For as long as I can remember, the debate that follows the release of every Batman film has always centered on the duality of the character. Who is the best Bruce Wayne? Who is the best Batman? It’s a conversation that can be as nuanced as debating the characteristic semantics that separate the two faces of DC’s Greatest Detective. At the same time it can be a blunt instrument, waved around with little aim. Debating Christian Bale’s Bruce against Ben Affleck’s older Bruce can take many forms. What is essential to all of these films is that the Batman being portrayed in any one, for whatever reason, is readily swapped with another actor’s performance. To a degree, at the very least. It’s hard to compare the George Clooney Bruce of Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin with the Christian Bale Bruce of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. The two directors sought to portray Batman very differently, the former a far more cartoony, zany illustration, the latter more grounded in reality.
When Robert Pattinson was announced as the choice for the next film representation of the Caped Crusader, people immediately went to this old metric of weighing Bat-men. In many ways, perhaps unbeknownst to those debating, the rubric seems to be based off of the Paul Dini-helmed Batman: The Animated Series. Kevin Conroy’s voice has become the staple, the aspiration even, for Batman. It was gruff, bold, distinct. Similarly, Mark Hamill’s Joker is the Joker. So when these debates spring up, opinions are drawn along these lines. I, myself, recorded a podcast that debated the best and worst Bat-men over time, so in the spirit of this review, I’ll give you my own personal rubric. And then how that rubric fundamentally changed.
Batman, to me (I cannot make this clear enough), was a detective first. He hunted down killers and criminals with Holmes-esque efficiency. With a plethora of tools at his disposal, he was capable of cracking any case. Batman was big. Like, can’t-scratch-his-own-back big. The Dark Knight of animated fame was an absolute unit, complementing his martial arts prowess. Batman was throwing assailants around like rag dolls, beating them to a pulp between takedowns. Batman was angry, broken even. The mantle of a man shattered by his childhood, fueled by the line most recognizable from Conroy’s legacy, “I am vengeance!” Similarly, and frequently paired with that line, Batman was the physical manifestation of justice. Justice in a city and world incapable of meting out justice itself. Justice in an unjust, and vacuous space, where crime and evil flowed from the underbelly of Gotham freely.
This was Batman, to me, for a long time. This beacon of hope in a dark and apocalyptic hellscape.
For many people, the mantle of Batman began to sour around the release of Alan Moore’s seminal Batman work The Killing Joke. A dark and riveting tale in which we saw Joker, with startling efficiency, make the case that Batman is just as bad as him. And more than that, the fact that even the best of people in Gotham were only a “bad day away” from “lunacy.” Fans familiar with Batman will most likely be familiar with the sentiment that as a kid, the Joker was crazy and Batman was right. But as an adult, you realize that Batman was the crazy one and the Joker was right. How often since 2019’s Avengers: Endgame have we been confronted by people saying things like “Thanos was right”? There is a much larger, much more anthropological discussion to have about humanity’s willingness to see the modus operandi of the villains in their entertainment as “justified.” This may not exactly be the place for that, but regardless, the inversion of mindset isn’t without significant verisimilitude.
For me, the change of mindset came about in the aftermath of the killing of Michael Brown and the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement. I understand that by evoking those cultural moments I will be inviting the ire of those less willing to look problems in the face, but I, honestly, couldn’t give less of a damn. The reality was and is, for my generation, and generations bordering the Millennial brackets, our perception of the world was changed eight years ago. My already shaky trust of police authority was a shambles, my trust in any systems already in place was ruined, and almost immediately my awareness of the prevalence of mental health struggles was multiplied. I have struggled with chronic depression for more than a decade, but as many people will tell you, struggling with mental illness personally is isolating. I wouldn’t have imagined I wasn’t alone in my struggle. I literally couldn’t have. As an adult, post-2008 housing bubble, global recognition of police brutality, and societal growing pains regarding the living wage, I inevitably saw my perception of entertainment shift.
The result of that shift? The Joker was right. Batman was no longer this beacon of hope but rather the representation of oppressive systems, given individual agency. Here was a white billionaire with all of the resources necessary to make an effort at real systemic change in his city, but what did he do instead? He spent all of his energy on personal toys that he used to batter and maim the mentally unstable, poor, and downtrodden people of his city. In an imperfect world, and I am aware when I utilize an imperfect metaphor. I know full well that in many cases Batman is defending people that are also oppressed. But if there is one thing I think we can all agree on, it would be that beating the hell out of people is a broken solution. Couple that with the fact that Batman sends his enemies to Arkham Asylum, an institution rife with corruption and unethical medical practices, and it becomes harder and harder to see any reality where Batman is healing his city and not making it demonstrably worse.
Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy approached this topic but sparingly. Zack Snyder’s Justice League and Batman vs Superman played into the fact that many of Gotham’s citizens feared Batman. Matt Reeves’ try at the Caped Crusader takes the broken defender of Gotham head on, and it might just be the best illustration of Batman we have ever seen.
