***1/2 out of ****
(for strong violent and disturbing content, drug content, strong language, and some suggestive material)
Released: March 4, 2022
Runtime: 175 minutes
Directed by: Matt Reeves
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano, Jeffrey Wright, Colin Farrell, Andy Serkis, John Turturro, Peter Sarsgaard
WWFD: What Would Fincher Do?
That ethos (intentional or not) would best describe director Matt Reeves’ take on The Batman, a grim, gritty portrait of the iconic DC superhero and the Gotham City he fights for. Indeed, paraphrasing Morgan Freeman’s final line from David Fincher’s Se7en would seem appropriate for this Dark Knight:
“Gotham is a fine place and worth fighting for…I agree with the second part.“
Though Reeves’ approach isn’t entirely uncharted territory, The Batman is the darkest this knight (and his world) has ever been on-screen, taking previous inspirations of either graphic novel or crime movie templates to their furthest extremes yet.
More broadly, this may be the most R-rated PG-13 movie ever, at least in terms of violence and psychological terror. For that reason and more, this Batman ain’t for kids. Watching it, they’d either end up being traumatized or bored (or both). Some adults may, too.
To the latter point, The Batman is a nearly 3-hour slow burn, steady and absorbing but rarely propulsive despite occasional fight scenes and chases (though far less than you’d expect). Nevertheless, Reeves has conjured something that’s fascinating because it’s disturbing.
That’s best exemplified by The Riddler, a sinister, sadistic Zodiac-killer incarnation of the heretofore cackling prankster, and Paul Dano’s terrifying embodiment of that archetype stands alongside Oscar-winning turns of the Joker by Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix. His riddles are unnerving manipulations and calculations, not kitschy games, and his methods perversely cruel.
The Riddler is a definitive evil born of this particular Gotham, a world rendered with a vision as assured and distinct as Tim Burton’s and Christopher Nolan’s. If theirs were, respectively, ornately baroque and recognizably modern, then Reeves’ could be described as a contemporary gothic, grand in scale yet corrosively real. It’s the seediest underbelly the comic book movie genre has ever portrayed – systemically sordid, depraved, and vile – and the craft of every discipline (camera, set, costume, et al) is imaginative, inspired, and first rate.
Within that dystopic milieu, Reeves returns Batman to his roots. For a character originally conceived as “the world’s greatest detective” (that’s what DC stands for, after all; Detective Comics), this Batman leans straight into that moniker unlike any previous screen adaptation. This is a detective story, not one of superheroes and arch villains as we traditionally think of them, and Batman is an avenger P.I. with Sherlock-like awareness, perception, and instincts.
The genre, then, is more noir than comic, and rather than donning a fedora and trenchcoat this sleuth is cowled and caped. Even as Batman’s costume has its requisite gadgets and the Batmobile has arguably the best reveal of any before it, Reeves maintains a strict fidelity to that detective structure and its methodical, twisty, at times convoluted beats.
The mystery Batman’s trying solve is two-fold: not only what the Riddler is up to and why (and stop it), but also to achieve the Riddler’s goal by more righteous means: expose Gotham’s labyrinth corruption once and for all, one that implicates the highest levels of government and the most lethal players in organized crime.
The lone trustworthy cop is Lieutenant Gordon (imbued with Jeffrey Wright’s grizzled gravitas), Batman’s only friend and believer. The rest are under the influence of mafioso Carmine Falcone (John Turturro, the film’s chilling secret weapon) and Oswald Cobblepot, a.k.a. The Penguin, Falcone’s right hand, played by scene-stealer Colin Farrell. In a world where literally no one is having fun, Penguin is. Even when he’s cornered, Farrell makes him completely entertaining.
Sure, everyone else is burdened and that can be a dirge, but it works. Why shouldn’t they be? They’re consistent with the world Reeves has put them in, and the only people who should be enjoying it are the scum like Penguin who profit from it.
Intriguing, too, is that this Batman is a relatively new (if gifted) detective, only in Year 2 of being The Batman, and younger than Keaton’s, Affleck’s or Bale’s. Robert Pattinson is perfectly suited to this moody, emo Bruce Wayne and his alter ego, but he matures underneath that hardened, surly persona, with values and convictions that remain a lodestar in spite of the temptations towards vengeance.
In parallel to – and on a collision course with – all of this is Salina Kyle, a.k.a. Catwoman (played with cunning and shrewd yet playful precision by Zoë Kravitz), a burglar whose own connections have her tangled up in Gotham’s mess. She desires Batman’s virtues but has no faith in them; that, mixed with a genuine attraction that’s deeper than mere sexual chemistry, creates a collaborative tension between these two people who are walking just on either side of the vigilante tightrope.
Though stylishly staged and meticulously plotted, the narrative gets a bit murky. Despite the big mystery of who “the rat” is, some may feel that’s not clearly answered, resulting in a denouement that’s a little obscure and anti-climactic. (Trying to keep up with suspects can be a challenge, especially when a crucial figure like Sal Maroni is only named but never seen or clearly identified.)
But, in the end, that doesn’t really matter because the final set-piece is thrilling and character resolutions are fitting. Besides, Gotham’s corruption is too big to crush and solve all in one movie, and hints of what future sequels could explore are teased.
Given the film’s brutal, bleak nature, comparisons are sure to be drawn with the recent R-rated Joker, a movie I found to be as much an amoral miscalculation as a daring interpretation. But the two are, fundamentally, opposites in their ethical moorings.
Unlike Joker, Matt Reeves’ The Batman doesn’t peddle in abject nihilism. On the contrary, even in the face of a flagrant, brazen injustice of a kind that breeds soul-crushing cynicism and desolation, Batman (and Bruce Wayne) relentlessly – even ruthlessly – strives for hope and change.
While it’s unlikely to spawn billion-dollar returns on the scale of Marvel’s (or even DC’s) most massive blockbusters, it seems destined to become the cult favorite of a loyal fandom that considers this the best Batman yet. Love it or hate it, The Batman certainly stands alone.