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Riddle Me This… Is “The Batman” the Greatest Dark Knight Film of All? (Review)

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Matt Reeves has long been a director of note for me. Cloverfield is the finest example of the “found footage” genre, while Let Me In is one of the very best of the turn of the millennium wave of horror remakes and reboots. His two Apes films, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and War for the Planet of the Apes, are among the most competently crafted and expressively told blockbusters in recent memory. They are beautifully realized stories that muster a shockingly tactile feel despite their largely CGI casts. It should come as no surprise that Reeves is an excellent fit for a Batman film.

Reeves, along with co-writer Peter Craig, have crafted a Batman story that is the most “Batman-centric” of any in the live action series. Bruce Wayne is essentially an afterthought as the story hones in on a young Batman, only in his second year fighting crime. His Gotham is a cesspool of open criminality that the neophyte crime fighter is only just starting to wrangle. The lawlessness is to such an extreme that roving street gangs ride the subways in search of random bystanders to assault. In a simple, direct sequence Reeves introduces not only the city, but his hero in instantly iconic terms. As Batman steps forth from the shadows each step feels heavy and dangerous, propelled by a concussing and effective sound design. As Batman brutally beats down the street gang pausing only to identify himself as “Vengeance,” we know intrinsically that this Batman is a more dangerous one than those that have come before.

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The character Batman first appeared in a series called “Detective Comics,” which is also the origin of the brand name “DC.” This is the first Bat film that truly embraces that ethos. Long swaths of the movie are spent with Batman actually investigating a series of murders throughout Gotham. It gives the film a more measured and intimate perspective than the superhero genre usually allows. This Batman doesn’t solve crimes thanks to a computer, but rather through his smarts and on-the-ground observations. The murders themselves are bleak and violent in a way that evoke R rated crime cinema far more than typical superhero work.

The man behind the cowl is Robert Pattinson. Pattinson fast ascended to superstardom, and unfounded mockery, with his lead role in the vampire romance saga Twilight. The performer, like Kristen Stewart, was always better than the series, but for a very long time it seemed like a black mark on his resume. After the Twilight series ended, Pattinson spent the better part of a decade outside of mainstream studio films – Map to the Stars and The Lost City of Z are my favorite performances of this era, but I certainly understand why Good Time has its partisans – before returning to major Hollywood films with a supporting role in Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. His return to mainstream franchise material is now blessed by the support of the arthouse intelligentsia.

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Pattinson’s Batman is cold, internal, and vicious. He lives almost entirely as The Bat, and has little warmth for his infrequent companions as Bruce Wayne. Pattinson feels physically imposing in the role, and brings a gravelly intensity. The action scenes are extremely well executed and, to the extent the action is performed by Pattinson, the performer feels right. I’ll save a deeper discussion for the interplay of his Batman and Bruce Wayne personas for the spoiler section below, but this is a very excellent performance deeply inconsistent with what we’ve been conditioned to expect from blockbuster leading man roles.

One of the many key things that made me appreciate The Batman is that it does not seem tethered to countless other DC properties in any easily cognizable way. I’m sure there are Easter Eggs to be found for the most devout. Nevertheless, this is not a film that could intersect with the Zack Snyder DC films in any sort of organic way, nor could it fit in on the James Gunn/Cathy Yan/David F. Sandberg “fun” side of the DC ledger. It is a Batman movie that exists to tell a story about Batman. Many of DC’s best stories historically, both in writing and on screen, have been more tightly focused on a single character, often in an alternate timeline so as to fully uncouple from broader canon. The Batman benefits from such an approach in a glaringly obvious manner.

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The immediate standout feature of this film is the design. Inspired by a mélange of 80s and 90s Batman artists with obvious stylistic inspirations from the Arkham video game series, this is the first live action Batman that manages to feel both grounded yet not vaguely embarrassed of its comic book roots. The Nolan films go out of their way to – as much as one can in a superhero movie – tether Batman to the real world aesthetically. Scenes are dedicated to the functionality of the Bat suit and even something as fundamentally silly as the Two-Face character is presented about as “grounded” as it can be. The opposite extreme sees Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze making ghastly quips through a neon-crazed outpouring of repressed 90s absurdism. I appreciate, for example, the way The Batman lets Penguin act like an actual supervillain in the context of the film’s broader world – there’s just enough cartoonish glee when he thinks he’s killed The Batman and enough of a smirk when he banters with Gordon.