The Batman takes place two years after Bruce Wayne, the billionaire heir of the Wayne monolith, decides to take up arms against the criminal underworld of Gotham. Much like Daniel Craig’s James Bond in Casino Royale, and much to my delight, this is portrayed early and often by letting viewers see him make mistakes. He fights recklessly, taking bullets and punches while dealing catastrophic amounts of punishment. The people he is trying to save shy away from him, scampering away prone, begging, “Please don’t hurt me.” It’s not exactly subtle, but it is surprising. You catch yourself for a moment: “Wait…why would you say “don’t hurt me?” He is obviously here to help. Placing yourself in their shoes, it’s quite easy to conclude that it wouldn’t exactly be clear what this embodiment of fear and rage was hoping to accomplish. To his immense credit, Robert Pattinson, despite constant detractors, is absolutely terrifying.
Pattinson’s repertoire has far exceeded his fame from Twilight. The only problem for most people is that his films have largely been small and flown under the radar. Take the time to hunt down High Life, Cosmopolis, or The Lighthouse and you will quickly see a performer not unlike a chameleon, becoming his roles with a deft skill for drama. His Bruce Wayne, slinking around the world in the day, is tired and forlorn, constantly afraid that he can’t do enough to save his city, and always under the watchful and critical eye of his butler and mentor Alfred. Andy Serkis dominates the role of Afred, carrying himself like you would imagine a former SAS agent would. His feedback is blunt and unwavering, but moments later you see him flexing his old skill set helping Bruce crack codexes left behind by The Batman’s unsettling version of the Riddler.
In Matt Reeves’ The Batman, the Bat reclaims his place as the world’s greatest detective. Where other films have dabbled in the iconography and symbolism of Batman as a detective, this film’s focus on the master of riddles pits Batman against a series of increasingly disturbing and pointed killings. Batman and Bruce Wayne are put through their paces here, examining evidence, tracking down witnesses, and hunting for the motive and message of Paul Dano’s Riddler. Reminiscent of the Zodiac Killer, this villain is noticeably darker in this rendition than the Riddler of Schumacher’s Batman Forever or CW darling Gotham. Combined with Reeves’ vision for a darker and more visceral Gotham, however, this manifestation feels firmly in the right place. I never found myself doubting or questioning the events that would come to pass.
Showing Batman in this period of his journey as the Dark Knight is deliberate for Reeves. Pattinson is allowed a kind of freedom most other actors who have found themselves in bat ears and a cape have not. Gotham barely knows this dark figure, the police department is unsure of his motivation, and most importantly, Bruce is still investigating why he is doing this. His encountering Selina Kyle at this moment is essential. At Bruce’s most tested moment, in Batman’s most important days, Selina serves as a sort of deus ex machina to Bruce. A chance, he identifies, that might give him new purpose, should he be smart enough to accept it. In the film’s denouement this Batman has to confront not just his demons, but the hell they grew in.
The Batman has the courage to look at its hero and ask him, “Do you think this is helping?” It’s a take on Batman that while not entirely original in concept, director Matt Reeves is smart for approaching differently. A noir detective film about a broken man, still figuring out why he didn’t die the day his parents did. Afraid of the answers he will find if he asks himself honestly.
Truly, Robert Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne/Batman is inseparable in ways other portrayals simply are not. It is abundantly clear throughout this film that this Batman was purpose built for this world. I don’t find myself wondering who could have done Bruce better here. Bruce is perfect. I don’t find myself wondering who could have done Batman better here. Batman is perfect. In the picture Matt Reeves wished to paint, there simply isn’t room for anything but Robert Pattinson’s performance.
Catwoman has hardly felt better than in Zoe Kravitz’s hands. Asking the Caped Crusader to think about things like privilege and oppression. Colin Ferrell’s Penguin is brilliant, driving wedges deeper and deeper into Gotham’s underworld for his own gain. Also, bravo to the makeup team behind Ferrell’s transformation, so he is literally unrecognizable. Finally, and crucially, Jeffrey Wright has not missed in years. His performances in The French Dispatch, Westworld, and the Craig run of Bond films have cemented him as a quintessential talent. His Detective Jim Gordon is fantastic. Perfectly walking the “out-of-options” and “out-on-a-limb” line you could imagine a police detective who has recruited the help of a man dressed as a bat would be walking. As the only true Good Guy in the film, he serves as Bruce’s voice of reason more than once.
Outside of all this character work, and all of these raw performances, The Batman is cinematically gorgeous. Gotham is brooding, its streets drenched in rain and flooded in darkness. The camera frequently frames it’s subjects so artfully I constantly caught myself oohing and ahhing. Gothic architecture and neon have never been put together so beautifully. Stone and iron, light and dark, its own haunting character. Michael Giacchino’s score follows the visual landscape by creating a soundscape that absolutely oozes menace and disquiet. The leitmotif, reminiscent of Darth Vader’s “Imperial March,” creeps through each moment, hiding in the wings. But it’s in the smaller moments, the almost quiet moments, where it shines. Riddler’s theme trickles a disharmonious “Ave Maria” and Catwoman’s theme slinks across strings and piano keys with grace. All together it creates a really special audio space.
I have loved Batman as long as I have known of him. First because of the justice he represented, then as the injustice he represented. This Batman is different. Because he hasn’t been doing this long, we get to see if he can learn from those around him to avoid becoming the Batman we know, instead becoming the Batman Gotham needs.
The Batman is a smashingly fresh start and I personally cannot wait to see what’s next. From combat, to investigation, to one of the most wicked takes on the Batmobile, this is the Dark Knight as we’ve never seen him before. I sure hope we get to see a whole lot more. | Caleb Sawyer