There is a moment very early on in Matt Reeves’ The Batman that is hard to forget. Near the end of the film’s opening sequence, the audience is shown one character standing in the center of the frame, looking past the camera. The room around him is dark and quiet, lit only by the dim light of its sole TV. After a few moments, the man moves to the side, leaving the frame and revealing The Riddler (Paul Dano) for the first time.
The Gotham City serial killer stands in precisely the same place as the scene’s other character but remains totally still and silent. The camera, likewise, does not move. Instead, it stays locked in the same place, allowing your eyes to make out The Riddler’s shape and form in the space where his scene partner once stood. The Riddler’s silence and gaze let you know what he plans to do to the other man in the room, but it’s the way the film visually reveals the villain that sends chills down your spine.
The moment is startlingly effective in its simplicity. The shot does not require complicated camera movements, flashy lighting techniques, or overt CGI effects. Instead, its power comes simply from the placement of the camera and the staging of the actors within the frame. It is careful, patient, and precise in its execution, and the innocuousness of the scene’s visual construction makes you all the more unprepared for The Riddler’s silent, bone-chilling first appearance.
It’s the kind of moment that not only tells you exactly how well-crafted of a film The Batman is but also reveals one of the biggest things that’s often missing from most other modern superhero movies: directorial intent.
For years now, people have said the superhero genre is filled with too many movies that look “bad” and “uninteresting.” However, the real problem with modern superhero movies is that, for all their strengths and charms, they look like the same people directed them even when they weren’t. To be clear: That is not a knock against those films’ directors, but a criticism of how so many superhero movies are now made.
The issue with many Marvel films, for instance, is that they often look like they were put together in the easiest ways possible so that they could be finished quickly and the studio’s Atlanta backlots could be freed up for its next projects. That doesn’t necessarily mean every MCU movie looks “bad,” but many of them do look overly familiar because they rely on the same shortcuts Marvel always uses to ensure it can release three movies per year.
It’s a process that resembles an assembly line more than anything else, and while it may be efficient, it erases an artist’s imprint. To make matters worse, the process also forces its participants to resort to the kind of get-it-done-however-you-can methods most network TV shows have to adopt in order to deliver 22-episode seasons within the span of a few short months.
Now, it’s worth noting that there are filmmakers who have managed to make their mark in franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Chloé Zhao, Ryan Coogler, and James Gunn are all directors who have made MCU movies that feel like they have their own points of view. To its credit, Warner Bros. has also been considerably better about letting directors bring their stamp to their comic book films. That said, ask any Zack Snyder fan, and it’ll be clear that even Warner Bros. is capable of prioritizing its properties over its filmmakers.
But few directors have been given quite the same level of freedom and trust while making a superhero movie that Matt Reeves had with The Batman. After being chosen back in early 2017 to direct the film, Reeves was given two years to work on The Batman’s script before casting began, and filming didn’t even start until January 2020. Supplied with ample time, Reeves was able to bring the film’s story to a place that he was happy with and refine his vision for The Batman.
Whether you enjoy it or not, the resulting film feels like it was handmade by someone with a very distinct point of view.
The Inverse Analysis — When he was promoting the first season of Barry, Bill Hader did an interview with Collider. Hader revealed he was told he wouldn’t finish the show on time if every episode were shot the way he wanted them to be (i.e., with just one camera). Hader was nervous about shooting the show with multiple cameras because there’s a “difference between covering a scene and shooting a scene,” and he didn’t want to just “cover it.”
“I just wanted to shoot it in a way that if it was on mute, you could understand people’s relationships to each other through the angles,” Hader said. He added that he was only convinced to do it the way the show’s producers wanted after his director of photography told him. “I can figure out a way to put a second camera someplace that looks like a shot you would want.”
That essentially meant that another camera could still get a shot that looked “planned” as opposed to something Hader and co. had just grabbed to stay on schedule.
That’s a story that feels important when discussing a film like The Batman. Whether it’s how he chooses to reveal The Riddler or how he opens the movie through its central killer’s POV, Matt Reeves fills The Batman with shots and cuts that feel planned out and intentional.
That’s the thing that makes The Batman a rarity in an overcrowded genre. It’s not just that the film is one of the most visually pleasing comic book movies ever made, but also there is clear intent behind every composition, cut, and lighting choice we’re shown.
In a time when so many blockbusters look like they are constructed out of images that feel, as Hader would say, grabbed rather than planned, The Batman is a breath of fresh air.
The Batman is now playing in theaters.