Review: ‘The Batman’ is an exhilarating reboot for the Dark Knight
We’re never too far away from a Batman adaptation of some kind, whether we’re talking about film, television, live-action, animation, video games, or anything else. That makes it increasingly difficult for anyone to put a fresh spin on a pop culture icon that’s become about as ubiquitous as it gets for decades, and that’s without mentioning the three different actors playing the role in a pair of blockbuster Warner Bros. releases this year alone.
However, Matt Reeves is fully aware of that fact. He also knows that from the second The Batman was first announced, comparisons to Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight were lurking around every corner. While that could be a daunting prospect for a lot of filmmakers, the director fully embraces the pressure he’s under to give audiences the best of both worlds, at least as it pertains to the title hero.
Robert Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne isn’t a rookie like Christian Bale was when we first met his version back in 2005, nor is he anywhere close to being the established vigilante Michael Keaton was in Tim Burton’s 1989 film, or the grizzled veteran played by Ben Affleck in the mainline DCEU. As a result, The Batman luxuriates in presenting the established tropes and trappings audiences have come expect over the last 30+, but handles them with a fresh perspective and unique insight.
We don’t see Thomas and Martha Wayne being murdered for the umpteenth time, but their fingerprints are all over the story, and a key part of their son’s fractured psyche. Selina Kyle has been a regular sparring partner of Batman’s on the big screen for what feels like forever, but Zoë Kravitz paints the future Catwoman as a fully-realized character that plays to her strengths, one with a substantial arc of her own.
Jim Gordon is always along for the ride as the straight arrow in a world of corruption, but Jeffrey Wright makes it feel new, and there’s even an unlikely buddy cop element to his rapport with Pattinson. Sadly, Andy Serkis gets surprisingly little to do as Alfred other than dispense helpful exposition and become reduced to a plot point, but he still manages to imbue Bruce’s trusted butler and confidant with heart and gravitas.
Movies featuring arguably the most tortured superhero of them all are also required to be dark as a matter of obligation, and while The Batman is almost completely humorless, the somber tone never threatens to become oppressive. Everything you want and hope to see is there on the screen, and yet it somehow manages to feel one-of-a-kind and exciting. Well, almost always.
Diving into the various plot machinations would run the risk of giving too much away, but it wouldn’t be a spoiler to say that the marketing has done an incredible job of showing a ton of footage that reflects exactly what The Batman is, without actually putting any major cards on the table. Sure, you’ll recognize many of the scenes and images from the promo materials, but they don’t unfold when or why you’d expect.
During his second year on the job protecting Gotham City, Batman finds himself drawn into a citywide conspiracy that dates back decades, with Paul Dano’s Riddler at the center. As the bodies keep dropping, the World’s Greatest Detective actually lives up to his name for once, as he unravels a series of clues that pile revelations on top of tragedy.
Kravitz’s Catwoman is heavily involved in almost every major subplot, as is Colin Farrell’s Penguin, but neither in exactly the way you may have been led to believe. In fact, it’s John Turturro’s Carmine Falcone who surprisingly acts as the eye of a sociopolitical storm that invokes everything from hard-boiled film noir to sleazy exploitation stories, via murder mysteries, doomed romances, and everything in between. The fact that it works, especially in within the parameters of a $200 million Batman tale, is a testament to what Reeves and his team have pulled off.
Once you manage to reconcile yourself with the fact that it’s the handsome Irishman under the prosthetics, Farrell is comfortably one of the standout performers among a cast that’s never anything less than excellent across the board, even if Oswald Cobblepot is the only character that’s been allowed to even nibble on the scenery, never mind chew on it. With an HBO Max series on the way, you’ll be dying not just to find out what his next move is, but champing at the bit to see Oz take center stage.
At the end of the day, though, it’s a Batman vs. Riddler story, which remains true from the first scene almost to the last. Dano is lauded as one of the most underrated talents in the business for a reason, and you completely buy his Edward Nashton as a person who would go to such extreme lengths to right what they believe to be a serious wrong they’ve taken extremely personally.
That being said, some people might not be completely sold on a performance that aims for chilling, cerebral and maliciously calculated, but may be interpreted otherwise by certain viewers. At the end of the day, though, Dano is utterly convincing as the byproduct of unmatched intelligence bolted onto unbridled fury.
While his performance is entirely a matter of taste and personal preference that could prove polarizing, it’s not going to be controversial to say the third act of The Batman is the weakest by far. Reeves spends upwards of two hours crafting an intense, tightly-plotted serial killer thriller unfolding in the sandbox of a heightened comic book reality, and it’s as if someone from Warner Bros. tapped him on the shoulder midway through production to remind him that he’s making a big budget tentpole that requires effects-driven spectacle.
The climactic action sequence is well-staged and offers occasional bursts of excitement, but the pacing is all over the place. There’s a stop/start, almost hurried nature to what’s supposed to be the grandstanding finale to an epic story, but it feels out of place when compared to the taut structure and gradual turning of the narrative screws that had largely defined The Batman up until that point. That’s without even mentioning the overt sequel tease that follows, which feels completely out of place and tacked on for the sake of generating buzz for the incoming BatVerse.
That’s the only time The Batman feels like a three-hour movie, and it’s a minor quibble in what’s an otherwise phenomenal piece of filmmaking. Peter Craig’s cinematography is positively stunning and regularly breathtaking, while Michael Giacchino’s score is a minimalist masterpiece.
The world-building should also be singled out for special praise, because this is arguably the first time that Gotham and its citizens feel like active participants in the story, rather than backdrops for the action and unimportant cogs in a machine that serve only to act as window-dressing for the household names that exist around them.
The Batman is both contained and enormous, intimate yet sprawling in scope, and a hell of a way to introduce Reeves and Pattinson’s take on the mythology to the masses. With multiple HBO Max spinoffs and sequels on the way, we can’t wait to see what comes next.
'The Batman' is a thrilling, ambitious, and exhilarating reboot for the comic book icon. It might not be the Dark Knight's best-ever movie, but it comes mighty close.