What makes a good Batman film?
The superhero’s mythos is so deeply embedded in pop culture that discussions around what a faithful adaptation looks like inspires a unique fervor. You can debate minute and crucial details for hours, but it isn’t what matters most. The central challenge for any aspiring Batman filmmaker is to strike the core of why the Caped Crusader is one of the compelling and enduring symbols of heroism we have.
For Matt Reeves’ The Batman, the core lies in the character’s oft-forgotten title: “The World’s Greatest Detective.” Bruce Wayne, played by Robert Pattinson, is two years into his late-night crusade against Gotham’s seedy underbelly. He’s formed an uneasy alliance with the Gotham PD, with Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) as the floodlight-opening liaison. The two men work together to stop the mysterious Riddler’s (Paul Dano) mission to expose the city’s corrupted elite by killing them in elaborate fashions. Batman’s investigation leads through a complex network of secret alliances and criminal enterprises, putting him in contact with familiar figures, including The Penguin (Colin Farrell) and Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), better known as Catwoman.
The Batman feels like a return to basics. Rather than hand-walk us down the beaten path of Bruce’s origins, Reeves drops us into a rarely-seen transitional period. Bruce is experienced enough to be a known quantity, but he is still green. He makes easy mistakes, and the depravity he encounters rattles him. His brutal approach to renewing Gotham is less about helping people and more about taking his father’s mission to its logical extreme. Cops and criminals regard him as a costumed freak or space oddity as he stalks through crime scenes and leery clubs. Even his trusted guardian Alfred (Andy Serkis) has latent hopes that Bruce will reclaim his Wayne birthright instead of being a wealthy hermit.
Reeves leans into that tension to craft one of the best Batman stories ever filmed, a fascinating arc where Bruce proves his worthiness as a hero to Gotham and himself. The Batman takes on the structure of a detective pulp novel, a grappler hook replacing a smoking pipe. Bruce’s superior intellect is on full display as he observes, deduces, and deciphers circles around Gotham PD’s investigative units. Every Batman element that Reeves embraces – his tactile fighting abilities, high-tech gadgets, and imposing presence – is in service to his brilliance. Even when Bruce misses or misinterprets clues, he’s working to improve.
Bruce is an agile thinker, but his parents’ brutal murder has stunted his life without the cape. The Batman barely regards the Bruce Wayne persona; Reeves all but excises the “billionaire playboy” conceit. The costumeless Bruce is a slouched, matted-haired, sallow shell. Batman is who he is, and “he is vengeance.” His dour disposition cuts an intimidating figure, but it isn’t psychologically healthy or conducive to being the hero Gotham needs. His journey is as much about discovering his humanity as realizing his heroic potential. The Batman transforms Bruce into someone who can harness their inner darkness for good, while still finding space for friendship, collaboration, and even desire.
The rich character development doesn’t hold back The Batman from being the energetic blockbuster spectacle you’d expect. Reeves lays out a sumptuous feast for the senses, loading you with immersive sound, spectacular visuals, and weighty action sequences until you bowl over. The car chase between The Penguin and Batman is one of the best superhero film sequences, period. Reeves’ Gotham is gritty and grim, but he finds glimmers of redemption, aesthetically through the stunning, Art Deco-inspired production design, and tonally. (While not quippy, The Batman deploys a sense of humor, dark as it may be.) The film is a stark departure from the Nolan and Snyder eras’ indulgent muscularity and Marvel’s dizzying, CGI-heavy weightlessness. It moves with a limber, sensual grace that still feels tangible. Intent and consequence sizzle in nearly every scene and sequence. It is so well-paced and engaging that you can forgive the punishing runtime.
Of course, you can’t talk Batman without discussing the man beneath the cowl. Simply put, Robert Pattinson is remarkable. His extraordinary physicality conveys menace with every measured, hefty step. Even more impactful are his eyes, especially in costume. Pattinson communicates Bruce’s entire character arc through his steely, focused gaze, letting it slip and crack enough to convey a man in evolution. His chemistry with his co-stars is also critical. Jeffrey Wright is an excellent Jim Gordon, and he and Pattinson’s weary but solid camaraderie is an unexpected source of fun. Zoë Kravitz is an astonishing Catwoman, carrying her ferocity and vulnerability with lithe, sharp energy. The sparks that fly between her and Pattinson could power Gotham’s energy grid for two years (which is hopefully the length we have to wait to see them again).
The Batman isn’t flawless. Most notably, the villains’ potency feels diluted, either because there are too many or they’re not as developed as Batman. However, that might be the point. The film isn’t about the dichotomy of heroism and villainy, or the dangers of superheroes to society, or the deep annals of big-city corruption. It isn’t beholden to inter-connected universes or crossovers or notions of how a superhero film should look or feel. The film is about Batman and his ongoing healing, self-actualization, and heroism on his terms. Reeves subtly rejects the cynicism that has defined the character in favor of something human, hopeful, even compassionate towards a character aching for it.
The Batman is more than a sterling example of a Batman film. It is one of the most well-rounded film portrayals of a superhero we’ve ever seen.