Matt Reeves' take on the Caped Crusader is a Triumph of Noir Filmmaking.
Through the many iterations and adaptation of the Caped Crusader’s adventures, the Batman character has always been one of DC’s most beloved characters, both because it’s easier to make media content centered around a non-superpowered person (meaning much less VFX work is necessary) and because he belongs to inarguably the most iconic trilogy of superheroes ever to grace a comic book page, the other two being Superman and Wonder Woman. But that’s not what The Batman is concerned with – its aspirations are closer not to legends, but scandals, not to symbols or ideas, but to the pursuit or revelation of truth, whatever that means for a city as corrupt and seedy as the title character’s hometown of Gotham City. It’s a world and a character ripe for crime capers and film noirs, but for whatever reason, the closest anyone has come to making a straight-up crime drama in a Batman movie before now was in 2008’s The Dark Knight, which wasn’t so much about Gotham or the Batman character as it was about whatever was happening to them as the Joker made his arrival. The Batman is not that movie. Director Matt Reeves’ solution to taking on the Batman story is to start not quite at the middle, not quite at the beginning, and do what should have seemed obvious from the get-go: make it a detective noir story.
The Batman picks up just a few years into Bruce Wayne’s tenure patrolling the Gotham rooftops and alleys, which begins with Robert Pattinson’s voiceover not just explaining what kind of Batman he is, but what kind of story the film is about to tell; it’s one of seediness, corruption, scandal, darkness, and reckoning. Without diving too far into spoiler territory, the opening sequence of the film – just before Pattinson gives us his voiceover – is certainly the darkest a Batman movie has ever had the balls to put right up front, but it’s the nature of what we’re seeing and why we’re seeing it here that lends credence to the idea that while Gotham’s reckoning has come and gone, Batman’s is just beginning. It’s not only a reckoning well-formed and expertly told, but one that could only happen in a noir story like this.
What makes The Batman succeed where other “dark” adaptations failed is all in the eye of the beholder – that’s not me saying it’s a subjective opinion (though it is), but that what this film gets right is on display for all to see. The further we dive into the plotting of the film, the more beautiful it begins to look beyond what we’re shown for shock value or whatever was used in the trailers. Beyond the gorgeous wide shots, the striking color palettes, the makeup work, minimal use of visual effects, we see shadows. We see Batman emerge from them even as the camera has been focused on them for quite some time with nothing in sight. The only other Batman movie to get close to this was Batman v Superman when the dark knight first appears, but that movie never does that again. The Batman, by contrast, does it three or four times over the course of the film, and each time, it works, which makes Gotham’s lower-level criminals fear his being nearby, whether he’s actually there or not, and in turn lets the audience understand why.
Why is the big question posited by The Batman as its mysteries begin to unravel over the course of its three-hour runtime (a runtime which is felt, but not resented). Though it does back out of some of its more challenging material at one or two points, the answers to that question are nonetheless riveting to discover, especially when the script attempts to challenge some more traditionally held views on how the Batman story is meant to go and how the audience has become familiar with certain versions of characters the films rarely, if ever, actually explore. Few films about superheroes can challenge whether they belong on the pedestals we built for them, but fewer still can challenge whether their particular brand of heroism does more harm than good. That’s something usually reserved for anti-heroes, the answers usually falling along the lines of “I’ll go good” or “it doesn’t matter.” In The Batman, it does, especially where Paul Dano’s chilling, calculatory Riddler is concerned. “Unmasking the truth” is Riddler’s obsession, through violence or psychological terror, but we never wonder what it is he’s doing or how – we want to know why.
As Michael Giacchino’s instantly iconic score for the film blares through the theater speakers to signal the arrival of the Batmobile with all its cacophonous sound, we’re not obsessed with the epic car chase sequence or the many hand-to-hand fights leading up to this moment, but with what might happen after, since it might give us more answers to “why?” (though the car chase and those action sequences are excellent in practice as well). We’re not here for an action film, we’re here to help solve the mystery of what’s going on with the world’s greatest detective guiding us along the way. It’s the milieu of Gotham that intrigues most; who holds the power? What do they use it for?
The most intriguing of these social elite are the Penguin (Colin Farrell), who owns a nightclub in the city that Zoë Kravitz’s seductive Selina Kyle works at when she’s not parading around the Gotham rooftops herself (though the name “Catwoman” is never actually mentioned), and John Turturro’s Carmine Falcone. Waiting in the wings with naught but a few words to share and a lot of money to move around, these are the guys who make things happen, and the why of it all is what makes them the most interesting secondary villains to watch, even as Riddler remains the most captivating core antagonist since Heath Ledger’s Joker back in 2008 by taking down people exactly those kind of characters, though his focus is centered on Gotham’s social elite.
Reviewing a film like The Batman without discussing some of its more interesting elements in a spoiler-heavy fashion is a tall task – there’s not that much to spoil that anyone who watches the film won’t expect, but in describing how it all fits together and what’s great about it, there are some heavy-spoiler plots I can’t really divulge in a meaningful way. But, in summary, it’s an excellent crime noir with a visionary look, excellent sound design, an instantly iconic score, and performances that aren’t necessarily standouts, but that more than get the job done. Does it really matter if it’s better or worse than The Dark Knight?
I’m giving “The Batman” a 9.1/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.