The production values are top of the charts across the board. Much as he did for Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, cinematographer Greig Fraser manages to make a fairly absurd world feel tangible and defined. Give or take a few odd moments caused by the decision to have the performers act in front of extremely high definition screens to simulate a few rooftop and outdoor sequences, the film’s visual palette is both evocative and memorable. The production design, leaning hard into the gothic, turns the Wayne bedrooms into some sort of sepulchers. The rain is perpetual and the night overwhelming. It well befits the Bruce Wayne of the film who has largely been swallowed by his Batman persona. There’s also something about Batman that clearly speaks to composers – this is the third time a Bat film has managed to craft not only a superb overall score, but an instantly iconic theme. It’s clear that the great Michael Giacchino (Up, Star Trek) is headed for his third Oscar nomination next year. In fact the entire soundscape is a feat of design. Each crunching blow of combat feels visceral and dangerous.

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Put simply, there’s an immense amount of energy put into maintaining a tone here. The story, the lead, and the designs of the film are all meant to tap into a very dark serial killer aesthetic without rejecting the “superhero” origins of the Batman character. I may have a few minor quibbles with the screenplay, but the film itself is an absolutely astonishing technical achievement.

I’ve not been a huge fan of Paul Dano in the past. To my eye, he’s given one utterly brilliant performance (Love & Mercy), a few where his skill set is well deployed (There Will Be Blood, Prisoners), and a lot of roles that simply don’t work very well. Here, Dano is fantastic. His bizarro off-kilter energy makes for a Riddler that feels genuinely dangerous. I’m not sure any comparison with Jim Carrey’s Riddler in Batman Forever is a fruitful exercise – the intentionality is so profoundly different. Shifting the character into a QAnon anti-establishment sort of wacko is a savvy pivot to ground Dano’s performance in something more in tone with the rest of the picture. Dano’s inevitable face-to-face showdown with The Bat has a gloriously nervy energy to it. Pattinson plays the scene perfectly, amplifying each beat of Dano’s work just right. When Dano goes big in the scene it lands hard – he’s truly unsettling.

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Zoȅ Kravitz makes for a tremendous Catwoman, albeit not quite as electric as Michelle Pfeiffer’s Cat in Batman Returns. Unlike that character, however, Kravitz’s Selina Kyle is less of a cartoonish supervillain and serves as a far more human-scale thief. Greig Fraser’s camera absolutely adores the angles of Kravitz’s face. She is shot in such a way that her obvious beauty becomes something almost expressionistic. Her chemistry with Pattinson is off the charts, which is a critical element to casting the role. Anne Hathaway was, and perhaps this is an unpopular opinion, a very good Catwoman but where her performance faltered most is in her lack of any heat with Christian Bale’s Batman. In a world where blockbusters seem to have abandoned human sexuality, the spark between Pattinson and Kravitz is more than welcome. These two want to fuck.

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I’ve long been a fan of Colin Farrell. Even his early career work in films like S.W.A.T. and Daredevil has long stood out as a bright spot in the darkness of otherwise disposable junk. His Penguin here serves as a breath of comedic fresh air. Farrell has just the right amount of bemusement about everything around him and serves as a good tension outlet. The character is clearly secondary to the main plot, but his deployment is such that he manages to avoid the “villain glut” that has hurt so many superhero movies.

The rest of the supporting cast is fantastic, if a bit typecast. Jeffrey Wright is an excellent Jim Gordon, though it’s essentially just another version of his Felix Leither in the Bond series. He plays a gruff, sardonic sounding board to the hero’s central struggle. The great John Turturro makes for an excellent Carmine Falcone, his menace a bit more subdued than the usual superhero gangster which makes the performance work even better. Andy Serkis is not who I’d have thought of to play an Alfred Pennyworth, but he’s well deployed here.

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Spoilers Below

The Dark Knight’s Joker set off a wave of copycats in Hollywood in a great many ways. Everything from Star Trek: Into Darkness to Skyfall purloined the conceit of a brilliant villain allowing his own capture before an array of heist film-style contrivances that would make Danny Ocean blush allow for his escape. The screenwriting appeal of these moments is obvious: it lets the writers get the villain and the hero in the same room at the same time for a charged mid-film face off. These sequences also tend not to make a whole lot of sense. It’s part of why I was struck here by how savvy The Batman is in iterating the formula. This Riddler allows his own capture and has his own big face off with the hero, but here the film iterates. The Riddler’s physical presence is unnecessary in his own final plan and it tightens the narrative.

