Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
Ever since Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), the famed DC comics superhero has been an iconic staple of cinema. Throughout that time, the character and his world have taken many forms. From a gothic fantasy, to a campy cartoon, to a political metaphor, filmmakers have kept the myth alive by bringing something new to the table every time (for a more in-depth look at this, catch up on this 8 part retrospective series on Batman’s cinematic legacy). It’s not enough for a Batman film to be well made and well acted, as there also needs to be something about it we haven’t seen or experienced before. This was the challenge facing director Matt Reeves and star Robert Pattinson with their new reboot, The Batman (2022). Would this latest version deliver a new and exciting perspective, or have we seen all there is to see?
Set roughly two years into Batman/Bruce Wayne’s (Robert Pattinson) crime fighting career, the famed billionaire/orphan laments that his vengeful crusade may be a lost cause in a place as toxic as Gotham City. Outside of lieutenant James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) the police barely trust Batman, and Bruce Wayne is judged by his peers for not continuing the Wayne family’s philanthropic ventures. Despite these roadblocks, Wayne makes the criminal underbelly constantly wary of the shadows, for fear that The Batman could strike at any time. Things take a particularly grim turn on Halloween night, when a new serial killer calling himself The Riddler (Paul Dano) starts taking out many of Gotham’s wealthy and powerful elite. This kicks off a tense detective mystery, leading Batman’s investigation to undercover shocking things about the city as well as his own past.
At first glance, there doesn’t appear to be anything new about The Batman thematically speaking. Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008) famously covered the character’s early days and unpacked the moral corruption of Gotham City. These are all integral elements of the mythology and must be included when creating a dramatic narrative, but it’s difficult to add a fresh perspective on these ideas when Christopher Nolan’s films already did them so well. Thankfully, director Matt Reeves successfully finds new touch points and brings them to visceral life. Specifically, The Batman places the character’s methods into a moral shades of grey, taking him to task for his actions and beliefs. Previous films openly discussed how his presence insights violence, but there was never any doubt that his vigilantism was anything less than appropriate. Reeves openly critiques Batman’s brand of ‘heroism’ and actually forces him to justify it. This film doesn’t let the character off easily, therefore encouraging surprisingly layered and hopeful moral discussion.
This isn’t the only evolved element of The Batman, as Reeves works the criminal and political angle into the film’s narration revelations. All of the previous Batman films have just begun with every character completely aware of the city’s widespread corruption. It was always assumed knowledge, yet this film opts to have the many toxic individuals be gradually exposed over the course of the investigation. Sure, every viewer probably knows that Gotham is about as rotten as a city can get, but having the continued depths of corruption be part of the film’s narrative development makes for a very engaging watch. Not only does it infuse the film with tension, but it also allows the film’s plot to effectively and efficiently unpack its analysis of politics, social media, privilege and societal anger. The film’s heavily thematic tone could make the climax feel slightly anti-climatic for some, but it’s actually a perfectly appropriate (and needed) ending considering the narrative goals.
While there’s clearly a lot of narrative and thematic meat to chew on, The Batman isn’t just a visual and tonal replication of the previous narratively and thematically rich outings. Whereas the last few serious Batman films felt relatively realistic and traditionally dramatic, Reeves takes on a far more anachronistic approach. The Batman doesn’t exist in our world, but rather inside an incredibly grim and cynical neo-noir rivalling the likes of David Fincher’s Se7en (1995). Reeves arguably digs even further into the classic genre, utilising voice over narration, pointedly sharp dialogue, and deliberately controlled pacing. These elements are so ingrained in the history of noir that they could’ve veered into self-parody, yet Reeves manages to hold your attention and keeps you invested in the grim story. Additionally, the heightened style makes the film fun to watch despite how gloomy it all is.
The story itself is about as packed as films can get, given that previous Batman entries have set a precedent for the series to be grand, epic and involving. Happily, The Batman furthers this trend with great results, as we get almost a whole trilogy’s worth of world building, character development and plot threads. With its punishing run time, it’s a relief that there’s barely any dead air as nearly every moment gives something to grab onto. However, this isn’t without its drawbacks due to some of these plot threads having very little plot utility. While it’s nice to see the depths of the characters’ motivations, not all of them have use or relevance to the main plot. Sure, not every character arc needs to connect to the main story, but The Batman is actively trying to connect all the dots. Thus, there’s roughly 25 minutes of perfectly good content which actually wouldn’t affect anything if it wasn’t there.
Thankfully, the strong performances from the impressive cast mostly plug these holes. Jeffrey Wright is wonderfully understated as a hard-boiled version of James Gordon, even infusing the film with its moments of dark comedy. Colin Farrell is barely recognisable as The Penguin, finally giving us a version of the character that is threatening and conniving in a relatable manner. Paul Dano is a revelation as the Riddler, delivering a chilling and frighteningly plausible version of the villain. Characterising him as a combination of The Zodiac Killer and incels was a stroke of genius. Zoe Kravitz does great work as Selina Kyle, delivering a magnetic turn which is thankfully not an imitation of Michelle Pfeiffer or Anne Hathaway. Regardless, it is Batman himself who steals the show, as Robert Pattinson creates the most psychologically mysterious and darkly compelling version of the caped crusader since Michael Keaton.
Ultimately, The Batman is a film that no one was asking for but we’re certainly glad exists. Reeves pulled off the impossible and managed to deliver a near definitive standalone Batman adventure that will surely blow the minds of new fans, as well as satisfy the itch for people wanting more provocative blockbusters. For such a dark story, it’s interesting to note that the final point is a plea for hope to be reintroduced to the Batman legacy (which is something to be praised and admired). It’s too early to say if it’s the best Batman outing, but it has certainly earned its place amongst the best.
Best way to watch it: With an empty bladder.