The Batman is the only comic book adaptation since The Dark Knight to come close to recreating that cinematic achievement, brilliantly blending entertainment with artistry.
For many film fans around my age, The Dark Knight wasn’t just the riveting revitalization of the superhero movie and the modern blockbuster that it’s now primarily known as – it was the movie that made us see film as not only entertainment, but as art. I may have only been nine years old when I first watched Christopher Nolan’s magnum opus (perhaps a bit too young to see that “pencil scene,” in hindsight), but I was fascinated from the first frame to the last, wholly hypnotized by Nolan’s daring direction, Wally Pfister’s consuming cinematography, Lee Smith’s energetic editing, that stupendously sharp script, and, of course, the late Heath Ledger’s instantly iconic (and Oscar-winning) performance as Batman ‘s arch nemesis, The Joker – still one of the most audacious acting achievements in cinematic history, for my money. Prior to seeing The Dark Knight, most of my moviegoing attention that summer had been centered around films like Kung Fu Panda or Star Wars: The Clone Wars, but after, my eyes were opened to a whole new world where movies were more than just colorful diverting distractions – they made me experience emotions I didn’t even have words for yet, they shaped the way I viewed society, and they inspired me to express myself creatively through cinema. There are many other movies I love just as much as I love The Dark Knight, but few films have had such an indelible impact on my identity.
Needless to say, in the 14 years since, no comic book adaptation has even come close to toppling The Dark Knight as the star of this subgenre in my eyes. Even though the MCU established its monopoly over the mainstream media marketplace in the following decade and delivered some undeniably stupefying and enormously entertaining cinematic spectacles like Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, and Spider-Man: No Way Home, nothing blended conventional superhero action with filmmaking artistry as well as The Dark Knight, despite also the best efforts of non-MCU directors like James Mangold (with his lovely Logan, a sincerely stirring swan song for Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine) and Todd Phillips (whose Joker left a large impression thanks to Joaquin Phoenix’s Oscar-winning lead turn, but couldn’t challenge The Dark Knight’s sprawling storytelling due to its purposely “contained” and single-character-specific narrative). When Zack Snyder was finally given the chance to release his cut of Justice League last spring, that four-hour epic represented one of the best superhero ensemble odysseys ever seen on screen, but even though his character work was wonderfully compelling – with a particularly brilliant Ben Affleck cast as the Caped Crusader – we had yet to see another ambitious solo superhero adventure make a claim for The Dark Knight’s crown. Enter Matt Reeves’ The Batman.
Fresh off the success of wrapping up the widely acclaimed Planet of the Apes reboot trilogy with sequels Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and War for the Planet of the Apes, the famed – and fan-friendly – filmmaker takes Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson, of Twilight and Tenet) back to his roots in a Batman: Year One-inspired story, where the “World’s Greatest Detective” is only in his second year of crime fighting, still yet to become the symbol of hope for Gotham City that he someday should. What’s not up for debate is how he so skillfully strikes fear into the hearts of Gotham’s seediest citizens, with his bat signal serving as not just a call for his help by Commissioner James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright, of The Hunger Games and The French Dispatch) but also as a warning to all those who dare commit crimes under his watch, given how his severe brutality has become the stuff of legend. However, the Bat is about to face the challenge of his “career” as a vigilante when the Riddler (Paul Dano, of There Will Be Blood and Prisoners) begins murdering key political figures in Gotham, forcing Bruce to investigate the city’s hidden corruption and his own family’s potentially insidious involvement. Along the way, he crosses paths with the slinky Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz, of Mad Max: Fury Road and Fantastic Beasts) – known “in the field” as Catwoman – and one Oswald Cobblepot (Colin Farrell, of The Lobster and In Bruges) – professionally referred to as “The Penguin” – who weave in and out of this dark drama of deceit in mysterious ways.
If that sounds like a lot, it should, because The Batman is a three-hour-long crime saga that has more in common with films like Se7en and Zodiac than something like Spider-Man. And, in taking this fresh approach with such a well-worn title, Reeves and co. produce the Platonic ideal of a comic book adaptation – one that reverentially recreates the most iconic elements and story arcs from the source material while simultaneously making it so tremendously (and terrifyingly) timely, updating these tropes for today and showing why, when done right, superhero films continue to resonate so resoundingly with modern-day moviegoers. There’s a lot of chaos in The Batman to compare to the conflict of our current sociopolitical climate – corruption in the government/police force/courts, the ever-increasing wealth chasm between the 1% and the 99%, and so on and so forth – but the beauty of the script by Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, The Town) is that it allows audiences to make these connections on their own without resorting to heavy-handed moral messaging that leaves no room for subtlety. It’s obvious where the movie stands on the issues it raises, but it gives viewers the space to think for themselves about how this profoundly political picture plays into the plights we’re experiencing in the real world right now, becoming one of the rare superhero films that has something to say and inspires thought long after the credits roll and the explosions cease.
