Matt Reeves' Dark and Gritty The Batman Is the Brightest and Most Hopeful Cinematic Incarnation of the Dark Knight Yet
Matt Reeves was born in 1966, the same year Adam West’s Batman bammed, powed, and bonked its way into the zeitgeist. On the surface, Reeves’ take on the world’s greatest detective is about as different as it gets from the campy, colorful, and upbeat live action series that shaped a generation.
Reeves’ Gotham City is grimy, dirty, and scarred; used and abused by criminals as well as the people who are supposed to protect it, a far cry from 1966 where Gotham was bright, sunny, and where Batman obeys traffic lights. Kurt Cobain droning "Something In the Way" over a somber guitar is as gripping and melancholy as trumpets and a chorus of Na na na na nas is upbeat and light.
But The Batman is more like the 1960s live action television series than any other film before it. Whether he intended to or not, Reeves created the brightest and most hopeful cinematic Batman yet, and it’s exactly “The Batman” we need and deserve.
Not another origin story
The Batman is the kind of film we get when Warner Bros embraces its DNA and lets auteurs do their thing. Freed from the studio mandates and continuity constraints of a shared cinematic universe, the film is the other, unscarred side of Todd Phillip’s Joker coin. Yes, that’s a Two-Face reference, but let it slide for a moment because it’s a perfect metaphor for what Reeves has done.
The Batman isn’t an origin story. “We’ve seen origin stories,” according to Reeves. “They were brilliant, they were great. And I felt like you couldn’t really do that again.” Every visionary aims to deliver new experiences and Reeves is no exception. “I wanted to feel like we were doing something that while it was the character that everyone knows, was in a way that you hadn't seen before.”
But it kind of is something we’ve seen before. Reeves takes inspiration from Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Long Halloween as well as Mike W. Barr’s Year Two. Reeves wanted to bring The Batman back to his noir roots.
“You know, the original comics, they kind of came from noir,” he says. “Like you have the Bob Kane, Bill Finger stories, they came out of the noir art tradition.
“And so you know, him being a detective is something that the movies have always made references to. But the idea of making (detective work) this central to the narrative had never been done. And I thought that that was a really exciting thing to do.”
You know which iteration of Batman was also a great detective? 1966 Batman. Adam West may forever be remembered for his camp rendition and dancing the “batusi,” but his Batman actually solved crimes in a way that no other Batman has done on film.
Until Robert Pattinson in The Batman, that is. Reeves puts together a detective story that evokes David Fincher’s Se7en, with Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne as an emo goth version of Brad Pitt’s David Mills chasing down a serial killer brutally murdering Gotham’s most corrupt.
The Batman is a psychological thriller in the guise of a superhero film, and because of that it delivers more catharsis than your average noir experience. When the film introduces us to a filthy Gotham City, the feeling of dread and helplessness is familiar. We all know that we’re governed by the wicked and the corrupt, but most of us are just helpless against the machinations of a system that’s been in place long before any of us have been alive.
When The Riddler, whom Paul Dano deliberately plays more like little-known Batman nemesis Hush, starts murdering Gotham’s public figures and leaves an accusatory “no more lies” message, it’s terrifying but also guilt-inducingly satisfying. Part of us wants the wicked to be dealt punishment in a way we ourselves could never deliver, and The Riddler certainly punishes the wicked. So it should be okay, right?
But Reeves’ Batman is our moral compass, reminding us that for justice to be served, it must be done the right way. In fact, our hero’s self-declared appellation of “vengeance” throughout the film is a misnomer. The Batman isn’t out for vengeance. Bruce Wayne, inexplicably godawful hair and all, certainly seems to think he is, but at no point does Reeves’ Batman mete out punishment. More than any other Batman on film, Pattinson’s Batman seeks out justice. Even if he doesn’t know it.
What’s absolutely remarkable about The Batman is how Reeves has such a solid understanding of the character and what he stands for that he takes great pains to show audiences, sometimes to the detriment of the storytelling experience. For one, there’s a ridiculousness to how Batman works alongside Detective Jim Gordon, played by Jeffrey Wright, in plain view of the rest of the police force. He shows up at cordoned off crime scenes and sifts through the evidence like he’s one of the cops. He isn’t, of course, he’s just Gordon’s pal, so it strains credulity in a way that could affect your enjoyment of the film.
That being said, you know which Batman also worked alongside the police? That’s right, Batman 1966. Commissioner Gordon had a direct line to Batman and they would solve crimes together, very much like Reeves’ Lieutenant Gordon and his best bud Batman. There’s even the Shakespeare bust in the Wayne residence as a little easter egg if it wasn’t already evident that Reeves was very much shaped by Adam West’s version of the Dark Knight. Gordon and the Batman’s partnership takes an incredible suspension of disbelief to be watchable, but it pays to remember that it’s a movie about a man who dresses up as a bat to scare criminals, who are a suspicious, cowardly lot.
