It occurred to me while watching "The Batman" that it doesn't really matter where the movie starts, where it ends, or what timeline it is adhering to. In some ways, I'd be totally OK with the character of Batman being treated somewhat like James Bond...each Bond movie is its own adventure, perhaps loosely connected to others or perhaps every once in a while acting as direct sequels to previous films. Different actors can portray the iconic character, with a parade of directors putting their unique spin on the franchise each go-around. As long as the familiar "musts" are included - the uttering of "Bond. James Bond," for example - each movie can push the envelope or tell its own story.
In many ways, Batman is even more suited for this sort of approach than James Bond or maybe any other character in film history. There are so many takes on the character in the comic book, from the "Zap! Boom! Pow" bright and corny 70s version to the dark and brooding "Dark Knight" popularized by Frank Miller in the early 1980s. The Rogues Gallery of iconic villains can act as a never-ending spring of antagonists for our hero, and there are enough side characters in the DC Universe to keep things going for another couple generations.
In that spirit, "The Batman" is as good as a Batman movie has ever been, or possibly ever can be. It might be jarring at first to accept yet another version of this character, in a previously unvisited timeline with yet another actor under the bat cowl, but if you accept this like a Bond film, where this movie isn't meant to connect to anything else and is simply a Batman story, then you will be floored by how effective this rendition can be.
Smartly, "The Batman" jumps headfirst into its own film with reckless abandon. Most movie-goers - even those that don't read the comics - know the basics of Batman's story, how his alter-ego is the tycoon Bruce Wayne, how his parents were killed in front of him at a young age, and how he has taken to the streets to fight for justice in the dark of night as a vigilante dressed as a bat. Matt Reeves goes balls-to-the-wall, leaning hard into the Frank Miller side of the Batman pendulum, and creates a Gotham City that is shady both literally and figuratively speaking. It's all mood, and this is a dark, gritty-looking film that is also beautifully shot, perfectly reflecting the psyche of The Batman but also of its hopeless citizenry.
Robert Pattinson is The Batman/Bruce Wayne, who is a broken soul. His take on Batman is fairly familiar, but it's his moments as Bruce Wayne where he really finds a uniqueness. In most other incarnations, Bruce has it together and is seen publicly as a slick and well-respected business man. Pattinson's Wayne broods around as if he's forgotten he's not in the suit. He instantly wins us over as a more intense, a more focused and perhaps a more intellectual version of Batman than we've ever seen before.
He's matched against a version of The Riddler (Paul Dano) that is all as impressive, scary and memorable a villain as Heath Ledger's Joker in "The Dark Knight." Blasphemy, I know, but true. He's a psychopath whose end-game is unclear until it happens, who has some sort of affinity and connection to Batman as he keeps leaving envelopes for him at the scene of every crime. Instead of some buffoon running around in a question-mark-riddled green suit, this Riddler is rooted in reality...a madman who gets his ideas and inspiration from the darkest corners of the internet and who has a truly twisted perception of the world around him.
Notably, "The Batman" is more diverse than ever before. Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) has a close relationship with Batman, and Selena Kyle aka CatWoman (Zoe Kravitz) is on a mission of her own, one that seems to tangle up with Batman's on more than one occasion. It's nice to see fresh takes on old characters, and different representation to boot. And while Wayne's devoted butler, Alfred Pennyworth is still a white guy (played by Andy Serkis), he's younger and it's an altogether different take on the character...a welcome one.
Director Matt Reeves, who helmed the last two "Planet of the Apes" films, seems to really understand how to make Batman feel real, in that we are obviously suspending our belief a bit to even swallow the basic premise. But this Batman doesn't quite "swoop in" on bad guys...at one point he even appears to be afraid of heights for a brief moment before diving off of a building. He gets hurt, he miscalculates a few jumps. He's human. That distinction has always been what has separated him from his DC counterpart Superman. Superman does it with brawn, but Batman's strength was always his brain.
Which is another thing the film does right. Many might forget (or may not know at all) that Batman first appeared in "Detective Comics," and often his main advantage over his adversaries is his ability to outthink them. "The Batman" plays like an old noir detective film, and his mind is given as much attention as his fists this time out. In fact, this version of Batman actually shows growth over the course of the film...he begins introducing himself as "vengeance" but comes to understand that his purpose must be more nuanced than that if he is going to ever differentiate himself from the bad guys he's devoted his life to fighting.
This Gotham City too, seems more believably real than the cartoonish takes its been given in the past. The heroes realize that it's not just the bad guys they need to fight, but the corruption coming from within. Faith needs to be restored in the institutions of Gotham City if it will ever be a just place, otherwise Batman will find himself fighting an endless stream of villains, being churned out and created by a society that is just as lost and broken as they are.
Despite my take on "The Batman" as being likened to a one-off James Bond movie, this film definitely shows aspirations for sequels. This is mostly evident in the character of The Penguin (an unrecognizable Colin Farrell underneath layers and layers of makeup and costume), who is sort of a lowly thug when we first meet him...he's even called "Ozzy" by other characters, hinting that he has yet to become "The Penguin" as fans may know him. There's also a bone-chilling cameo late in the film that all but solidifies that there will be more Batman to come.
Maybe the way that Batman will differ from Bond is that each Batman director will be given a trilogy to tell a story. Certainly after seeing what Matt Reeves has done, he deserves more. It's really quite an accomplishment when you think about it: Most people's like or dislike of a movie has a lot to do with their high or low expectations going into it. There are already incredibly high expectations simply because it's Batman, but holding it up to Christopher Nolan's recent Batman trilogy, the incredible performance of Ledger's Joker cemented in our minds and a slew of other previous Batmen looming large, it's an absolute miracle that Reeve's "The Batman" ascends everything that's come before.
Don't let the Marvel movies poison your mind: Not every single superhero movie needs to have laughs, generic action, or follow the tried-and-true formula that has made the MCU the golden cash cow that it is. It's OK for movies - yes, even "comic book movies" - to challenge you, or at the very least, try to do something different. There's no sense complaining that Marvel movies have ruined the business, yet every time a director does something different in the genre, it feels...wrong.
"The Batman" is the darkest take on the beloved character that's ever been committed to film, and it may not be everyone's cup of tea. Luckily, this isn't the last Batman movie we'll ever get, nor will it be the last take on the character we'll ever see. But for now, "The Batman" is the bar.
Genre: Action, Crime, Drama.
Run Time: 2 hours 55 minutes.
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Zoe Kravitz, Paul Dano, Colin Farrell, Jeffrey Wright, Peter Sarsgaard, John Turturro, Amber Sienna, Andy Serkis.
Co-Written and Directed by Matt Reeves ("War of the Planet of the Apes," "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," "Let Me In," "Cloverfield").
"The Batman" is in theaters on Friday, March 4th, 2022.
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