Embrace the Dark Sincerity of THE BATMAN

Matt Reeves brilliantly returns the Caped Crusader to his detective roots

God Bless Matt Reeves.

The man’s made a career of finding unexpected mystery and empathy in the unlikeliest of projects. People came into Cloverfield in 2008 wanting to finally uncover the mystery behind a J.J. Abrams marketing juggernaut; Reeves’ film managed to sneak in a bittersweet break-up film amidst the creature-laden spectacle. Tons were skeptical Let The Right One In could be re-adapted so soon after an already masterful take by Tomas Alfredson; Reeves’ Let Me In re-contextualized John Ajvide Lindqvist’s original novel into a Reagan-era tale of childhood romance amid Satanic Panic, the faltering American exceptionalism of the Cold War, and other stateside-specific specters that bump in the night. The one-two knockout that is Dawn and War for the Planet of the Apes create entire ensembles of CG creatures that we grow to care about more than humans–and by the end of both films we nearly root for our own extinction so that creatures who actually care about each other can inherit the Earth. For every moment of jaw-dropping spectacle that’s a feast for the eyes, Matt Reeves never loses sight of what can capture our hearts as well.

It’s why, amidst everyone’s raised eyebrows post-Snyderverse, I couldn’t wait for his take on Batman.

Set a year into the fledgling career of the Caped Crusader, the Bruce Wayne of The Batman (a steely-eyed Robert Pattinson) is struggling. For every act of vengeance, a hydra of corruption and greed takes its place. The long nights of crimefighting are an increasingly Sisyphean effort for Bruce, and his impact is still hard to gauge compared to the toll it takes on him. In almost the same way, though, he realizes the little ways how Batman as a symbol has started taking root in the hearts of Gotham City’s villains. Graffiti artists, small-time crooks, and gun-toting robbers double-take over their shoulders to ensure he’s not lurking in the darkness, waiting to strike back. There may be something to fighting crime after all.

But a vicious spree of murdered officials places the whole of Gotham on edge. On the eve of a wildly-contested mayoral election, politicians and public servants are turning up dead–with a masked, bespectacled cryptic creeper known as The Riddler (Paul Dano) claiming responsibility in messages spammed across the Internet. Working alongside a newly-minted Commissioner Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), Batman turns up lo-fi cat-burglar Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz), whose close connections with an ancillary victim draws them both into a complex professional and personal relationship with one another. As Batman and Catwoman dive deeper into the motivations behind Riddler’s insane bloodthirst, the World’s Greatest Detective uncovers a grimy, tangled web of corruption and deceit that implicates those he loves most.

Rather than slavishly devote itself to over-the-top camp like the Schumacher or Burton eras, a gripping yet taxing sense of realism like the Nolan Trilogy, or a self-indulgent “importance” like Joker, Matt Reeves’ standalone entry in the Bat Canon is a gripping detective tale that’s both confident in its grim yet hopeful vision and unashamed to dig at an emotional sincerity beyond the surface of its comic book origins. It finds its greatest surprises in how it brings to life the struggles and limitations of a man who has everything fighting against a machine of corruption with equally endless resources. How, in spite of the failures he faces, as well as the limits of his own ambition, Bruce Wayne strives to become something more to the people he feels an obligation to protect. Robert Pattinson’s Batman bleeds and broods, sure, but he also believes–that, against all odds, he can make a difference. Unlike almost every past iteration of the franchise, The Batman is Batman with a soul.

What’s more, it’s a journey through Batman lore that may be the best-looking Gotham has ever looked on screen. An epic hellscape of fire, sodium-lit streetlamps, gritty asphalt, and inky rain you can almost wipe off the screen, the grime of Reeves’ Gotham is palpable. Its labyrinth of high rises and back-alley clubs, cribbed together from pandemic-delayed shoots across Chicago and the UK, really capture the “every-city” feeling of the comics and especially the 1990s animated series–with a healthy debt owed to David Fincher’s Se7en, to boot.

