There’s a moment in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight where a Batman wannabe yells at the caped crusader about what the difference is between them. Batman gives a one-liner: “I’m not wearing hockey pads.” It’s an interesting question that is sadly reduced to a punchline. Thankfully, this version of Batman by director and co-writer Matt Reeves place both Batman and Bruce Wayne more in the crosshairs of his own world. Rather than make him the unquestionable dark knight of Gotham’s crime world, his very nature comes into question with a very critical observation on Batman’s motives.
Robert Pattinson plays a Bruce Wayne that is currently in year two of his role as the Batman. It’s an apt choice to forego the whole origin story which by now most movie-going audiences know by heart. With Gotham still rampant with crime and corruption, Bruce struggles to adjust to his role as the fearful vigilante. He has already embraced the shadows but questions his role within them. His constant analysis of his actions leads to him being a burnt-out and morally questioning man.
Batman’s latest case involves a series of murders committed by the elusive Riddler (Paul Dano). His targets are politicians and members of the police force, making a nervous Lieutenant Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) unsure who on his force will be next and who he can trust. With a series of clues left behind, Batman finds himself unraveling a messy web of corruption and organized crime, hitting closer to home than he may realize.
The film is treated with the sternness I expected from Reeves in weaving a story that’s more of a serial killer thriller than a brooding superhero saga. There are shades of The Long Halloween and Mask of the Phantasm present for presenting a picture that’s more about being introspective of how to pursue justice rather than just figuring out the next clue or punching the next villain.
Whereas Batman always felt like an enigma of the movies, here he is front and center with his legacy and motives brought under heavy scrutiny by both himself, the police force, and the villain. And unlike most Batman movies, there’s not just a grim acceptance that he’ll be the hero we deserve.
The heavy focus on Batman does lead to a few characters being boiled down for more mystery and thematic relation. Andy Serkis is perfectly cast as Bruce’s butler Alfred but is mostly present for harboring his guilt about the Waynes and his quiet dissection of the boy who has gone astray. Zoë Kravitz steps into the role of Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman, as both the love interest of Batman and the darker side of being a vigilante he won’t cross. That may seem like a shame but after so many Batman movies where the hero is kept too far out of the magnifying glass, I’ll gladly take a simplified Catwoman of vengeance and a brief mention of her many cats.
There’s a laser-focus kept on the greater story about the sins of the father and the layered levels of corruption that brought about murder and chaos to Gotham. At the same time, there’s also plenty of room to let the intrigue build and the grimness simmer, slowly boiling with intensity. It’s why the film makes great use of Oswald “The Penguin” Cobblepot (Colin Farrell) more as a corrupted nightclub owner than some monster who wields umbrellas like weapons. He does get in a bit of a waddle if you need something more Penguiny, in case his shady dealings of the Iceberg Lounge weren’t enough.
I doubt I need to relay that the action is quite stellar. Batman gets in a handful of fierce fights, oftentimes losing himself in the carnage that he’ll keep punching long after the point he should have stopped. There’s a chaotic car-chase between the Penguin and Batman, fast behind the fleeing criminal in his turbo-charged Batmobile, looking more versatile than Batty.
I also gotta give it up to Michael Giacchino who delivers a score I wouldn’t expect. The new Batman theme composed of powerful piano notes really makes the film stand out and creates a vicious tone. At the same time, he also has some eerie tracks that feel reminiscent of Danny Elfman’s treatment of Batman, embracing some of the scarier and surreal aspects. It makes the many intimate scenes between Batman and Catwoman work all the better.
The Batman has just about everything I wanted out of a Batman movie with aspects I never thought I’d see for taking the character to another level. It was refreshing to find a Batman who realizes he needs to improve his tactics and finds a way to do so more through moral actions than better weapons and tech. It still has some rumblings of the Batman movies, specifically teasing other villains and ultimately resulting in another climax of Gotham City bound to explode.
I wish I could say the film was more just a serial killer story of political corruption and not another city-destroying plot. That being said, as far as Batman movies go where a villain wants to blow up Gotham City, this is perhaps one of the best for being the most introspective and intriguing, making the titular hero more than just the brooding bat who punches criminals a lot and plays hide-and-seek with Gordon.