Not to sound like a barista at a coffee shop, but we’ve reached a point after 83 years of character history across innumerable pages and screens that one has to ask, “How do you take your Batman?” Do you need emblematic cream, sugar, ice, extra caffeine, froth, or some similar fancy twist? If you take it black, filmmaker Matt Reeves has a trenta special called The Batman with your name on it.
With zero pomp and an A24-like plainness of silent title cards, The Batman opens on the heavy breathing and binocular view of a serial killer stalking his prey, not a discharge of action. The Riddler (Paul Dano, utterly petrifying every second he’s on-screen), with a penchant for puzzles and duct tape, has targeted the political and social elite of Gotham City. Beginning with the sitting mayor, each of his murders of retribution create both buzz and terror among the public in the middle of an election season.
From there, the initial narration of Robert Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne provides all the insightful introductory shorthand a long-time fan or a newbie would need to enter this reinterpreted world, skipping the traditional, tragic, and overplayed orphan origin story. Set to the somber track of Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” as the troubled young man strafes through the streets on his motorcycle on the night of Halloween, the ominous words divulge his status, mindset, doubts, and motivations as he trudges through his sophomore year donning the cap and cowl as an street-level urban myth.
As Bruce’s words continue into his introduction in costume, he has turned himself into an instrument of fear and the embodiment of vengeance. Entering from the shadows as the shadow itself with the best boot step sound effects since Antonio Bandera’s slow-motion jingling accouterments in Desperado, Batman’s fantastical specter is backed by his brutal physical kicks and fists. The shudder is real and has small-time criminals thinking twice when they see the Bat Signal in the sky.
The Batman immerses its substantial plot with the escalating mystery and panic caused by the unchecked actions of The Riddler. The incisive and intricate tentacles of the villain’s plans expose the prominent victims’ unrevealed and deep-seeded fraud accompanied by the repetitive and smearing slogan of “No More Lies.” Family legacies are challenged, right down to the Wayne name that has been long guarded by the trusted Alfred Pennyworth (Andy Serkis). Meanwhile, The Riddler has taken an interest in his pursuing vigilante, leaving personalized greeting card cryptograms for Batman and his vouching cop, Lieutenant Jim Gordon (a gruff and steady Jeffrey Wright), to deconstruct amid the grisly crime scenes.
Filling its lengthy running time with more dread and deception than explosions and chases, The Batman presents easily the most investigative work this character has been granted in live-action form since the Adam West-led 1960s television show of gadgets and gizmos, and that’s saying something. Roping in the orbiting presences of The Penguin (Colin Farrell), Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz), and crime boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), it’s all a very detailed and engrossing quest where characters as black as the hero clash with heavy stakes and long-lasting implications.
Robert Pattinson may not have the beefy physique of Bale or Affleck before him, but his commitment to the underlying obsession aspect of the dual character is excellent. Some folks may cite his stillness and moroseness as boring. They forget that Batman is more of a chiseled gargoyle than a raging animal like Wolverine. When the plot calls for it, Pattinson calls upon the precise fire. One spark for that internal flame is the seductive and oily chemistry from Zoe Kravitz’s very involved and forward take on Catwoman. She steps up from the old hat of stealing gaudy trinkets to stealing scenes and urgency.
Deep down, and Alfred knows it, Bruce Wayne is a good man capable of more than stunts and bone-breaking in the right situation. The Batman culminates at a surging turning point where Bruce turns his direction from meting out punishment to helping and protecting those in need. It’s not so much shucking selfish aims of bloodlust, but more of a recognition of potential impact and the strength to emerge into the bigger battle. When that happens, any long-winded monotony The Batman had playing the detective game fades and the movie elevates into the proper territory of heroism. Patience is rewarded.
Taking a cue from Will Arnett’s LEGO incarnation, Reeve’s The Batman “only works in black and sometimes very, very dark gray.” Discerning eyes will try to detect and measure the classic shades of gray possible in content and character for Gotham City and its Caped Crusader. Those that try will squint vainly through pitch black darkness and be wiping away buckets of Seven-level torrential rain.
The Batman only turns the lights on when it wants to reveal a sooty coating that does not wash off easily whatsoever. Much of Dune cinematographer Greig Fraser’s framing and movements fight through blurs and smudges that soften the nearly R-rated content (leave the kids at home and put back the toys from the department store aisles) and emphasize the grime of stud production designer James Chinlund’s settings and the evil hearts that occupy it. The robust mood set by the gloomy gaze is intensified by a phenomenal musical score from composer Michael Giacchino, working with Matt Reeves for the fifth time. Layered with personalized themes and strong motifs, Giacchino’s sonatas and dirges carry the potency to resonate peak moments with both unnerving and triumphant crescendos.
Symbolic outer black varnishes have been applied to the Batman silhouette before, from Michael Keaton to Ben Affleck and every study chin in between. Go ahead and apply color psychology coming from the fashion world in which black conveys “mysterious, serious, prestigious, and powerful” traits and descriptors. That’s always been the desired shell and but not always its true core of different Batman movies.
With Batman and its often outlandish comic book sensibilities, camp always shows up at some point, which is fine to a degree. That’s not happening here with The Batman, not by a damn sight. Matt Reeves and his screenwriter partner Peter Craig (The Town, Blood Father) sought to penetrate the weight of that coating deeper and did so with sturdy cajones and indomitable endurance.
And, wouldn’t you know it, even darker was possible than ever before with this aspiring franchise reboot. We are in a time to genuinely question what new interpretation could possibly be done with this iconic character. Decades have filled an entertainment trophy case full of paragons of any color and preference. Yet, here comes The Batman, as dark as squid ink, aiming to tread and ultimately improve upon the greats that have come before it. Every single one of those aforementioned adjectives of black fashion suits this epic and then some.
The only redundancy, and it has to be said, is the external fact that we live in a silly world where three cinematic Batmen exist at the same time. That is the fault of a wayward and impatient Warner Bros. braintrust and not this movie. If The Batman was the new take arriving a comfortable decade after the conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s successful trilogy, all would be right in the world and the springboard of potential from Matt Reeves would be tremendous. He accomplished his mission.
Instead, there’s a good chance a fanboy pissing contest will start between the nostalgia of Keaton’s returning growl, drunk Christopher Nolan filmbros, the pushy Zack Snyder cult trying to erase the disinterest of Affleck, and people who pigeon-hole former sparkly vampires. The nit-pickers and flag-planting loyalists will be missing a damn good movie. The Batman has the teeth to impress any of the opposition and eat their hearts out.