And his plan is a doozy. I felt a real visceral reaction in the theater when I realized The Riddler’s scheme was essentially to weaponize QAnon wackos – all white militants who shop at army surplus stores armed to the teeth – to help assassinate a liberal black/Hispanic mayoral candidate. It’s telling that The Riddler’s forays into Spanish in his clues evince a clear misunderstanding of the basics of the language. It clearly comes from someone whose entire knowledge is birthed by Google Translate. Neither Bruce Wayne (the white son of billionaire socialites) nor Detective Gordon (a cop) catch the linguistic mistake, it takes Farrell’s Penguin – a man who actually spends time outside of high society and the police precinct – to catch the obvious language error. It’s a smart beat in understanding that this Riddler is a genius of the 4chan generation, not one of actual human interaction.

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In a way that Nolan trilogy’s grasps for social relevance never connected for me this almost soul crushingly believable. The Dark Knight’s Saw-esque sequence wherein a boat of criminals and a boat of normal folks weigh the value of each other’s lives ends on a note of humanitarian optimism when the largest member of the criminal barge throws their detonator out a window. If any truth has been hammered home over the last two years, it’s that the boat of wealthy Gothamites would’ve pulled the plug on the boat of largely black and brown criminals in mere seconds. Reeves understands that humanity doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt – there’s no saving The Riddler’s cronies. They’re true believers in carnage.

Upon initial viewing, one scene sat false with me: when Bruce Wayne visits a maimed Alfred in the hospital after the Riddler’s bombing of the Wayne penthouse. Serkis is good in the scene, but Pattinson’s spiel about his remaining fear of loss felt off. The actor – so brilliant in so many projects over the last decade – felt a bit lost. He was trapped somewhere between overacting and preeningly self-aware. Just a scene earlier the actor was brilliantly intense trying desperately to save Alfred, and here it’s gone. Had I written about the film without giving it some time for consideration, I may have skewered the scene a bit and lamenting that any emotional effectiveness it housed came only from the viewer’s own relationship to other Batman projects.

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And yet, after mulling the sequence, I’m left with the conclusion that the acting choices in the scene are quite intentional. Pattinson’s discomfort is actually Wayne’s discomfort. The Bruce Wayne of The Batman has essentially lost all balance between his two faces. He all but lives as Batman, not even willing to remove his eye black when he returns home after a night of vigilantism. He’s a man whose obsession teeters on subsuming his public face entirely. The Bruce Wayne who once sat so awkwardly by Alfred’s bedside is still lost. His efforts to convey emotion are those of a stunted, damaged man playacting at the humanity he’s on the precipice of losing. It’s not until the film’s final moments in the wake of the Gotham Square Garden standoff that Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne becomes, ahem, a Caped Crusader and not merely a creature of the night. It’s clear the hope he managed to convey in those moments is what will allow the Batman persona to reconnect with the Bruce Wayne one.

It’s impossible to watch the movie without feeling the invariable gears of franchise building in the background. Warner Bros. has made no secret of their desire to make every major release into a miniature franchise: The Suicide Squad begot Peacemaker, a more successful The Matrix Resurrections would have begot a show about Jessica Henwick’s Bugs, and The Batman shall beget at least two more series (The Penguin and The Gotham PD are both in active development). The film itself ends on both the promise of yet another spin-off, Catwoman in Blüdhaven, and the guarantee of yet another new Joker in a future sequel, now played by Barry Keoghan (Eternals). I’ll certainly be back for The Caped Crusader, or whatever The Batman 2 is called, but I must admit the feeling that – like every MCU release – this is yet another harbinger of the death of non-franchise theatrical entertainment.

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End Spoilers

I think the film needs more time to rest before I can figure out where precisely The Batman sits in the pantheon of Batman and broader superhero cinema. Nevertheless, I think Pattinson makes for an excellent Batman, the cast is uniformly strong, the efforts to tell a serious-minded detective story are fruitful, and the film has – alas – done the legwork to set-up a compelling new self-contained Bat universe. This is the sort of movie that most deserves to be seen in a theater. If I were to bet now? This will settle in as my favorite Batman film and one of the very best films of 2022.

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

The Batman releases in theaters worldwide tomorrow, March 4, 2022.

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