ledger’s iconic performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight. It’s unlikely we’ll ever see a Batman villain performance as nuanced and unhinged as Ledger’s, but The Batman seems to invite at least some modicum of comparison. Paul Dano is at his best when Riddler has command of the Batman’s attention and has Gotham’s most powerful citizens in his clutches. However, late in the film we see Riddler without his makeshift supervillain attire as he comes face to face with Batman. It’s here where Dano’s performance slips slightly and veers into some questionable choices. The Riddler in this movie flirts with being unhinged and the script calls for insanity as a reflection of Batman’s inherent crazed idea of vigilantism, but Dano falters a bit in the moment and doesn’t really sell the subtext in the performance.
The supporting cast shows promise for the future of this version of Batman. Jeffrey Wright plays Gordon with the quiet command that Wright has perfected over his career. The film paints him as slightly crazy in the eyes of his fellow police as he allows Batman to look over crime scenes and offer input. It’s a truce that has all the comfort of walking through a mine field.
Zoë Kravitz’s does well with what she’s given in her performance as Selina Kyle/Catwoman. Unfortunately, she gets the short shrift as her arc is where The Batman is at its most derivative. It’s hard not to compare this take on the character with Anne Hathaway’s in The Dark Knight Rises. Both have someone close to them they want to protect/provide for and both want to get out of Gotham while being conflicted about what the right thing to do is versus what they want for themselves. That relatively loose comparison is likely more a result of the Selina Kyle character from the source material, rather than cribbing from The Dark Knight Rises. However, it still feels a bit tired and even veers into the melodramatic in an ultimately unsatisfying way.
Colin Farrell is unrecognizable as Oswald Cobblepot, the gangster known as The Penguin. The Batman wisely interconnects the villain stories while also keeping them independent from each other. Riddler has a clear motive and a purpose behind his killings while toying with the vigilante. The Penguin, however, is just a gangster keeping his business and interests afloat who’s pulled into the investigation by his proximity to the victims in the underworld.
The action and fight choreography in the film highlights the brutality and anger within Batman. He moves swiftly and dispatches henchmen easily. And when he’s sparring with Selina, there’s a more intimate energy at play compared to the aggression of his fights on the streets of Gotham.
The set piece involving the Batmobile is a fun chase through Gotham’s highways. Though, despite the very stylish American muscle car look of the Batmobile in this film, the sequence as a whole feels like the film is checking a box on a list of Batman set pieces needed for the movie. The best part about the chase is the end of it when Batman approaches the overturned car he’s pursued.
The game of cat and mouse between Batman and Riddler in this film is engaging and sadistic without pushing the boundaries of the PG-13 rating too far. While it isn’t as strong as Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Matt Reeves’s The Batman leads to an overall satisfying final act and leaves viewers with the promise of more stories in this version of Batman.
The Batman opens in theaters March 4th.
About the Writer: Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive Viewer, Anthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll.