Director Matt Reeves’ The Batman does not play out like a traditional superhero movie. It does not pay homage to or mimic the tropes of the many Marvel superhero action movies that have flooded the movie market in the past decade. Indeed, most of the classic Batman franchise trappings: the Batmobile, the gadgets, the butler, and the villains are all completely reimagined, recreated to fit this film’s interpretation of the character.
This is a deliberate choice on the part of Reeves and company, who are inspired by the colorful, gritty, and emotionally full films of the New Hollywood era of the 1960s and 1970s. Watching and listening closely, you can find musical and visual callbacks to classics like The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Chinatown, and The French Connection. These are all movies that feature tortured, angsty protagonists, a dark, rainy atmosphere lit only by the neon lights of city diners, a cold, wintery feeling, and more than anything else, emotional depth.
The Batman is a dark film, in both the literal and figurative sense. In the literal sense, the shots in the movie lacked so much light that so often I found myself squinting in the theater to figure out what was even going on. In the figurative sense, though, the film focuses on the dark mind of Batman himself: Bruce Wayne, portrayed in a groundbreaking way by Twilight star Robert Pattinson.
This movie asks the question, “What kind of a man would actually spend money on a superhero costume to beat up petty criminals in the middle of the night?” and answers it in the bleakest terms. Bruce Wayne in this film is less like the suave playboy of previous Batman incarnations: he is like a cross between Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver and Michael Corleone of The Godfather. He does what he does because he is a broken man, an insomniac who lost his parents and wants nothing more than for a heavy rain to come down and wash all the filth off of the streets of Gotham. Bruce Wayne is still learning his role as Batman, he is still figuring out how to make the right moves, and he neglects every aspect of his life that doesn’t have to do with being a superhero.
He’s also begun to inspire people. A mysterious man who calls himself the Riddler has begun to murder prominent city politicians and expose their corruption, leaving behind clues for Batman, who the Riddler thinks will be proud to see corrupt politicians getting what they deserve. This Riddler isn’t anything like the manic, green-suit wearing Jim Carrey of the 1990s, he is instead inspired by dark crime villains like Seven’s John Doe, and the real life Zodiac Killer. His costume is even reminiscent of the disguise that the Zodiac killer was alleged to have worn during his killing spree. He’s portrayed by Paul Dano, an actor with a fantastic range, who in the past has portrayed everything from a neurotic preacher in There Will Be Blood to Beach Boys lead singer Brian Wilson in Love and Mercy. In this film, he gives a performance so disturbing that I found myself reeling back in my seat.
In his pursuit of the Riddler, Batman meets Catwoman, who he watches covertly as she puts on her costume. You can tell that he’s excited to meet another weirdo like him. Catwoman is portrayed by Zoe Kravitz, who gives a kind of performance that is rarely seen in movies anymore: she’s got a feminine energy you would expect to see in a 1940s or 50s noir beside Humphrey Bogart. Her chemistry with Pattinson is unmatched.
Along with Catwoman, Batman runs into The Penguin, who is portrayed by an unrecognizable Colin Firth. There is a car chase between Batman and the Penguin that is unlike anything that has been shown in cinemas since the peak muscle car-era of the 1960s.
When the film reaches its climax, it actually has emotional depth. We as viewers have explored Gotham City enough that we actually cringe when it is destroyed, and when people we don’t know who live there are hurt. We cheer for Batman when he crashes through the ceiling to beat up the bad guys, and grow wide-eyed with terror when he goes too far.
The only minor criticisms this film deserves are its length, which does not have to be three hours. There is a beautiful shot of Batman near the end of the movie leading a group of people to safety, lit by only the red light of a flare that the movie could have easily ended on, but the film instead decides to tack on an extra unnecessary ten minutes to tie up loose ends that could have been left to the inevitable sequel. In addition, while homages are fun, there are some scenes inside of the Riddler’s apartment that astute filmgoers will notice to have been practically stolen from a previous crime drama.
There’s also the issue of how jarringly topical the movie is, which will be unnatural for some viewers and refreshing for others. For example, in the movie, the Riddler is a streamer who talks about his dastardly plans to hundreds of viewers live on the internet. There’s also a line of dialogue spoken by Catwoman halfway through the movie that has been praised by some and derided by others as being too racially charged for them to enjoy. All in all, what legendary director Martin Scorsese (whose work inspired 2019’s Joker) said of superhero movies, that they are like cheap amusement park rides, does not apply to this movie. The Batman is not dime-a-dozen entertainment, it is a real cinematic experience with real emotional depth, and people who value the experience of shutting off the rest of the world, sitting down in a dark room with a bag of popcorn and experiencing a story would be wise to see it.