The Batman Movie Review: The Dark Knight Remixes

Odds are, nobody is ever going to have a 100% perfect take on Batman. Considering how specific to directorial vision most live-action Batman movies have been, it’s always going to be the director’s individual filter. But for a large chunk of the audience, The Batman will be that version. Even as it may neglect or deviate from aspects of canon in minor ways, it pulls off a few essential new tricks. Perhaps the most essential? It’s actually a movie about Batman.

That’s not as easy a trick to pull off as it looks. Many previous Bat-films specialized in showy villains who seize the spotlight onscreen like their comics counterparts do in Gotham City’s crime scene. For those that don’t, the focus still tends to veer away from Batman at the expense of Bruce Wayne. Whether because of actor vanity, or directors insisting an actor’s full facial expressions must be seen as much as possible, Bruce typically logs far more screen time than his alter ego.

Not so with Robert Pattinson. While his Bruce Wayne stays fairly one note, with a low, murmuring voice and glazed stare, his Batman manages to be more expressive through the cowl than his predecessors. Whether suddenly discovering compassion in a moment of down time, or showing other-than-than intellectual curiosity about Selina Kyle, he can convey more with his eyes and clenched jaw than might once have seemed possible. His longer arc, not so much. Bruce tells us in voice-over about his personal growth, but Pattinson’s overall demeanor shows little change from beginning to end.

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By keeping Batman in costume as much as possible, The Batman pulls off a trick other DC films shied away from. It allows Batman to exist as a character in scenarios other than just action scenes and shadows. Before this, Zack Snyder’s Batman broke ground by interacting with other superheroes in costume in broad daylight. Now Matt Reeves’ Batman can plausibly enter rooms full of regular people and have conversations without looking like a fool.

It helps that his version of Gotham City feels like a place where such things normally occur. A sprawling field of skyscrapers bedecked in gargoyles and neon, where the power always seems to run out on the lower levels, it’s the best cinematic Gotham since Anton Furst’s 1989 designs. At long last, we’ve moved past the Gotham-as-normal-modern-city aesthetic of both Christopher Nolan and Snyder (a rare design misstep by both directors). TV’s Gotham got the fictional city itself close to perfection. Matt Reeves takes it that one extra step to get there. Though maybe having it rain utterly non-stop is overdoing things a bit.

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It’s a hard to pinpoint a distinct directing style for Reeves based on his previous films, but there’s certainly a point of view here. He likes to focus on tiny things, unfocused things, tiny things seen behind unfocused things, and lots of close-ups. His perspective has the eye of a detective…and a fastidious serial killer. All the best Bat-foes serve as funhouse-mirror counterparts to our hero, although the movies usually just focus on the Joker in that role. This time, though, the Riddler parallels find their emphasis. Both brilliant men, both vengeful men, both arrogant enough to assume they can define right from wrong in a city of corruption. Yet both cannot be right.

Now, this requires a bit of deviation from canon for the Riddler. He’s still brilliant, twisted, and into cryptic clues and puzzles. As played by Paul Dano, he’s a somewhat obviously modern mix of incel and Qanon beyond the obvious trappings. Dano plays this take to perfection, although the hints that he’s neuro-atypical may not work for everyone. Audiences only familiar with Bat-villains in the movies may be shocked by how far from Frank Gorshin’s elegant imp we’ve come. But comic fans may recognize at least a premature prototype of the mastermind bad guy, if they can see past his surplus-store winter combat duds.

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Writing for the Riddler is enough of a challenge that few do it well. And the inherent difficulty in scripting a Batman detective story is that his major villains are all well-known. So to create any sort of mystery, the bad guy’s plot itself must be the secret. Reeves and cowriter Peter Craig do a decent job of this, although at this point anyone well steeped in Batman lore will recognize most of the players and their motivations. At least they’re sufficiently remixed to keep the audience guessing. It’s time for some new characters next time, or at least new to the screen.

But as familiar characters go, it’s great to see the Batman/Jim Gordon relationship played like a true partnership. It’s all too lazy to just have them talk on rooftops with Batman suddenly disappearing. Seeing the two confide in and absolutely trust each other — as a given, rather than something to establish — feels nicely comfortable. And Zoe Kravitz is great as the contemporary heroic Catwoman, while keeping her mostly virtuous makes her less showy than a Michelle Pfeiffer or Eartha Kitt. And the ski-mask doesn’t exactly enhance her otherwise comics-accurate costume. Considering some specific comments about discomfort with contacts, perhaps she will get Catwoman’s goggles in the next film.

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On a similar subject, a Batman in bulletproof armor still doesn’t feel quite right. In the post-MCU era, a more flexible outfit, maybe even one in blues and grays, shouldn’t be impossible. Surely a little color standing out against these backgrounds mightn’t feel amiss. The Joker, contrary to popular belief, should hold no monopoly on that. So while the makeup on Colin Farrell’s Penguin is phenomenal, his black trenchcoat’s a bit blah.

Still, certain segments of fandom have called for a David Fincher-style Batman for a long time. Here, they get it. The Seven elements come at the story as blatantly as the comic book references. Yet again, the caped crusader’s new movie remains inappropriate for kids. But for ’80s and ’90s kids, appropriate feels like an understatement for The Batman. The Nirvana song on the soundtrack might feel like pandering, but it’s the most perfectly pitched variety.

Grade: 4.5/5

The Batman opens in theaters Friday, May 4. Please take all appropriate COVID precautions and attend theatres only if you feel safe to do so.

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