And that’s because the majority of The Batman’s focus is firmly on its expansive – and exceptionally epic – narrative, which involves too many iconic characters from Batman canon to count (Riddler! Catwoman! Penguin! Carmine Falcone!) yet still finds a way to provide each with a prominent and powerful part to play in the plot, diving deep not just into their connections to the central crimes being considered but also into their personal predicaments and the pains of their pasts. Its incorporation of its political ideologies is incredibly intricate, but Reeves and Craig start by simply telling a good story first and foremost, letting the rest flow freely. The mystery Batman seeks to solve is not only masterfully multifaceted, but effectively emotional as well, giving Bruce an opportunity to finally assert his brilliance as the “World’s Greatest Detective” onscreen and forcing him to reckon with the possibly sinister secrets of his family at the same time, establishing striking personal stakes for the star and the story. Juggling Bruce’s affecting character arc (centered around his evolution from vengeful vigilante to passionately perceptive protector, as his perspective of his “profession” shifts), the missions and motives of several key supporting players, and this overarching political parable is a Herculean task that Reeves and Craig make look like child’s play, oscillating between big character beats and radical revelations with fantastic finesse, and finding time to bring audiences some beautifully staged and consummately crafted action scenes.
Aside from a slight lull in pacing at the start of the third act (during a series of wordy exposition dumps), The Batman is essentially a rollercoaster ride from start to finish, driven by Reeves’ dutiful direction. It’s very deliberate in how it details Bruce’s discoveries on his trek for the truth, but never boring, constantly keeping us invested in the character-specific strife in a certain scene and/or the physical pandemonium taking place, which is where The Batman is undoubtedly enhanced by its top-of-the-line technical team. Greig Fraser – hot off his second Oscar nomination, this year for Dune – delivers dazzling cinematography that becomes some of the best of his entire career, capturing the complete griminess of Gotham in all its glory (assisted by divinely dirty production design) while also turning the action setpieces into showcases for sheer artistic excellence. His valiant visuals see their impression increased tenfold by Michael Giacchino’s (Up, The Incredibles) staggering score, which brings us a brand-new Batman theme that stands toe-to-toe with those from Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer and arrives on the scene with a feeling of ferocity and fury that cleverly complements Pattinson’s broken Bruce Wayne and the caustic climate Reeves so carefully curates here. And, truly, it’s impossible to overstate how vibrant Reeves’ overall vision for the film is, clearly following in Christopher Nolan’s footsteps by rooting the mythology of The Batman in the reality of the modern day while also charting his own fascinating path forward, one that continually keeps the comic-y fundamentals front-and-center in both the character-centric conversations and the calamitous conflict.
As Reeves’ Caped Crusader, Robert Pattinson may very well be our best onscreen Batman to date, daring to do something different with the character after so many similar variations in such a short span of time. Each actor has brought some unique spin to the table, if not just for their own special star personas (Michael Keaton, George Clooney, etc.), but Batman – in spite of all the screen time devoted to his suffering in every single film – has never felt this bitter, beaten down by the loss of his parents and the disintegration of the city he calls home as he fights with every fiber in his being (and maybe even a death wish) to do it justice and get things “back on track.” Pattinson’s persistently provoked disposition, persuasive physicality, and potent perseverance in the part make it so that you can’t possibly keep your eyes off him whenever Batman saunters onscreen, and by the time we leave him in a much different place personally, we’re immensely invested in his further maturation as an individual and as an icon for Gotham. However, Pattinson isn’t the only cast member to make a classic character their own, as Zoë Kravitz kicks all of the ass as the capricious and crafty Catwoman (with a scintillating sensuality that’s striking to see in superhero cinema and crackling chemistry with Pattinson’s Batman), Paul Dano is deliriously demented as the rageful Riddler, Colin Farrell is equal parts playful and petrifying as the petulant Penguin, and Jeffrey Wright conveys a charming new characterization of the always-good-natured Commissioner Gordon.
Does The Batman top The Dark Knight? It’s too soon to say, as only time will tell how large its legacy is and how incredible its impact may be on the genre moving forward. Perhaps nothing will ever be as ravishingly revolutionary as the lighting-in-a-bottle success of The Dark Knight again in all honesty – but, at the very least, Matt Reeves, Robert Pattinson and co. can take solace in the fact that they’re the only ones who have remotely come within striking distance of surpassing that specific cinematic achievement in the superhero subgenre, by awarding audiences with a flabbergasting masterclass in filmmaking from top-to-bottom, with state-of-the-art technical flourishes (Fraser’s cinematography, Giacchino’s score), an enthralling all-star ensemble cast, and a supremely layered script that condenses decades of comic mythology and also makes ardent political arguments with painful parallels to today, In lesser hands, The Batman could be biting off more than it could chew. But with this team, it becomes a breathtaking win for not just DC Films or superhero films, but all auteur-driven and boundary breaking cinema in general. I have no idea how they can top this next time – as this blistering journey has only just begun – but Reeves has earned my faith in his filmic feeling for The Dark Knight, and I’ll sure as hell be the first in line to see him try to surpass his own sky-high standards.
WATCH THE BATMAN:
The Batman opened in theaters everywhere March 4, 2022, and is now available to watch on digital and on demand.