It’s weird to say that the best strength of a blockbuster is that it doesn’t do anything new but that’s the case with Matt Reeves’ The Batman. We’ve had years of a dark, gritty Batman in works ranging from The Dark Knight trilogy to the animated series. Reeves doesn’t do anything more than pick up the baton and give us another version. But as with all good films, the key to its success is in the subtle details.
The film begins two years into Batman’s (Robert Pattinson) war on crime. He’s already established a partnership with good cop Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright.) He has a reputation as a threat to criminals. He’s already fought at least one big threat. And he’s basically abandoned Bruce Wayne despite the urgings of father figure Alfred (Andy Serkis.) We’re thus flung deep into his story with no need for exposition. No, we don’t see the Waynes murdered again.
It’s into this world that a brutal serial killer who calls himself The Riddler (Paul Dano) begins killing the major figures in Gotham’s leadership starting with the mayor. True to his name, he leaves a series of riddles that draw Batman deeper into a conspiracy at the core of the city. It’s one that involves mob boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), his right-hand man Oz aka The Penguin (Colin Farrell), and bartender Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz). As the murders continue, the truth about the city becomes all too clear.
This is as I stress nothing new. A series of murders that form a puzzle? Classic trope for a Batman story. The idea that Gotham is a hotbed of corruption? Mined heavily by Christopher Nolan. The story is set at the end of the mob reign and the dawn of the gallery of colorful rogues, a concept straight from The Long Halloween which just received a fantastic two part animated film. Even a more psychotic, deadly Riddler owes its existence to Scott Snyder’s Zero Year.
But here’s the thing that rules. All of these are quality elements that are more than worthy of getting another round. A Batman film should respect the previous works and remix them. Otherwise, it’s not a Batman story. And director/co-writer Matt Reeves, as he did with his Planet of the Apes films, takes the very best from previous stories while making this his own thing.
The movie is a shockingly fast paced three hours that feels faster than some 75-minute comic book movies I’ve seen. Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig give us well-crafted mystery that uses action, suspense, and character beats in perfect harmony to create a story that genuinely wraps you up in its mystery. There have been occasional attempts to tell a Batman mystery on film but rarely have I felt that element dominate the way it does here. The riddles of the Riddler are the best I’ve ever seen.
The film is also fantastically acted. Robert Pattinson wisely draws on his work as Edward Cullen for Batman, playing up the creepy lurker in the shadows element of the character that might not have felt appropriate for a romantic lead but fits here. Kravitz is the best Catwoman we’ve had on screen yet, sleekly seductive and deliciously amoral. Wright brings a wonderfully caustic streak to Gordon. Dano is appropriately unhinged. But the real standouts for me had to be Turturro who is finally restrained after years of over the top work and an unrecognizable Farrell who makes an effective thug.
On a technical level, this is as much a triumph as any major blockbuster has been in the last 15 years. It’s phenomenally directed by Reeves who strongly evokes Cloverfield here. It looks great thanks to first rate cinematography by Grieg Fraser whose work sparkled on the large format screen I saw it on. Michael Giacchino does thrilling work, possibly his best theme for any franchise he’s scored yet and the best Batman theme after Elfman. The action is fantastic with lots of good fist fights and a supremely executed car chase.
What really makes this film pop for me is something I didn’t realize I needed until I watched it. This is a movie that stands alone. And it’s here that I have to confront a hard truth. I love the MCU, but it’s a lot of appetizers. Nothing wrong with that but you’re not really full on an individual experience, something the DCEU is guilty of too aside from Man of Steel and Zack Snyder’s Justice League and even those are stems for future work. This is just a Batman story that tells a specific moment in his life and when it’s over, we’ll probably see him again but it’s fine if we don’t. It’s a satisfying film.
It left me thinking very hard too about the issues with the assembly line filmmaking. How often have I seen a distinct voice on these films? Certainly directors liker Shane Black and James Gunn have left their imprints but these are often corporate films made by journeymen. I’m fine with that as a matinee but it does result in a substance light experience. It impressed me that I actually felt a pulse behind this film for once. Matt Reeves has shown with his output from Cloverfield on that he is one of our most distinctive mainstream filmmakers. This movie felt of a piece with that and if he can bring that to Batman then I don’t think it’s unfair to demand more from this genre.
The Batman is a film that captures why I love Batman. It’s a thrilling, fun movie that doesn’t forget the craft. It shows what the superhero film is at its best.