“The Batman”, 2022, directed by Matt Reeves — 3.5/5 Stars
2019 saw the release of Todd Phillips’ “Joker,” a bleak, tiresome story that borrowed heavily from Martin Scorsese and tried excessively hard to push the envelope of what a movie based on a comic book could be. While it was largely received well by general audiences, there was a hollow desperateness to Phillips’ methods, as well as a certain disdain for the film’s eclectic, farcical source material. With 2022’s “The Batman,” Matt Reeves’ approach to the city of Gotham is not dissimilar to Phillips’, but where “Joker” stumbled, “The Batman” flourishes, finding the balance between auteuristic craft and the genuinely fun storytelling that makes the comic book genre work. This new take on the caped crusader borrows heavily from gory procedural mysteries like David Fincher’s “Se7en” and “Zodiac,” but instead of replacing the inherently silly antics that define superheroes with naturalistic grime, it miraculously combines the two, creating something that isn’t necessarily innovative, but feels like a breath of fresh air in a genre that has recently been defined by ugly, soulless products like “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”
Rather than rehashing the the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents for the nth time, Robert Pattinson’s Batman instead begins his story several years into his vigilantism, already decked out in high-tech gear and a nice thick coat of black eyeliner. The opening scene is straight out of a contemporary horror flick; Gotham’s mayor is brutally murdered in his own home, and the killer — who’s later revealed to be Paul Dano’s delightfully scary and surprisingly funny version of The Riddler — leaves behind a cryptic message. Batman meets Police Commissioner Gordon — a personable Jeffery Wright — at the scene of the crime. This sets the two on a wild goose chase across the city, on which they encounter Zoë Kravitz’s bewitching Catwoman, Colin Farrell’s joyously hammy take on The Penguin and a slew of dark secrets surrounding the corruption and deceit in Gotham’s government. The script certainly drags at times, with the film clocking in at almost exactly three hours, but Batman as a character is given a refreshingly satisfying arc, and some stunningly shot action sequences help tie it all together.
The core cast is absolutely stellar; Pattinson is a brooding, confused orphan as Bruce Wayne and an intimidating force of nature as Batman, and the rest hold their own as well, but what really makes “The Batman” stand out from its contemporaries is Greig Fraser’s beautiful cinematography and Michael Giacchino’s haunting score. The film is truly incredible to look at, characterizing itself with bright oranges and reds contrasted with deep blacks. Fraser uses ultra-wide anamorphic lenses that give every scene a hazy, floaty feeling that complements the grimy, unnerving production design of Gotham. Giacchino’s score, and especially the main theme, is booming and monotonous, almost akin to a funeral march, giving every Batman entrance a hugely satisfying and dramatic impact. These two elements are at their height in a massively entertaining and well-crafted car chase in the second act that culminates in a beautiful shot of Batman’s upside-down silhouette walking away from a massive plume of flames. The colors are crisp and distinct, and the booming brass makes the Dark Knight a thrillingly imposing presence in the frame.
The film’s biggest flaw, aside from its bloated runtime, is its political messaging, or lack thereof. It certainly feels as though it’s trying to say something, but it’s not exactly clear what. The Riddler clearly resembles members of violent alt-right online factions, but his motives are more left-leaning. The film seems to indict police as an institution, exposing a dark underbelly of corruption that surely resembles many real-life law enforcement agencies, but one scene in particular seems to proclaim that these problems aren’t systemic, but rather specific to Gotham’s especially seedy crime-ridden systems. The movie postures frequently, but ultimately makes no coherent statement about real-life social issues. If that can be ignored, though, the entire experience is thoroughly entertaining and excellently constructed.
It’s hard to say that “The Batman” is a turning point for superhero cinema — the formula that Disney and Marvel have honed has become far too profitable to be overtaken any time soon — but it’s a major step in right direction. There are things to be learned both from the illustrative stories of the genre’s source material and from real filmmakers like Scorsese and Fincher, and the crew of “The Batman” found that ideal mixture, not just one that’s profitable, but one that involves care and attention and an artistic process. It’s far from a masterpiece; it’s overlong, thematically muddy, and sometimes poorly paced, but “The Batman” is absolutely worth seeing in a real movie theater. “The Batman” is in theaters right now.