'The Batman' is the Hardboiled Detective Story We've Never Had Before
We review Matt Reeves' brutally dark take on the Caped Crusader and discover a glorious reinvention.
Bruce Wayne is the World's Greatest Detective. That's what they say, but we've never really experienced this particular aspect in the numerous live-action interpretations. We've grazed against it, but the movie plots frequently swing toward action rather than mystery. Matt Reeves' The Batman gives us bouts of mayhem but mostly spends its nearly three-hour runtime drilling into Wayne's fragile psychology as he fails to stay ahead of The Riddler (Paul Dano). He's still not the world's greatest detective, but he's learning.
Robert Pattinson's Batman is early in his caped crusade. He's got the suit, the gadgets, and he's somehow established an uneasy alliance with the Gotham City Police Department. Or, at least, with Commissioner Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), who trusts him as a double set of eyes on his crime scenes while the other cops shift uncomfortably in their shoes. During a heated election year, the Riddler has beaten the Mayor to death in his home and left a message addressed to Bats. With it is the promise of more killings to come, and boy does this rogue deliver on that promise.
The Batman is an aggressively demented Batman movie. At times, maybe too much so. Dressed in a suit inspired by the real-life Zodiac serial killer, Riddler skulks along the fringes of the film, taunting the Dark Knight to learn from his targets. The bodies themselves are answers to a question Gotham stopped asking decades ago, and the villain's quest exposes faults in Bruce Wayne's mission. Cracks Batman is clearly pondering during the film's opening narration.
Narration! Yes, finally! Matt Reeves and Peter Craig's screenplay puts us inside Bruce Wayne's head in the same way the comics do every month. While the film opens with Batman smashing his way through muggers, looking as brutally badass as he's ever done, under the cowl, we hear Wayne struggling with his methods. Is he having a positive effect on the city? Is he preventing for others what happened to him as a child? Batman is early on his journey, but he already doubts his purpose. Matt Reeves uses the entire film to reeducate Bruce Wayne and the audience, to show how Batman should be so much more than a fist.
However, during this instruction is a bleak-ass tumble through a wretched city. Gotham is rupturing with corruption and on the verge of death due to an apathetic public. And you can't blame them; the city has betrayed its citizens at every given opportunity, making space for creatures like the Batman and the Riddler to emerge. Hope offers no value, so Gothamites ditched it. And we, their audience, suffer in their indifference.
Throughout The Batman were moments where I thought I could not take it anymore. As the Riddler builds toward his master plan, I felt my chest tightening. Heath Ledger's Joker was no Clown Prince comic book character, but Paul Dano's Riddler feels like some psychotic bottom-feeding atrocity I might eventually encounter on a Netflix documentary some late evening. There are sequences in The Batman I found hard to watch, where my fingers sought to protect my eyes from scary, scary stuff.
Dano is a nightmare walking. He attacks the character with the same gusto that Frank Gorshin did in the Adam West television series, trading maniacal comedy for very recognizable depravity. Reeves is a filmmaker who devilishly inserts social commentary into his films, and his Riddler represents a section of humanity plaguing our planet today. To say more would be to spoil, but you'll know it when you see it. And you'll feel real damn bad about it.
Driving The Batman's dread is Michael Giacchino's score. It's not as obviously superhero theme-y as past Batman scores, but it slowly tightens around your emotional experience. The music is a heartbeat, and depending on where you are along the narrative, it pumps violently, maybe even altering your body chemistry. When the Batmobile revs its catastrophically loud engines, aligning wickedly with Giacchino's white noise thrum, The Batman finds a momentary bliss-state. The film's single greatest action scene will have you doubting your pre-established Batmobile faves. This, this is the one, the hotrod.
Robert Pattinson cuts a mighty fine action figure. I want his toys on my shelf (make that as dirty as you want it to be). He doesn't spend too much time as Bruce Wayne in The Batman. It is called The Batman. His co-pilot is Gordon more than Alfred (Andy Serkis), but even when he's out of the cape and cowl, Pattinson doesn't behave dissimilarly to his vengeance persona. He and Reeves are not interested in having Christian Bale and Christopher Nolan's conversation on duality. The Batman is about the mantle and whether it should be worn at all.
Challenging Bruce Wayne is Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz). She's there to tell Batman to give into his wicked desires, that justice cannot be accomplished within Gotham's rotting system. Pattinson and Kravitz create a compelling dynamic, but their story never reaches above mild interest. She's a supporting player, standing next to the Penguin (Colin Farrell) and mob boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro). Everyone is excelling in their roles, but there is only one title character.
The Batman is as hardboiled noir as the story has ever come cinematically. We live in Bruce Wayne's head, and what we uncover there is tumultuous and uncertain. Batman is not the city's champion. Not yet. Its heroic hesitancy is discombobulating. We've known the character as a square-jawed defender for eighty-three years. Watching him fumble and evolve his goal as a Dark Knight is weird, and if Matt Reeves floundered the film's climax, I could hate this movie. But he doesn't. The bow is tied in the film's last moments, and the result is a mystifyingly stressful and dynamite Batman flick.
Quickie Review: The Batman is a staunchly bleak dip into a young Bruce Wayne's mindset. At times, the film feels antithetical to what we love about the character, but Matt Reeves uses every second of his nearly three-hour runtime to achieve a wonder and push Batman in a direction we so desperately need him to go in 2022. And, the new Batmobile is the Batmobile Steve McQueen would steer, a super-charged bullet. 9/10