Director(s): Matt Reeves
Writer(s): Matt Reeves, Peter Craig
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Paul Dano, Zoe Kravitz, Jeffrey Wright
In 50+ years from 1943 to 1997, there were 6 portrayals of Batman. In 22 years since the turn of the century, the number has once again reached 6; not including the voice portrayals from Will Arnett (The Lego Batman Movie) or Diedrich Bader (Batman: The Brave & The Bold) or 2019’s Joker which showed Bruce Wayne as a child. This Dark Knight has made his rounds through both small and big screens and has easily become the most displayed character in media, maybe ever.
That didn’t stop Warner Bros. from moving forward with a brand new Batman project only a few years after their previous one, seemingly, failed. This time around, Matt Reeves, director of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, War for the Planet of the Apes, and Cloverfield, was recruited to lead this all-new exploration into the Caped Crusader.
Right from the opening sequences, Reeves does something few Batman directors have done, he understands that the story that needs to be told is centered around this character. Many times in Batman films, or Batman-related media, the character of Batman is overshadowed by, usually, his antagonist. While these films might be highly praised – Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight comes to mind – it is usually not Batman himself getting all the glory. The person who is supposed to be the main character becomes less exciting and less entertaining than the bad guys he is trying to stop. Reeves doesn’t do that and instead layers this Batman in a way that allows for the growth of this character, giving him a true arc in the process.
The growth Batman endures is one of the more interesting parts because, in a sense, the character on-screen for most of the movie isn’t Batman, at least not yet it seems. This isn’t the grizzled and beat-down version of this character that knows who he is and what he represents. No, this is a kid, a young and naive vigilante that goes by the name of Vengeance rather than Batman. There is almost this coming-of-age feeling that captures Batman figuring out who he is, and what he is supposed to be.
This development allows Robert Pattinson to shine like many of his devoted fans knew he could for years. Getting even darker and grittier than previous versions, this version does what no Batman has done yet. He instills fear into his enemies, and with Reeves behind the camera and Pattinson in front, they instill fear into the audience. This isn’t a Batman that hides in the shadows of Gotham waiting to strike, he, as the movie says, is the shadows.
The fear Batman creates is built from the own fears he’s experienced. His fear comes from personal loss that he has felt since his childhood – thank you Matt Reeves for not showing the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne for the hundredth time – and has only grown stronger over time. Bruce Wayne in this film is more of a recluse. He doesn’t appear much, and when he does he is bombarded with questions asking why he hasn’t been helping the city. This uncomfortable nature is displayed well by Pattinson who shows that Bruce Wayne is just a shadow of his true self. Wayne’s main purpose for being is so that Batman can further his investigation into his newest villain, thus giving his freer alter-ego every advantage possible. This comes at a cost as well, and when Batman fully realizes what he has done, he has to reinvent who he is. Pattinson doesn’t just shine in this role, he knocks it out of the park, and even if his Bruce Wayne isn’t quite there, this is the best version of Batman brought to screen yet.
The same fear that Wayne feels is found in the villain of this film, Edward Nashton, and the same freedom is found in his alter-ego, The Riddler, who is menacingly portrayed by Paul Dano. Trading the comical bright green and purple question mark-laden suit for a suffocating and plastic-wrapped torture suit, the Riddler similarly hides in the shadows waiting to strike fear into the people he perceives are the enemies. Creating one of the best Comic Book movie villains in recent history, Dano truly shines at every chance. When the Riddler is a part of the movie, in any capacity, that is when it shines, and when the two are playing their game of Cat and Mouse, the investment is at an all-time high.
Primarily thanks to the script, the puzzles help keep the audience intrigued by the story. The different journeys, mistakes, and revelations made by both Batman and Riddler eventually lead them to one another, and when these dueling forces finally have their time to meet, the outcome could not be more spectacular. Both Dano and Pattinson let loose in their respective roles, finding a balance between knowing and unknowing of any and every situation.
However, when the Riddler goes away for too long a time, this is where the film falters. The side characters and stories are interesting to the larger story being told, but sitting at 176 minutes you start to wonder if too much is being added. Colin Farrell’s Penguin provides for one of the more exciting scenes of the film, and Jeffrey Wright as James Gordon is a real treat to witness, but this is very much still a Comic Book movie. The side characters and world-building almost have to be done to really get the full effect of the main character, but sub-plots just never feel as tightly knit as the main chase.
Luckily, Matt Reeves directing helps keep the train rolling, and even when it feels like it is starting to slow down, Reeves knows exactly how to pick it back up. I don’t know if there is anyone in Hollywood that can direct a blockbuster quite the way Reeves can. His attention to detail is outstanding, and his visual eye is truly breathtaking. Reeves completely utilizes every tool in his belt, primarily Michael Giacchino’s unbelievable score, to tell this story in a plethora of different ways to instill the fear of what Batman is, and also find the hope of what Batman can be. As someone who never understood Batman as a character, and never liked him, Reeves did the impossible – he made me believe in Batman and finally understand what he is.
The Batman marks the first time that a Batman movie has kept the titular character at the forefront of the story. Even though Paul Dano’s Riddler is one of the better villains in a recent Comic Book movie, whenever he isn’t guiding the story it falters just a little. The film is long, but it earns most of the runtime by giving a visually stunning and compelling tale expertly told and acted. Aptly titled The Batman, this is THE Batman movie.
Jacob is a film critic and co-founder of the Music City Drive-In. He is a member of the Music City Film Critics’ Association and specializes in the awards season. You can find him on Twitter @Tberry57.