My apologies for taking so long to write this review. Writer-Director-Producer Matt Reeves’ The Batman is a complex piece of filmmaking with a deep, layered screenplay that is a blueprint for the films that will surely follow it. I needed first to digest the film after seeing it and then dive into some research since last visiting this project. Batman isn’t just any superhero. He’s at the center of the most popular and longest running comic book franchise in history. As such, Batman is a piece of literary Americana, as American as apple pie. Batman is 84 this year and stronger than ever all over the world. Take that James Bond!
Since the early 2000s, when the well-established and more recently Oscar winning, film auteur Christopher Nolan (Memento, Inception, Dunkirk) pitched his fresh take on the 60+ year old superhero to Warner Bros. (which became the Dark Knight Trilogy starring Christian Bale), Batman has been under intense developmental story review. The franchise crossed over into serious drama under Nolan’s watch. Even when I had an office on the lot there, word on the street was that you could dress Batman up in sackcloth and he’d still be a hit. But we all knew that was spoken with pride and described the vast universal appeal of a now dark, emotionally wounded character.
Batman was created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger in 1938, as an answer to his squeaky clean predecessor Superman, the first superhero to have a distinct alter-ego. Superman (an alien-born orphan raised by humble human parents) went about by day as the mild mannered reporter Clarke Kent and answered the call as Superman only when he heard of a perplexing problem. Superman has also evolved since those early comic book days but I digress. The rabbit hole is deep. Superheroes in general now occupy the modern role of mythology.
Batman’s true identity is billionaire orphan Bruce Wayne, the sole heir/genius to the family fortune. Witnessing his parents’ murder as a child is what drove him to avenge their deaths as a caped crusader in a bat suit. The City of Gotham was Bill Finger’s fantastical idea of New York City, although he has only been acknowledged posthumously. Gotham is Batman’s domain and it’s filled with murderous, insane politically corrupt characters, most notably: Joker, Two-Face, Bane, The Penguin and The Riddler. Batman’s need to find his parents’ killer takes him deep into the bowels of Gotham’s criminal power elite.
The Batman springboards off of Christopher Nolan’s wounded billionaire playboy by turning the clock back on the narrative line. We find a younger, grittier Bruce Wayne in this film. He’s a recluse of course but not yet a player in the business world or with women. This iteration of Batman depicts Wayne as a street fighter who comes dangerously close to murder himself. Batman is redeemed for his violence by a soul-level commitment to never cross the line. That is what separates the good guys from the bad guys and it is a recurring theme that echoes throughout the piece.
There are many places in the film where the camera assumes a POV that could belong to Batman or the serial killer who taunts him now, The Riddler (Paul Dano). Batman and Riddler are that vibrationally similar. Reeves’ direction is brilliantly Hitchcockian in many ways but stands out in this aspect because it visually restates the theme. And yet when Batman takes off the mask, Bruce is achingly vulnerable and utterly alone in his eerily crumbling mansion – save his loyal godfather-like guardian, Alfred Pennyworth (played by Andy Serkis).
Matt Reeves’ vision for the franchise takes a depth psychology approach, leaning into each character’s particular strengths and weaknesses. As such The Batman is more character study, than an action film. In fact, Reeves reaches back to Batman’s earliest days as a detective comic book character. This Batman works in concert with Police Lieutenant Gordon (played by Jeffrey Wright), an almost rogue detective who is still very much on the streets. They are practically partners in the Riddler investigation. Batman’s access to crime scenes and evidence doesn’t sit well with the majority of the police department. To them, Batman is a dangerous freak.
The Riddler’s backstory unfolds in reverse primarily because he’s the elusive killer Batman is investigating. His past links him to the Wayne family and ultimately reveals the emotional wound that drives him and has driven him insane. The Penguin aka Oswald Cobblepot is played by an unrecognizable Colin Farrell. His role as the brutal and facially disfigured nightclub owner, where a lot of the action plays out, morphs into yet another origin story for the character by the story’s end.Even though The Batman is not itself an origin story, it is a kind of collective of origin stories. Without spoiling the plot, the story explores the backstories of not just Batman but the other major players.
Cat Woman, played by Zoe Kravitz, shares the spotlight with Batman. Her participation in events has a its own powerful trajectory that seems to borrow from Reeves’ early research into Chinatown. The Cat’s narrative thread drops origin-story breadcrumbs to her raison d’etre. Cat Woman is also a younger version of the familiar sex kitten character. She’s strong but, like Batman, is very much motivated to act by her past. This Cat Woman literally kicks ass but she’s also learning to channel the divine feminine and that makes her hypnotically attractive. Batman is mesmerized by her. She remains mysterious for much of the movie, only revealing her true colors in the third act.
It’s no accident that writer-director Matt Reeves is simultaneously developing a spin-off series for HBO Max that will explore the origins of Gotham’s downfall with The Penguin at its center. It will feature The Inmates of Arkham Asylum of which The Riddler is one and Joker is another. In this way, Gotham itself becomes a kind of character. A character that has fallen prey to its dark side.
Last but not least is the overall audio visual quality of The Batman. Oscar nominated cinematographer Greig Fraser (Dune) creates an exceptionally dark look to the film with shadows so dense they’re almost palpable. They visually sync to the shadow side of the city and the characters. It is described as noir but I think the sets and lighting give us another recent example of neo-Expressionism.
Composer Michael Giacchino’s luscious, brooding score is complimented by Nirvana’s theme song, Something in the Way (written and performed by the late Kurt Cobain). Cobain was an extraordinary talent and the original singer/frontman for the band. He’s another character who lost his battle with his inner demons. Cobain’s haunting voice is like a ghost moving through Gotham’s cold landscape.
The Batman is one of the most creatively integrated movies I’ve ever seen. It’s an absolute must to watch on the big screen. You’ll most likely want to see it again. The Batman will stream on HBO Max in late April. Oh, and the performances, and I really didn’t mean to mention them as an aside, but this article is already epically long and enough said. I will say they’re all exceptional actors at the top of their game. Bravo!
FYI: To my mind there is at least one glaring flaw relative to the plot but to discuss that would spoil the surprise of a first time screening of this film. To date, in case you don’t already know, The Batman had grossed more than $300 million globally in 5 days and is on target to pull down in excess of $470 million over the coming weekend, putting the film not equal to but very competitive with the MCU blockbuster Spider-Man: No Way Home.