Casting a black actor as the seemingly lone good cop in a predominantly white Gotham City Police Department is either an accident of circumstance or a stroke of genius at a time when police brutality and racial bias is more pronounced than ever. But Wright—and likely Reeves—took inspiration from black ex-police officer and Mayor of New York City Eric Adams, which lends Gordon’s character an earnestness that’s convincing and endearing.
A detective story
There’s a beautiful and quiet subversiveness that permeates The Batman, which is important for a film that attempts to do so much with its three-hour runtime. It’s a detective story, obviously, but it’s also so much more.
“I knew I wanted (a) detective story (that) would take you down a path where, in the wake of all of these murders, you're seeing these pillars of the city kind of be exposed for being fraudulent, you know?” Reeves says.
“Suddenly, these characters whom you look at (as) supposed to be the total legitimacy in the city, and they turn out to be illegitimate, that that would be a way that the Riddler was exposing the history of corruption within the city. And in that way, the movie for me was kind of like All the President's Men where you were like, ‘how high does this go?’”
Reeves wanted his own version of Watergate—a Gothamgate, if you will—that also featured some of the Batman’s most enduring enemies. John Turturro plays Carmine Falcone, while an unrecognizable Colin Farrell plays the Penguin as a midlevel criminal. And then, of course, there’s the ethereal Zoë Kravitz as Selina Kyle.
Playing Catwoman is quite possibly as daunting, if not more so, than playing Batman. From Julie Newmar to Eartha Kitt to Michelle Pfeiffer and Anne Hathaway, the portrayals of Catwoman on screen have always been iconic with varying degrees of sultriness and grace. Kravitz is essentially Tim Sales’ Year One Selina Kyle come to life, and it’s outstanding. A little rough around the edges, a little damaged, and just as Catwoman should be, a lot more than most men can handle.
Good thing, then, that Pattinson’s Batman isn’t most men. His distractingly bad goth locks notwithstanding, Pattinson brings a haunted, driven quality to Bruce Wayne that other versions never had. Keaton was a self-assured Bruce Wayne who knew who he was; Bale was a tired Batman who’d given it all and deserved to retire; and Affleck was, well, I guess he could beat up people pretty good.
A fresh Bruce Wayne
There’ve been so many iterations of Bruce Wayne that Reeves strove to find a version that hadn’t been done before.
“One example is like, you know, Bruce Wayne, we've seen him many times as the playboy, right? That is kind of the iconic version that everyone associates (as Bruce Wayne). And I was like, well, I feel like we've seen that and yet, he still needs to be quintessentially Bruce Wayne, he needs to be this character. And so along the way, I started thinking about the Waynes as kind of Gotham royalty.”
“Imagine like a royal family, and there's been a tragedy, you know, his parents are killed. And he’s like the sort of descendant of royalty. And his response, instead of going out and becoming sort of a playboy was become kind of a recluse. Like, he doesn't want this Wayne mantle, he doesn't care about any of that stuff.”
Pattinson is Wayne coming into Batman trying to make sense of his life and the tragedy that shaped him. He is essentially emotionally stunted and only starting to form relationships with the members of his bat-family, even one who’s been around since the day he was born.
Bruce Wayne’s relationship with Alfred is one of the parts of the film that deserved more attention. Andy Serkis doesn’t get to shine the way he’s meant to, but Reeves makes sure to remind us that he understands Alfred just as well as he does The Batman, if even in small doses. Alfred is less manservant and more father figure, again even if Bruce Wayne doesn’t realize it. The film is a look into the process of how, please pardon the phrase, Batman begins.
This is when it all clicks—when the Batman realizes that it’s more than about vengeance or even the simple quest for justice. Reeves also shows us the moment where Batman finally understands that his fight isn’t his fight alone. In the third act, the Batman faces a challenge greater than even an expertly trained billionaire and his toys can handle. It’s a moment that’s actually reminiscent of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man on the train, but on a far greater scale.
Reeves has demonstrated his mastery of high stakes. With his Planet of the Apes films, Reeves understood how to tell stories with gravitas, and where our humanity is on the line. He does it again with The Batman and infuses it with a much-needed hopefulness that the character has been missing for some time. Recent iterations of the character have made him morally gray, where bad guys may or may not have been killed by his fists or weapons. Reeves makes no ambiguity with his vision of our protagonist.
This is a Batman from a man who grew up watching Adam West help old ladies cross the street and carries Shark Repellent spray. Fun fact: comic book Batman actually carries lollipops in his utility belt to give to children in distress. This is that Batman. This Batman doesn’t kill and will not use guns. Reeves can overplay Nirvana all he wants, and cinematographer Greig Fraser can bring in all the Let Me In gothic vibe he wants with his smoke and sepia-graded vistas, but nothing can hide the brightness that The Batman brings.
In our world shaped by demagogues and strongmen, where corruption runs rampant and unchecked, striking fear into the hearts of criminals is certainly something a hero can do. But more importantly, Matt Reeves reminds us, heroes are meant to inspire. Heroes are symbols of hope. And perhaps for the first time since 1966, we have a Batman who truly understands that hope will always be stronger than fear.
The Batman opens in local theaters on March 2.