Review: The Batman Is a New Approach to a Classic Character, Grounded in Detective Work and the Price of Power

If you haven’t figured it out by now, filmmaker Matt Reeves knows what he’s doing. And probably without meaning to, he’s built an admirable career out of breathing new life into familiar material. Even his debut feature film, Cloverfield, found a new way to tell what was essentially a fairly standard-issue kaiju story by telling it entirely from the point of view of the giant monster’s victims. Let Me In, his remake of the great Swedish vampire tale Let the Right One In, makes a few surface change to the original but still captures its essential creepiness and overall themes. He then made the second and third installments of the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy, making that series is essential genre viewing.

And now Reeves is taking on what might be his biggest challenge to date: giving us a new Batman movie only 10 years after Christopher Nolan wrapped up his magnificent trilogy with Christian Bale (and yes, even closer to Ben Affleck’s handful of appearances as the Dark Knight in various DC/Justice League-related movies). But true to form, the director/co-writer (with Peter Craig) of The Batman has found a new way to tell the Batman story and make it feel like something we haven’t quite seen before by simplifying the characters while giving us a true, epic-length (damn-near three hours, in fact) detective story.

Set only two years into his role as Gotham City’s boots-on-the-ground crime fighter, often working with the police, The Batman gives us the story of a man who is still figuring out what his role is in the bigger scheme of a crumbling city (that seems to incorporate the architecture of both New York and Chicago). Gotham may or may not be on the verge of a type of rejuvenation, depending on the outcome of an upcoming mayoral race between the entrenched incumbent and a younger woman of color who, at least for now, doesn’t owe anyone any favors and has fresh ideas for the city. So naturally, she’s considered the bigger threat by both the establishment and the criminal elements that effectively run the city.

As if to underscore how rotten Gotham has become, a sadistic serial killer known as the Riddler has started murdering the city’s political elite and leaving not only notes about why he killed these men, but also private messages to the Batman (Robert Pattinson). The notes to Batman force the hand of  Lt. James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) to bring the masked vigilante into the investigation, despite some objections from other officers, as well as Gordon’s boss, Commissioner Pete Savage (Alex Ferns).

For those who know anything about Batman’s comic book origins, the fact that the filmmakers have made Batman a full-on detective makes this version of the character feel far more grounded and analog in his approach to gadgets and fighting abilities. For example, the Batmobile isn’t some wacky spaceship that spits out a motorcycle when it wants to. Instead, it’s a souped-up muscle car, fully capable of being damaged. The central car chase in the film is crunchy, loud, and utterly authentic as far as what the cars are capable of (there’s no i-style defying physics nonsense here).

The Riddler’s storyline doesn’t really get interesting until the final third of the movie, after he is captured and revealed to be a very John Hinkley Jr./Mark David Chapman-looking loner with big glasses, floppy hair, and a seemingly meek persona, captured nicely by Paul Dano. But his killings provide a backdrop for us to dive deep in to the criminal underworld of Gotham, including crime boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), corrupt/drug-addicted District Attorney Gil Colson (Peter Sarsgaard), and Falcone underling and club owner Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin (an utterly unrecognizable Colin Farrell, who seems to be channeling Robert De Niro doing the overweight Jake LaMotta from Raging Bull), all of whom are harboring secrets that help capture the Riddler or unveil who exactly runs Gotham City.

Among Batman’s small circle of allies are his alter ego Bruce Wayne’s servant Alfred (Andy Serkis), and even a skilled thief posing as a waitress in Cobblepot’s club, Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), whom we eventually find out is Catwoman in probably the most non-villain take on the character we’ve seen in movies. Kravitz might be my favorite element of The Batman, if only because it breaks the cycle of her playing broken or timid characters and finally lets her inhabit a role with confidence and ownership. Meanwhile, Pattinson’s version of Bruce Wayne is so beyond emo as to almost be a parody of a Goth kid who thinks he’s part vampire. But he somehow makes it work, and his sulking turns out to be more of a cover for being a social misfit than an actual personality trait. Composer Michael Giacchino’s eerie score that riffs off the soundtrack’s use of Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” only adds to Pattinson’s immersion into the darkness of his own mind (fueled of course by witnessing the death of his parents at a young age, which is addressed without being rehashed, thankfully).

Fully embracing the film noir element of his detective story, director Reeves doesn’t skimp on the investigation, which at times is easy to get lost in. But I think pans out nicely into a slightly less repulsive version of Se7en, with Riddler staging somewhat elaborate crime scenes meant to be deciphered more than solved. It’s also a nice touch to give us a sense of Batman’s reputation in Gotham, which is done fairly early through a journal-style narration by Pattinson, who reveals that the Bat Signal isn’t just a call to him from the police; it’s a warning to all bad guys that the Batman might be lurking just beyond the shadows as they commit their crimes. The threat of being caught by the Dark Knight is just as effective as him actually showing up.

The splashy finale of The Batman is a bit less interesting than what precedes it, but it still manages to emphasize that the man inside the costume is very much a human being, thus making him vulnerable, even with body armor and a utility belt. The more I sit with this movie, the more I appreciate its strengths and the emphasis on the person underneath the costume. Wayne is forced to reckon with the history of both sides of his family and he barely utters a word of protest when he learns the truth. He knows better than most that power and influence often come at a cost to one’s moral compass. That is one of the resounding lessons of the entire film, actually, and it feels remarkably of the moment.

I genuinely hope Pattinson sticks with this character for even half as long as he did those damned Twilight movies. The Batman feels like a good old-fashioned, dark-as-midnight crime drama, in which a guy in a cape doesn’t seem all that out of the ordinary. I want to see Bruce Wayne grow into his wealth and fame and use those parts of his life to finance Batman’s exploits. In turn, I’d like to see Batman’s skill set increase and give Wayne the confidence to be less generally off-putting. This is an excellent first chapter in what I hope will be several more to come.

The Batman begins playing theatrically on Thursday, March 3.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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