I’m not good at riddles, but I love a play on words. Is “The Batman” good? – Yes, yes it is. And yes HE is. The movie was well done and the character of the Batman has come back to his heroic roots and origins as a detective.
It feels strange that I need to type that out, but with the Snyderverse Batman having been branding and killing criminals without a second thought and directly using Frank Miller as an inspiration, (specifically, “The Dark Knight Returns”), it’s actually been a while since we’ve seen a more canon comic-accurate Batman. Matt Reeves’ take on the character isn’t 100% accurate to the canon comics, but it goes back to the right roots: The Batman is ‘good’ again; ironically, I can say that, “The Dark Knight”, (with an emphasis on “Knight”) has finally returned, and it’s a pleasure to have this Batman come out from under Miller and the Snyderverse’s shadow.
I know that seems a strange place to start a movie review, but this is a Batman movie that isn’t going to be for everyone. It’s dark due to having a scary set of villains doing some really evil deeds. The upshot is that our hero is here to stop them, not join them, and this Batman certainly does not act in such a way as to make us question if he is as bad as the villains he chases.
I have to mention this because Frank Miller’s most famous Batman story was an out-of-continuity, (and in many ways, out-of-character) story about Batman that hit the post-modern nose on the head in 1987. Ever since that came out, when people ask, “what’s a good Batman story to read?” the answer most people tell them is, “The Dark Knight Returns”. This has ended up having tragic results for Batman films because Miller’s work is a dark opposite of what makes canon Batman so fantastic. Batman V. Superman has Miller’s influences all over it, and Miller’s work doesn’t make for a Batman who is heroic or a foundational character to build anything off of. It’s a deconstruction in the truest sense, and savvier writers like Christopher Nolan wisely avoided much of that material, though the recent “Snyderverse” was laden with it; that part of why I think the Snyderverse of DC floundered so hard: we weren’t really watching heroes, because the writers of the film didn’t believe in heroism. That is the influence of Frank Miller and post-modern deconstruction.
Which brings us to, “The Batman”; I really enjoyed this film because instead of using Frank Miller’s work as a base inspiration, it gravitates more towards the Denny O’Neil era in terms of Batman’s characterization and stories: he’s a DETECTIVE. And the journey of the film is transitioning from the Caped Crusader of vengeance to the Dark Knight, (emphasis on KNIGHT) who is the champion of Gotham.
Other films capitalized on Batman’s plethora of fighting skills, training, and larger than life mystique. Yes, Batman is a martial arts master and scientist, but primarily, he was originally designed to be Sherlock Holmes in a cape. This tones down the larger-than-life aspect of the character; if you’ve seen the meme that ‘all Batman needs is prep time’, well, I have good news for you: this isn’t that Batman! This is Original Recipe Batman, very much in the vein of O’Neil’s revival.
Denny O’Neil, for those who don’t know, is the person who brought Batman back to his darker, detective-based roots and revived the character of The Joker who had been lost in camp for about two decades during the ‘camp’ era of the Comics Code Authority. Denny oversaw many stories as the writer and editor of Batman and Detective Comics, presiding over some of the most intense eras of Batman stories I ever read. He was also the editor on “The Dark Knight Returns”, which is part of why that work was good due to his reigning in of the writer. Frank Miller without an editorial leash with that same version of Batman was seen in, “All-Star Batman and Robin”. In that storyline, Batman is a full-on psychopath, kidnapping Dick Grayson and forcing him to eat rats in the Batcave, and being sexually aroused by beating on criminals. The phrase, “I’m the God damn Batman!” comes from ASBAR, and not in a good way; it was like a crazy man declaring how proud he is of being crazy. So much of why “The Dark Knight Returns” tends to be popular is, (in my opinion), because of Denny O’Neil’s understanding of what heroism is, what Batman is supposed to be about, and his efforts to make Miller either tone down or rework parts of the story so that the Bruce Wayne presented had at least some heroic shades of the canon version.
The Batman isn’t a perfect translation of the Denny O’Neil’s work on Batman, but it’s the first time I sat through a movie actually feeling like I was reading the comics again and watching Batman peel back the layers of a mystery.
I can’t express how awesome and amazing that felt! That was a huge part of the fun as a kid reading Batman stories; each issue was another piece of the puzzle bringing Batman closer to confronting the villain for a final time and hopefully, stopping their maniacal plans. That, without any spoilers, is the plot of “The Batman”. In a very Denny O’Neil way, the movie is about working the case piece by piece as it is presented. The movie’s run time is just a few minutes under three hours, but I’m grateful they didn’t try cutting this film any more than they probably already did.
And Batman’s not alone; Jim Gordon, Alfred Pennyworth, and Selina Kyle are all contributing to solving the case as well. In true detective story fashion, and a hallmark back to the O’Neil comics, Batman is the smartest guy in the room on a good day, but he is just a man. He can’t be everywhere at once, and just like in the comics, relies on partnerships to achieve his goals. His enemies are smart and capable, so the tension in the story comes from matching wits and wondering just how Batman can get ahead of his enemies. No other movie captured Batman on the hunt like this one has, which is why it really stands out from all the other films!
Good mysteries and detective stories have to build momentum. Everything in the film is geared towards that purpose. Even The Batman’s theme in this film is a slow-moving build that eventually crescendos with a powerful two measure theme that has the feel of a slow march. It’s the same music from the trailer, which was just as powerful in the film as it was there.
On a quick sidenote, that made me pleased as punch that the excellent trailer music for The Batman actually was from the soundtrack of the movie and the actual music in the scene! That’s the kind of confidence this movie has in itself and is one of the reasons the movie is so damn good! It’s also great to finally see a movie where everything wasn’t spoiled in the trailer!
