With “The Batman,” Matt Reeves has gifted 2022 with a surprisingly great film. Surprisingly, because it is yet another Batman film that comes too soon on the heels of a Batman film that came too soon on the heels of Batman film.
As Hollywood is constantly oversaturated with comic book movies, it has come down to the sad truth that these are the only types of films that get major push from the studio system. Each one is created with the understanding that there shall be sequel after sequel, year after year, and with no end in sight.
Many of today’s comic films are good. A very few are great. At this point, all are starting to blend into one another.
Enter Warner Brothers who (like Marvel and Columbia Pictures with their latest Spider Man incarnation) refused to wait too long for another redo of Batman.
The great news is that Matt Reeves directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Peter Craig. These two created a fantastic film that remembers the importance of good filmmaking, casting based on ability rather than looks, and creating a proper mood through atmosphere and a great score. This one has its own style and tone and crafted with meticulous care.
As the film wisely forgoes recreating Bruce Wayne’s life and the beginning of his alter ego, we meet The Batman a good two years into his war on crime.
In the original DC comics, Batman was considered a super-sleuth that was more expert detective until it was time to beat up the bad guys. Reeves and Craig take the character back to this time, as he is always observing and deciphering, a Sherlock Holmes in dark leather.
As The Batman prowls the night streets of Gotham City, the caped crusader is not the assured character we know. In an extremely well-written inner monologue, our hero worries if he is doing any good at all, as he laments that he cannot be everywhere and worries how the citizens perceive his actions. Think Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey from 1974’s “Death Wish” as Batman.
A smartly edited opening montage shows us that his existence is known by all criminals. We see some low rent thugs committing petty crimes and while making their getaways, looking into the dark alleyways and shadowed corners of the rainswept Gotham night, fearing the presence of the dark avenger.
The Batman has become the boogeyman bedtime story for the criminal minded whose actions draw the attention of a mysterious villain who calls himself The Riddler (Paul Dano). This maniac is killing off Gotham’s political and law enforcement leaders, beginning with the city’s Mayor, whose opening death scene is presented like something out of a Horror film, creepy in design and shockingly vicious in execution.
As this dark seeker of vengeance stalks the bad element of Gotham City, new mysteries arise and with them an array of great supporting characters.
Paul Dano terrifies as the Riddler. An excellent character actor who has an Oscar nod in his future, Dano channels the intense insanity of Andrew Robinson’s Scorpio from the original “Dirty Harry” and unerringly coaxes evil out of his character, one who is as focused as he is unstable.
Colin Farrell (file under award-worthy makeup) thrives as Oswald Cobblepot a.k.a. The Penguin. The actor sinks his teeth in and plays it old school. Farrell’s performance would be at home in a Humphrey Bogart film.
Bruce Wayne finds himself following one Selina Kyle who seems to be a key to a much bigger mystery that connects to his past.
Zoe Kravitz is good as Kyle, but the Catwoman character is not as interesting as she should be (one of the films few missteps). While her backstory is somewhat involving, the presentation of the iconic character fails to do enough to sustain interest. The days when Catwoman was a seductive villain are long gone and sorely missed.
That said, the chemistry between Pattinson and Kravitz works and it works well. It is interesting to watch Bruce Wayne spying on Selina Kyle and discovering that they are alike in many ways. There is a look on Wayne’s face when he sees her don her black outfit and slink through the night, that just might hint at being more than a bit aroused in all manners.
Jeffrey Wright (a wonderful character actor) is James Gordon, Gotham’s purest cop. The screenplay doesn’t bring anything new to the character, but Wright plays it well using his face to convey a sense of hopelessness as he drowns in a sea of corruption that is destroying the city.
The great John Turturro shows up as crime boss Falcone, giving a great performance. One would forgive an actor for hamming it up in a film such as this. Turturro plays his mobster as if he is in the next Scorsese mob film, giving a performance of serious and committed calm.
Sadly, it is the beloved Alfred who draws the short straw. Andy Serkis is quite good in the role but, save for one important moment, the film doesn’t have much for him to do. I can only hope that the next film will right this wrong.
One of the big stars of this film is Greig Fraser’s cinematography. This is Oscar-caliber work, as he uses soft focus and shadow to great effect and covers Gotham City with a dedication to the frame that most modern films lack. Working with Fraser and Production Designer James Chinlund, Reeves created the best-looking Batman film since Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman,” which won Oscars for Anton Furst’s groundbreaking designs.
As The Batman, Robert Pattinson is perfect. There is intimacy to his portrayal. In a smart move, the film removes the “billionaire playboy” aspect of Bruce Wayne. In this version, Bruce doesn’t like being Bruce. He is more comfortable in his Batman “skin.” Because of this, Batman gets more screen time than he ever has, as Bruce Wayne is only on screen now and again.
Bruce Wayne is a broken man, almost destroyed by the murder of his parents. His only connection to humanity is Alfred. The Batman is the dark Phoenix that rose from the ashes of the tragedy in Bruce’s life, giving purpose to his existence. Pattinson finds the right balance in his performance, achieving the most interesting portrayal of Batman to date.
Another one of the film’s master strokes is Michael Giacchino’s excellent score.
Giacchino is one the very rare modern film composers who understands what makes a great score, his work breathing with the lessons of the master composers who came before. Giacchino uses full orchestras and remembers the importance of character themes and using a main title piece throughout a film in creative ways.
The score for “The Batman” is perhaps Giacchino’s finest. The compositions are big but never overtake the moment. As the film mixes its filmmaking eras and styles, the composer blends haunting old school strings with thunderous musical declarations, recalling queues from the best scores by Jerry Goldsmith. Giacchino has proven himself a true student of the great film composers and has evolved into an indispensable scorer.
Most importantly, (and thankfully!) this is not a superhero movie. Reeves’s work is a streetwise throwback to both the tough cop films of the seventies and the world of the private-eye movies from the forties and fifties. Reeves’s blending of the two is seamless while given acknowledgement and respect to the stylistic shifts during the eighty-plus years of Batman mythos.
Does this story have enough meat to justify its three-hour running time? Probably not, but the director makes it work. The film is in constant motion and (as he did with his two excellent entries in the recent “Apes” remake trilogy) Reeves keeps his focus on character and story. The film is always interesting, entertaining, and never feels long.
“The Batman” is edgy, brutal, and intense, taking everything we know and making it fresh and original.
This is confident filmmaking from a director who respects the art of the craft.