When a character like Batman has already been brought to life multiple times onscreen, how do you find new things to say about him? That’s the question that every filmmaker who decides to introduce their own version of the Caped Crusader has to ask themself. What can they do to make their Batman movie fresh, rather than stale and overly familiar?
For The Batman director Matt Reeves, the solution to that problem was two-fold. He would, for starters, make the first Batman movie that feels like an actual detective thriller. On top of that, he’d make a movie that explores Bruce Wayne’s scarred psyche more deeply than any other that has come before it. The resulting film is not only one of the most visually stunning comic book movies in history but also the most atmospheric and contemplative Batman movie ever made.
The Batman’s visual and narrative accomplishments are apparent from the moment it begins to the moment it ends, which means one need only watch it once to understand just how impressive it is. Fortunately, it’s streaming now on Netflix.
Written by Matt Reeves and Peter Craig, The Batman picks up with Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) two years into his mission to clean up the streets of Gotham City. One spooky Halloween night, his usual routine is upended when Gotham City’s mayor is killed by The Riddler (Paul Dano), a new serial killer who gets a kick out of leaving clues and hidden messages behind at his crime scenes. As The Riddler’s number of victims grows and his proclamations about revealing the true source of Gotham’s corruption turn the city further upside down, Bruce begins to question his own family’s legacy, as well as his chosen, vigilante methods of justice.
Throughout the film, he crosses paths with several high-profile anti-heroes and villains, including Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz), Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), and Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin (Colin Farrell). Despite the number of noteworthy comic book characters featured in The Batman, the film doesn’t feel like a procession of cameos and Easter eggs. Instead, Craig and Reeves’ screenplay threads the needle perfectly so that the Gotham it introduces doesn’t feel like a vessel for comic book references. Instead, it’s a fleshed-out city populated by characters who are each already in the midst of their own journeys by the time The Batman begins.
It doesn’t hurt that the film also presents the most visually astonishing live-action version of Gotham City since 1989’s Batman. Reeves and co. chose to blend real-life skylines and locations from multiple cities for their take on the iconic comic book location — combining metropolitan elements from Chicago and New York with the kind of gothic architecture present in London and Glasgow. The overall effect is undeniably impressive. Gotham looks more realistic and eerie than it ever has before in The Batman, and thanks to Greig Fraser’s purposefully subjective cinematography, it’s often rendered through the eyes of Pattinson’s Bruce as a place that contains both shocking horror and unparalleled beauty.
Reeves and Fraser fill The Batman with images that feel meticulously well-lit and composed. The film’s script, meanwhile, allows Bruce’s investigation into The Riddler to unfold at a slow-burn pace that alternately evokes excitement, curiosity, and dread. For as well-crafted as The Batman is, though, the film would be nothing without Robert Pattinson’s central performance as Bruce Wayne. Despite being surrounded by scene-stealing supporting turns from Kravitz, Farrell, and Dano, it’s ultimately Pattinson who makes the biggest impression in The Batman.
The film’s first act establishes Bruce’s routine as one of unflinching brutality and darkness. When he isn’t beating criminals to a pulp at night, he’s journaling about his adventures and rewatching recordings of his often violent encounters. He has no life outside of Batman, and the film quickly establishes that his quest to free Gotham of its criminal corruption is really just a way for him to lash out at the city that took his parents from him.
Pattinson, for his part, beautifully embodies that aspect of the character. He doesn’t play Bruce Wayne as a suave billionaire playboy but as an angry, wounded young man stuck in painful arrested development. Every step he takes feels slow and stilted and the mere act of speaking seems to require more effort than it should. Pattinson’s Bruce has been so swallowed up by the deaths of his parents that he’s incapable, at first, of seeing anything but the violence of the city around him.
His responses to Gotham’s corrupt state are passionate but short-sighted, and what makes The Batman such a genuinely compelling addition to the Batman canon is how it makes its hero realize that vengeance alone isn’t enough to save anybody. No movie explores the purpose and pain of the Caped Crusader quite as thoroughly or beautifully.