Batman historian Will Brooker said it best: “the defining characteristic of Gotham City must be that there is always crime”.
It’s a significant underpinning in Matt Reeves’ The Batman. Throughout its history in Batman movies, comic books, and cartoons, Gotham has ebbed and flowed through various representations, serving as the backdrop for criminality and Batman’s vigilantism. From the gothic-noir playground of Tim Burton to Christopher Nolan’s grounded take, their depiction of Gotham understands the underlying mechanisms behind the city and The Dark Knight’s necessity as a symbolic response as “the man who fights crime”. Reeves’ incarnation takes that ideology a step further.
Under Reeves’ stylistic direction, Gotham is analytically explored with no filters. It becomes a character – an ugly, sinful, crime-infested, rain-drenched city with Nirvana’s ‘Something in the Way’ running through its veins. No one is immune or innocent, including Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson). As a tribute to The Long Halloween, the lines between the cops and the mob are blurred in hypocrisy and power, thoroughly asking questions about the faith we place in leaders, elected officials and institutions. And with the city on the verge of collapsing, The Batman is a dark, chilling, and compelling interpretation of Batman and Gotham’s corrupt underbelly.
There’s an unmistakable cultural and social subtext that will spark conversations on extremist escalation (think of the January 6th insurrection), and in Paul Dano’s The Riddler, you have a Batman villain hell-bent on exposing Gotham’s deepest and darkest secrets. It begins with a brutal murder of a prominent mayor, Don Mitchell Jr. (Rupert Penry-Jones). Addressing the murders to Batman, it pulls the caped crusader into a dark and tangled mystery with consequential links to the Wayne family.
The Batman offers plenty to unpack from Reeves and Peter Craig’s script, functioning as a gritty, low-tech, noir film. The slow burn mystery wouldn’t look out of place in a 70s crime thriller, stripping the Batman mythology to its bare bones into a hunt for the Rogues’ Gallery equivalent of the Zodiac Killer (along with riddles and code-breaking cyphers). And what makes this special is how Reeves and Craig use this template to re-establish Batman as ‘The World’s Greatest Detective’.
For any Batman fan, this overlooked feature is a welcomed return. Bruce Wayne goes by many labels – a billionaire, a philanthropist, industrialist, and a playboy, to name a few. But rarely has his investigative prowess been acknowledged. In previous entries, it was treated as a subdued element, never fully embracing Bruce’s skill for crime-solving. But because The Batman strays away from the origin story beats, it provides Reeves ample freedom to showcase a quality rarely depicted on the big screen. It puts Batman in a powder keg, with no choice but to follow the breadcrumbs to solve The Riddler’s brutal puzzles before the death count increases.
Instrumental in bringing that realisation to life is the fantastic performance by Robert Pattinson, who more than enough justifies the casting and the directorial angle Reeves wanted to approach. Like James Bond, every actor who wears the cape and cowl has brought something different to the table. Pattinson is no exception.
Pattinson fully embraces Bruce’s inner turmoil, a man still working through his childhood trauma by refusing to let anyone go through the same tragedy. Knowing there are two sides to Bruce’s personality, there’s a stronger emphasis on Batman over his reclusive alter-ego, and the film’s defining appeal is how it psychologically steps inside his mind. He journals his experiences, referring to himself as a “nocturnal animal”. He records his encounters to learn, document and remember. This is a Batman in his vengeful infancy, and the wild excitement comes from Bruce utilising fear as a tool.
Whenever the Bat-signal is in the sky, Batman’s intimidating presence is felt. The camera points and lingers towards the shadows, giving small-time criminals no choice but to run. The criminals brave enough to stay, experience the wrath of Batman’s punishment. The film’s reward is a beautifully choreographed corridor fight scene where gunfire illuminates the screen. The other is Batman’s relentless (and superb) car chase after The Penguin (Colin Farrell). The combination between Greig Fraiser’s cinematography and Michael Giacchino’s score intensifies the energetic rage encased within the film.
But the most noteworthy satisfaction is watching a Batman who doesn’t have it all his own way. Except for Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) and Alfred Pennyworth (Andy Serkis), his allies are few, too early in his career to earn the trust from the city we’ve come to expect. Reeves does an exceptional job to place Batman out of his comfort zone, a fact boosted by its pitch-perfect casting.
Zoë Kravitz’s Selina Kyle provides a great counterbalance and on-screen chemistry to Pattinson’s Batman. Her navigation through the heart of Gotham’s underworld forces Batman to confront his naïve look at good and evil, calling out his privileges within an unequal reality. Rarely addressed in Batman’s cinematic appearances, the added social disparity charts new territory.
Dano’s sadistic, sinister, and off-kilter performance places him in a league of his own. Distinguishing himself away from The Riddler’s last on-screen performance in Batman Forever, the re-invention pits him as Batman’s opposite. If Gotham can birth ‘The Defender of Gotham’, it can produce twisted characters like The Riddler from the same darkened pits. It also cultivates his introverted personality as a social media and maniacal sycophant, utilising Dano’s natural ability to dial up the tension and subsequent creepiness.
There will be detractors. At nearly three hours long, The Batman is the longest Batman movie ever made, but Reeves crafts a measured and justified response. This is not your typical Batman story, far removed from the polished crime fighter we all know. He’s not the finished article; rough around the edges and a work in progress. This type of contextualisation makes it fascinating to think about what the future may hold for Robert Pattinson’s Batman in The Batman 2.
The Batman lays down a marker as one of the best films of the year, reminding audiences why Batman has endured for over 80 years since his first publication. Batman has adapted, re-shaped and re-defined his existence to be the symbol that Gotham needs. And the continued fascination with every version is how they’ve kept that spirit alive. Matt Reeves’s encapsulation ranks amongst the best.