It’s difficult to resist the temptation to start this review with big and bulky superlatives; to keep from saying The Batman is a masterpiece, the best batman film ever to grace the screens, the best superhero film of all time, or the other way around.
In our age of extreme consumerism and time scarcity, any written piece covering media or art is a language of selling, which is pure marketing, even in something unsponsored like the article before you now. That language is inherently one that belongs to extremism; a film can’t just be good; it has to be the best that has ever been. Because otherwise, why would you pay attention?
For a film like Matt Reeves’ The Batman, this is doubly so. It builds on a long tradition of Batman films, an even longer tradition of Batman comics, video games, and stories in many other forms, and it comes at a time of a fanatical abundance of superhero films.
In a case like this, it certainly is difficult to refrain from holding it against everything that has come before it and place it in the hierarchy. While it is natural to draw comparisons, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and neither does the film itself claim to. On the contrary, it pays the highest respect and homage to the tradition it’s building on—we still aim to refrain from it as much as possible here.
Of course, it’ll be arrogant at best, naive at worst, to swear against speaking of any comparisons. It’s only that we believe, before anything else that shall be said, The Batman is a film that at the very least deserves to be evaluated in its own right.
The Batman takes place two years after Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) adopts the persona of a bat to fight the criminals of Gotham city. A sadistic serial killer (Paul Dano) starts targeting key political figures, leaving clues behind, which leads Batman deeper down the spiral darkness of the underworld.
Matt Reeves establishes the tone and atmosphere of the film and character arc early on. In the tradition of gothic literature and cinema, the director makes a full-fledged character of the setting of Gotham city, wrapped in its darkness and shadows. The corruption and decay are palpable, painted on the very features of the city. In a voice-over in the first scene, we hear The Batman before seeing him, hiding in the shadows while the sun rises. This, however, he denies; “They think I’m hiding in the shadows,” he intones, “but I am the shadows.”
Likewise, Reeves here is brilliant at showing the tangible effects of everything; the sense of smudged lens with the rain and the mud, the messiness of make-up at the end of the day, the scarring of Bruce’s back, the cape getting in the way while he’s moving quickly. On a deeper level, too, Bruce Wayne’s all-consuming obsession with his mission is blinding and has a perceptible and physical effect. He doesn’t shift swiftly between his two personas. Instead, he’s lost in between, pale in the sunlight, he’s messy, dirty, doesn’t eat, neglectful of his life and what remains of it. It’s a layer of realism that helps immensely the quality of the film.
When Batman finally does show up, he doesn’t do so as a hero. The score strikes not just anticipation but dread. The same dread that is felt in the tension of the low-grade criminals once they hear his heavy gait striding towards them. Those intentional and distinct choices made in the first scenes are crucial to the core element of The Batman. Implicitly, the beginning of the vigilante crusader isn’t set up to be that of a saviour who strikes hope or trust.
Reeves and Pattinsons’s choices regarding the depiction of Batman in this film are made clear here. The two essential traits of the film that should be compared to other Batman films are Batman’s detective nature, which was neglected before but is crucial to the film here as it constantly flirts with being a detective noir rather than a superhero film.
Largely, this is another reason why Reeves’ The Batman is a great cinematic piece. There are no random choices here, no moments in the margins that have no value, which is peculiar when you remember the film is three hours long. Nearly everything that happens, either on the writing, acting, musical, or cinematography level, ties up neatly and forms a whole.
Reeves’ creation of his main antagonist adds masterfully to this. The character’s likeness to real-life serial killers like Ed Kemper adds realistic depth to the terror he strikes Gotham with. In this context, his “silliness” only makes him more terrifying. The mix of those elements is striking. After all, there is a reason why carnivals and circuses feature prominently in horror stories, why Steven King’s It clown has become one of the most iconic horror figures, and, indeed, why The Joker is the most famous Batman antagonist.
Matt Reeves intentionally draws on this tradition (it’s worth noting that Reeves made his directorial debut with a horror anthology, and returned time after another to the genre). It’s a tried-and-trusted narrative method, and here, it works to its potential.
Yet, the best part about The Riddler lies in Matt Reeves’ main technique in the film: parallelism. The film has many mirroring incidents, and it’s used with precision and clear intent, enriching both the themes and the cohesiveness of the film. The Riddler is also a perfect narrative foil and mirror to Batman. The person behind the Riddler’s mask, Edward Nigma, is the same as Bruce Wayne, in the sense that they’re both orphans.
Both Pattinson and Dano work against each other with brilliance and nuance. The casting is undoubtedly one of the strongest elements of the film overall. Pattinson’s Batman/Wayne is both wrathful and vulnerable, and Dano’s Riddler is simply terrifying.
For better or for worse, Matt Reeves achieves precisely what he set out to do. For better is our verdict!
Essentially, The Batman is a good film–not only a good Batman film, not just a good superhero film; it is those things!. One that is internally coherent and cohesive, one that said exactly, beautifully, what it wanted to say.