Visually, the movie borrows a lot from movies like Seven; Gotham has gritty and nasty interiors, dark streets and lots of shadows. High society has a gothic feel and an opulent level of wealth. Even nightclubs are underground and hidden behind a veneer of decay. The look of the film is then tied to the costume design choices and cinematography which has a surprising result: Batman looks very much like a man in a cape in a city and world that is much larger than himself. He looks very human, very mortal, and not very intimidating.
And that’s part of the magic; almost every criminal who sees him in the film for the first time realizes that everything they’ve heard about The Batman really just boils down to a very human looking man in a caped costume. This is in stark contrast to every other Batman film I can think of, where a lot of the movie and the in-universe character’s time is spent trying to do the opposite: they try to make Batman look like more than a man in costume. “The Batman” goes the other way, with spectacular results. A villain might scoff at seeing Batman for the first time, but then Batman’s fists go flying, and he literally walks straight through gunfire and goons like an unstoppable force.
It’s not 100% comic-accurate, but I think it’s a fantastic way to play within the spirit of the character, because it helps flip the mythos building of Batman. Here, everyone knows he’s just a man and sees that it’s just a man; but his legend is growing because he appears to be an unkillable one. What they see him do is so far beyond normal that even though they know he is just a man, he has grown into something much more in their eyes. It’s really fun to watch this happen in the film, as people who scoffed at a man in a cape are won over by his dedication, self-sacrifice, capabilities, and heroism.
Speaking of which, I deeply appreciated that this film tries approaches Batman’s classic morals: he doesn’t kill, he doesn’t use guns, and he works hand-in-hand with the police. At the end of the day, this is a journey to find a way to inspire hope in the citizens of Gotham, which is a town without morals or hope.
After the Zack Snyder’s brutally dark Batman in his films and his personal insistence that fans are morons for liking a Batman that doesn’t kill, it was great to see a classic Batman on screen again. He’s dark enough to wear a mask and beat criminals with his fists, but he’s not casually murdering goons in the name of justice or vengeance. This Batman knows all too well how tragic the loss of life is on both the victims and the survivors. I can’t say much more than this, but I appreciate seeing a Batman on screen who may not be a perfect person but can hold the moral high ground against just about everyone else.
Speaking of seeing a good Batman on screen, I have to give a nod to Pattinson’s head, which is the perfect shape for the molded cowl the costumer made. Pattinson in that costume looks great as Batman, which is a huge plus, since he’s in that costume most of the film. The costume design, fight choreography, and fight sound effects borrow a lot from Marvel’s Daredevil, but it’s in a good way. The fights are fantastic, and now, they’re also in a wide enough shot that we can see the action as it happens. It makes Batman look all too mortal in a harsh world and makes him that much more intimidating and heroic when he puts everything on the line.
I did have some issues with the film, but they’re mostly minor. I don’t think any of the cast really stands out as being a well-performed version of the character they are playing. Pattinson isn’t the best Batman, Kravitz isn’t the best Catwoman, etc. etc. They’re also not the worst versions of the characters, either, but I don’t think anyone is coming out of the film with the awe we had for Heath Ledger’s Joker. None of the actors are bad, but none of the actors are great, either. And that’s actually okay, because…
…what works is that the film’s story is the main driving force of the film, and the story is quite good. It’s methodical, well-paced, and full of some fun surprises. It’s a script that was good enough that as long as the actors showed up and said their lines with even a minimum effort, the movie was going to be good. As it is, it’s very good. But it’s not perfect. The characters don’t have a ton of chemistry between each other, but it’s enough to keep the ride going. And since none of the actors really stand out as extremely good or bad, the whole cast more or less just gels: we accept the part they are playing and then forget about it as we ponder the angles of the mystery they are tackling.
The real magic of the film is how all the pieces come together and make something stronger than any individual piece. Taken as a whole, the script, the acting, the direction, the art design, the costuming, the fight choreography, the music, and the pacing make for a very solid and confident film! It takes inspiration from several sources but has a clear vision of what it wants to be and goes for it.
The only thing that does cause some speed bumps in the story are the social commentary elements; I can’t go too far into it without spoiling parts of the film, but the lines stick out when characters talk about how white rich people are the problem, systems are corrupt and bad, and the only way to have a better tomorrow is to burn everything down and start over. I find these statements deeply ironic when they are found within a script, setting, and world that has been completely devised to make the complaint a reality. The production race swapped Jim Gordon and Selina Kyle from being white to black, and so it’s clear that the same production and script could have done the same for the villains… but didn’t. A nearly all-white ensemble was cast as the people in charge of Gotham, and then shown as corrupt to make the point that rich white people are the problem in the film. Having a writer comment about how crappy something is through the voice of a character within the same universe they are writing feels contrived and preachy. Thankfully, it’s pretty sparse in terms of overt dialogue, but because most of the movie treats the audience in an intelligent fashion, the moments where the commentary comes out feels forced. Aside from that though, most of the script simply follows the characters and the action, allowing the audience to form their own opinion on what is being presented, and sticking to the universal battle between good and evil.
To close this out, let me say again: this isn’t a Batman film for everyone; in fact, kids should probably avoid it and adults with short attention spans might have most of the film go over their heads.
But for fans of the character or of mystery thrillers, and even action movie goers will likely enjoy the film as much as I did. And if you’re a fan of Batman being a detective or the Denny O’Neil era of Batman, then you’re in a for a treat. The movie doesn’t copy the comics point for point, but it definitely embraces much of the spirit of the O’Neil era.
Batman is a detective. He’s a dark knight with an emphasis on “knight” not “dark”. He’s an imperfect character fighting against talented villains in a city where he is outnumbered, and only has a few allies and his wits to try to save the day with. It’s a classic hero tale that I don’t want to spoil, but needless to say, it was a great three hours!