After multiple production- and non-production-related delays, The Batman, Warner Bros.’s latest attempt to reboot the 80-year-old Batman comic-book character for the third time in less than two decades, arrives in multiplexes with a not unexpected mix of anticipation and dread; anticipation because Batman remains the most iconic superhero in comics or on film (apologies to Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman), and dread due to the abrupt departure of actor-writer-director Ben Affleck (making his Batman iteration a non-starter) and the decision by Warner Bros. to give writer-director Matt Reeves (War For the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Let Me In), the creative freedom to remake Batman, his mythos, and Gotham City Batman calls home as a reflection Reeves’s noir-inflected, grim-dark vision. It’s an expensive, risky gamble that pays off, sometimes spectacularly.
A grand, potentially divisive reimagining of a Bruce Wayne/Batman (a surprisingly well-cast Robert Pattinson) at the beginning of his career as a vigilante crimefighter in a hand-made, makeshift costume, The Batman sets the mood, atmosphere, and stage from the first disquieting, unnerving scene: An unseen character watches a relatively privileged, upper-middle-class family celebrating Halloween in their high-end apartment through a pair binoculars from a nearby rooftop or abandoned apartment across the street. It’s a moment of voyeurism atypical to the superhero genre (DC or Marvel), but typical of the horror genre, specifically the serial-killer sub-genre. The audience doesn’t realize right away, but the owner of those binoculars, Edward Nashton/The Riddler (Paul Dano), has murder on his mind.
A self-appointed avenger of the dispossessed, downtrodden, and otherwise ignored inhabitants of Gotham City, the Ridder, like all great Batman supervillains, has a master plan and that plan involves targeting Gotham’s corrupt elite (e.g., politicians, law enforcement, business leaders) and using a still-new-to-crimefighting Batman as his unwitting accomplice. Pushing the Riddler into genre territory usually occupied by on-screen serial killers (e.g., Se7en, Zodiac, and Saw) and their propensity for Grand Guignol displays of murderous mayhem, The Batman often feels like an entirely different, if not entirely new type of superhero film, one-part noir, one-part serial killer horror, and one-part Frank Miller-inspired superhero, operating in a city and world defined by its fallen, corrupt nature.
The Batman might just be the best psychological portrait of a wounded, damaged cape-and-cowl crimefighter. The Batman we meet early on is every bit as raw and unformed as a second-year, costumed crimefighter could be. While the Batman’s nighttime sojourns have managed to instill fear among Gotham’s low-level thugs, his presence has done next to nothing to stem the tide of mid- and high-level crime. Batman’s punch- and kick-first might feed a basic sadomasochistic impulse generated by survivor’s guilt, but it makes little difference to Gotham’s criminal element or the crime rate. Only a familiar Gotham City detective, Lt. James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), sees any potential in the Batman as more than just a freakish, costumed vigilante. Gordon actually sees the Batman as an unofficial crimefighting partner.
As provocative and insightful as The Batman might be psychologically, it’s just as astute in recognizing that Batman, born in the pages of Detective Comics almost one hundred years ago and often hailed as the “World’s Greatest Detective,” has failed repeatedly onscreen to show off his big-brain potential. Here, at least, Reeves gives audiences a brooder and bruiser who’s also an investigator, using a combination of deductive and forensic skills to track the Riddler’s seemingly erratic movements and, more importantly, the puzzles that follow each murder and point to the next one. To that end, Wayne, far from the billionaire playboy persona familiar to general moviegoers (he’s a loner and recluse here), becomes involved with Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Zoe Kravitz). An orphan like Wayne, but unlike Wayne, born into poverty, crime, and despair, shares Batman’s bleak, borderline worldview, minus, however, Batman’s moral absolutism.
Reeves’s chose a distinctly pre-dystopian, dark, and rain-drenched environment for Batman and Gotham City, mirroring Batman’s unstable interior state of mind with the world outside the cape and cowl he wears to hide and protect himself. Even the daytime scenes seem bereft of life-giving sunlight, remaining in near perpetual semi-darkness. And yet, The Batman isn’t as bleak as the grim-dark setting or the Riddler’s actions suggest. Bleak initially, yes, but Reeves puts the Caped Crusader on a path, if not toward redemption, then to a broader understanding of his vocation and mission. It takes a while for The Batman to get there, though. Once it does, there’s some measure of hope or at least the promise of hope, leaving Batman, along with the audience, with a broader, more altruistic, more empathetic vision of his mission as a costumed crimefighter.
The Batman opens theatrically on Friday, March 4th.