Matt Reeves signed up for a challenging task as the umpteenth director to try breathing new life into one of pop culture’s most overutilized characters.
Over the past few decades, Batman has been the engine behind some great pieces of studio filmmaking (The Dark Knight, Batman Returns) — not to mention some of the most reviled (Batman and Robin, Joss Whedon’s Justice League). We just got Joker and Zack Snyder’s reconfigured Justice League over the past couple of years. Now with Reeves’ take on the hero, we are at max bat capacity.
Thankfully, despite ticking dangerously close to three hours, The Batman is probably the best Batman movie we’ve gotten since Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. Reeves’ film is confident and brooding, willing to hop right into the garbage truck that is his Gotham and ride along with the most aggressive cinematic take on Bruce Wayne/Batman we’ve seen thus far. Robert Pattinson is our emo-punk Batman — one part Gerard Way, one part Edward Scissorhands, one part MMA fighter. His Wayne spends half the film in eye black, and his Batman doles out some of the most brutal beatings Gotham City has ever seen.
If Pattinson weren't one of the most gifted actors of his generation, this read on Batman might’ve been one for the Hot Topic bargain bin. The actor owns the physicality of the role and is never drowned out by the film’s rampant melancholy. Reeves and Pattinson understand the ethos of the character, depicting him even more darkly than Christian Bale did with his stoic take on Bruce Wayne in the Nolan films.
As Nolan was to Michael Mann, Reeves is greatly indebted to David Fincher, and The Batman shares the sort of morose, shadowy tone of films like Zodiac and Fight Club. Take Paul Dano’s Riddler, a spitting image of the Zodiac Killer with touches of Jigsaw — and the world’s most annoying vlogger to boot. He’s got the right amount of sadism and camp to make for a memorable Batman villain, even if the film underutilizes him as the marquee bad guy. Dano played the serial killer red herring in Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners, and it’s hard not to feel like Reeves found inspiration from that film too, as well as Scott Frank’s 2014 foreboding noir A Walk Among the Tombstones.
If Reeves’ film has a primary flaw, it’s excess. This is the Costco product of Batman films — Batman in bulk. It is at once elegiac and terrifying during its best set pieces, but at times a bit too stuck in a self-imposed muck. This much unfiltered darkness usually goes down a little easier with a spattering of levity here and there, and Reeves goes a little overboard at times blending so much story and character work with such a dour tone. It’s never fatal, but it is self-defeating.
The film’s second half is a bit stronger than its first on the whole, as The Batman dives into compelling themes of legacy, lies and whether or not Wayne’s “Gotham Project” is doing more harm than good for the people of the city he’s trying to protect. Reeves finds his footing once the film really digs into the momentum of its plot rather than just dwelling in its atmosphere. Not that it’s a bad atmosphere to be in — you can’t overstate how gifted Reeves is as a filmmaker. He pulled off a tentpole movie with a bleak tone, and it’s hard not to give Warner Bros. props for letting him make it.
And hey, there’s nothing wrong with a darker Batman. After gobs of Marvel Cinematic Universe cotton candy, it’s refreshing to get a superhero movie with this much attitude, vision and thematic command. Reeves is one of the best directors working in the studio system, and his first stab at Batman does not disappoint. It might exhaust you or lose you at times, but it’s still a pretty damn great superhero film.