It was originally going to be a Ben Affleck Batman movie. Shortly before the DC Extended Universe caved in on itself, director Matt Reeves was approached to helm a Batman film written by Affleck that would serve as a continuation of the Batman v. Superman (2016) storyline. It was described as a mystery that would match the wits of the World’s Greatest Detective with the villain Deathstroke, an assassin for hire played by Joe Manganiello and teased at the end of Justice League (2017). Reeves wasn’t interested. In numerous interviews, he recalls telling the studio that he would only do a Batman movie on his terms and outside of the cinematic universe Warner Bros. was desperately trying to salvage. Surprisingly, the studio liked the idea.
And it paid off. Taking the Tim Burton approach of “let’s just get into it,” we meet Reeves’ version of Batman during the second year of his caped crusade against crime and corruption in Gotham City. He spends the majority of his time beating the fear of God into low-level street criminals. And he’s pretty good at it. The top dogs from crime families and corrupt government officials are certainly on his radar, but he hasn’t really confronted them in any meaningful way just yet. That changes when members of the Gotham elite are murdered one by one by the serial-killing Riddler, forcing Batman out of the shadows to save the day.
Heavily inspired by classic Batman tales such as Year One, The Long Halloween, and the more recent Earth One, this is the first filmic iteration of Batman that has tried to truly adapt the specific tone and style of the comic books. There have been multiple, terrific cinematic takes on the character, but none have come close to matching the experience of what it’s like to read one of these books. With the exception of Year One, most Batman comics don’t spend a ton of time focusing on the steps Bruce Wayne took to become Batman — beyond that inciting tragedy, the oft-depicted death of his parents. This journey can be (and has been) interesting fodder for film, but by far the most entertaining aspect of the character is how good he is at his crime-fighting vigilante hobby. Batman is Sherlock Holmes and Zorro rolled into one. It’s not that important to know how Holmes became a great detective; the audience just wants to watch him detect. Like Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation, Batman has long been known for his talents as a crime-solver, but one doesn’t really get that impression from the hero’s previous films. If Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight movies (2005-12) looked to James Bond, this Batman takes a Chinatown (1974) approach, complete with femme fatale music cues, jaded voice-over narration, and a twisty conspiracy that goes all the way to the top. While Jake Gittes has to lie and sweet-talk his way into inaccessible places, Batman punches his way through, and it’s a whole lot of fun to watch.
One of the more surprising changes of pace from other superhero films (if you can even categorize Reeves’ feature as such) is how often Batman is on screen. In most movies featuring a title character who wears a mask, you can usually expect that character to actually only assume their secret identity for maybe a third of the film. In The Batman, the Caped Crusader is present for pretty much the whole thing. It’s easy to forget that Robert Pattinson is behind the mask, which is a testament to how well he plays Batman as a true alter ego. When it was first announced that Pattinson had signed on, the project became exponentially more interesting. It’s been a long time since Twilight and Harry Potter defined him as an actor, and he’s been involved in a number of fascinating productions, including the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time (2017) and Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse (2019). He has made a name for himself as a bold performer who does the Work, and The Batman is no exception. Pattinson’s take on the character is the best yet, but he also has the good fortune to be working with other top talent — namely, Zoë Kravitz, who slips into the role of Selina Kyle a.k.a. Catwoman. The chemistry they have with each other radiates off the screen, and every scene they share is a delight as they play their lively will-they-won’t-they side game of cat and mouse.
Tying everything together in a gigantic bow is Michael Giacchino’s score, the most likely element of the film to win an Oscar next year. Batman stories across all media typically build their musical foundation on the house that Danny Elfman built, and Giacchino’s score is no different (specifically with the Riddler’s theme) but he also expands on the tried-and-true gothic elements by mixing in several others. This is especially the case with the central Batman theme. There are several allusions to the Dark Knight being inspired by Clint Eastwood’s “The Man With No Name” from the Dollars trilogy (1964-66), and the score includes several nods towith jangling spurs and twangy guitars. However, the most conspicuous influence can be discerned in the building climax of the repeating four-note motif: John Williams’ “Imperial March” from The Empire Strikes Back (1980). It’s not an unexpected source, as Giacchino worked within this theme when he scored the Star Wars side prequel Rogue One (2016). Apart from their affinity for black masks and capes, both Bruce Wayne and Anakin Skywalker have tragic backstories that shattered their illusion of safety and control, turning them into monsters that force the world around them into something resembling order.
The most burning question everyone will be asking — Is this movie better than the Christopher Nolan films? — will be answered by countless think pieces and YouTube essays. However, the real answer is that it’s simply a matter of taste. Nolan’s and Reeves’ films focus on different elements of these iconic characters. Beyond their respective plots, the Dark Knight trilogy privileged the psychological complexity of its heroes and villains, whereas The Batman puts its emphasis on visual style and tone. They are aiming at different targets, but both interpretations are fun as hell. The Batman is also merely the first entry in what will certainly end up being a larger DC continuity. With a Colin Farrell Penguin series on the way, as well as a potential Arkham Asylum show, Warner Bros. has big, newly refreshed plans for this property. It will be interesting to see how Reeves and company can shake things up and further differentiate their stories from the cinematic interpretations of Batman that have come before. If one had to guess how they might accomplish such a feat, a good bet might be the one thing that no other Batman movie has been able to pull off: a Robin that makes sense.
The Batman is now playing theaters.