It’s also one of the first Batman films that’s as much a detective story as it is an action film–with the latter taking a backseat to the former as much as it can. This is Batman in full crime-solving mode as much as he’s in stopping it, with Bruce employing his Wayne-branded gadgetry to solve intricate ciphers and record seedy covert infiltrations to uncover a series of maddening clues. The resulting web of conspiracy and intrigue gives audiences far more to chew on than a quick action sequence can deliver–though Reeves’ skill at directing action is on delightful display once the film’s set pieces kick into gear. Tactfully edited between long-shots of brawling choreography, static shots mounted on chasing cars that capture every frenzied split-second decision to take a hairpin turn into oncoming traffic, and ecstatic bursts of muzzle fire in gunplay, each beat of Reeves’ action scenes feel like natural extensions of their characters no matter what environment they take place in, with each very practical feat of effects wizardry rarely duplicated. A favorite shot in particular has Batman deploy a grappling hook, with the camera locked on the device towards Batman’s grimace as he’s dragged upward; the impact of the film’s spectacle weighs as much on the characters living through it as much as does on the audience living through them.

What’s immediately clear to the ensemble of The Batman is how desperately Gotham needs to change–and Reeves’ keen eye is trained on how each of those chaotically conflicting ideologies diverge from one another for reasons that feel wholly personal as much as they are mechanics of the film’s plot. Bella Réal (Jayme Lawson) is a strong-willed juggernaut of a grassroots candidate who believes the people of Gotham can change their city for the better if given a chance; sneering crime lords like Carmine Falcone (perpetually-sunglassed John Turturro) and The Penguin (an unrecognizable Colin Farrell by way of Jake LaMotta) know any of Réal’s idealistic efforts will be in vain. Their iron grip on the city has lasted for decades–and even if their fellow gangsters may fight among each other for a greater bit of control, nothing will change that. Everyone caught between the two–from Commissioner Gordon to his low-level cops to high-ranking DAs (including a wonderfully simpering Peter Sarsgaard)–live their lives as conscious pawns on a spectrum of power, ever conscious of how much or little they have. No matter the capacity to change, though, it’s like it’s never enough for them to believe they can truly change how Gotham is run.

The Batman and Riddler, however, give pause to evildoers and do-gooders alike. Both are masked crusaders fighting for justice for whom violence is a means to an end. We’re spared yet another flashback to the loss of Batman’s parents in favor of a more immediate loss–in an opening investigation, Batman briefly connects with a young son who discovered his father’s gruesome crime scene. Their connection from afar is a recurring motif that, even if someone had never picked up a Miller-era graphic novel or watched a Burton film, says everything about Bruce’s traumatic past and the fire that inspires him to don the cowl. Bruce isn’t out there just to stop crime–Batman exists to prevent future Bruce Waynes from suffering the same fate. It further underscores Batman’s credo to not kill–it’s too far permanent an act of impatient justice to mete out, with consequences that last far longer than him. Conversely, the Riddler has no qualms about dispensing with all sorts of vicious acts of destruction–with his Zodiac by way of Q-Anon anonymity becoming a source for power that can unite society as much as destroy it.

Further mirroring one another, both Pattinson and Dano know how to find an unexpected and wholly refreshing vulnerability and tenderness to their characters as much as there is action-centric brutality. Selina Kyle also has her own epic story of familial justice to seek out through the film’s runtime, at times mostly independent of Batman and Riddler’s quest for control of Gotham, wholly driven by the strength of Kravitz’s magnetic yet understated performance. As a result of seeing these characters in all their capacity for empathy and selfishness, in shaky conviction built upon unwavering ideals, we never lose sight of the emotionally flawed, at times egocentric people at the heart of these heroes and villains. Reeves’ dedication to these emotional connections is what keeps The Batman thrumming throughout its sprawling three-hour runtime. While audiences may feel somewhat drained by the time the apocalyptic-level finale to Riddler’s master plan unfolds, it’s never an unsatisfactory or boring experience.

With the many iterations the franchise has gone through over the last three decades alone, the question of whether Gotham and its people can change is a meta-question for the Batman series at this point. With its immersive detective story that’s as eager to explore the flawed hearts of its characters as it does the nefarious plots of its villains, Matt Reeves’ Batman thrives in the darkness that some entries chose to ridicule or reject. It’s in embracing its darkness–and the potential for light within–that Bruce Wayne comes to believe that the world is a fine place and worth fighting for. Those ideals, and the dedication of Reeves’ film to them, are what makes The Batman the best Batman film in years.

The Batman hits theaters on March 4th worldwide courtesy of Warner Brothers.

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