If the past twenty years of Hollywood has been defined by the ubiquity of the superhero film, there is perhaps no film more significant and transcendent than Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). While directors like Sam Raimi were able to execute a vision that incorporated their own stylings and idiosyncrasies, they still failed to transcend above the belief that they were nothing more than “pop-corn entertainment.” Even The Dark Knight’s predecessor, Batman Begins (2005), while liked by critics and audience members, couldn’t ascend beyond the limitations of a hero origin story. The Dark Knight (2008), a film with the duality of a masterful character study and a thrilling box office hit, set the gold standard for the years to come, and left an impossibly large shadow for any superhero movie who shared in its ambition.
In the years following The Dark Knight, the Hollywood landscape was a battle between Marvel and DC, and it wasn’t an even fight. Marvel responded to the cinematic bar set by The Dark Knight not by trying to replicate it, but instead doubling down on the vision of a shared cinematic universe that prioritized interconnectedness and stylistic consistency. DC attempted to catch up to Marvel in rushing to create their own cinematic universe, but they hitched their wagon to Zach Snyder, whose films (Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman, and eventually his cut of Justice League) proved to be laborious and unpleasant adaptations that conflated heroism with Snyder’s fetishized vision of the ideal human form. After a confluence of events surrounding the troubled production of 2017’s Justice League; Snyder was relinquished of his duties as pilot of the DCEU ship, and Ben Affleck backed out of starring/directing a solo Batman film. So in 2017, DC decided on a fresh start and gave the keys to director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, War for the Planet of the Apes).
Director Matt Reeves took on an incredibly daunting task in making a new Batman film. Despite the impossibly high bar set for the character, Matt Reeves and Robert Patinson absolutely nailed it. Certainly in terms of superhero films, The Batman is the most successful convergence of a filmmaker’s determined vision with blockbuster appeal since The Dark Knight.
During the promotion of the film, Reeves frequently referred to the great neo-noir films of the 1970s like Chinatown and The French Connection as well as serial killer thrillers like Seven and Zodiac. After 2019’s Joker cited similar inspirations while failing to move beyond a cobbled pastiche of Martin Scorcesse films with Joaquin Phoenix dressed as a clown, I was pretty skeptical. Joker failed to move beyond homage, but the brilliance of The Batman is its interest in trying to reach those films’ levels of psychological and emotional complexity. Reeves was clearly inspired by recent comic book runs like Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s New 52 run and the more recent run by Tom King, thus creating a Batman we haven’t seen before on screen.
Opening in the second year of his time as the Batman, the Bruce Wayne we meet is a rageful and broken man. Unable to process the murder of his parents and exist meaningfully in society, he takes up the cape and cowl as “vengeance” upon the general criminality that led to his parent’s slaughter. Considering the film runs to just under three hours, it is remarkable that relatively little time is spent with Robert Patinson as Bruce Wayne compared to Batman, yet it is perfectly reflective of who the character is. When he is Bruce Wayne, Pattinson’s performance is despondent and muted, often barely louder than a whisper as if Bruce has lost his ability to converse normally; when he is Batman though, he resembles a stalking jungle predator who at any moment can burst into animalistic rampage. The violent and damaged internal state of Bruce mirrors that of the putrid condition of Gotham City. The decaying gothic metropolis has devolved into near-bedlam as criminality is rampant, infrastructure is dilapidated, and the institutions of society that are meant to help and protect innocent haved rotted to the core. The cinematography and production design of the film depict it perfectly as the city is cloaked in darkness and rain as the streets are filled with debris, dimly lit by broken street lights, and every building looks as if it's crumbling. The relationship between Bruce Wayne/Batman, Gotham City, and our present reality has always been deeply intertwined. While Gotham is fictional, the perpetual corruption and immorality of the city has always been a canvas that allows writers and filmmakers to comment on the ills of our own society. In the case of The Batman, the palpable rage and hatred that has overtaken its society directly mirrors the present condition of the American people as a whole. That hatred materializes as the central villain of the film, the Riddler (played by the always fantastic Paul Dano), becomes a serial killer who targets the most corrupt within Gotham’s elite. In trying to stop the Riddler’s carnage, Bruce’s motivations are challenged, pushing him to become the guardian Gotham needs.
In addition to Pattinson and Dano, the film is rounded out by a great cast, with wonderful performances from Jeffrey Wright as Jim Gordon, John Turturro as Carmine Falcone, and Colin Farrel having an absolute blast disappearing into the role of the Penguin. The best performance of the bunch comes from Zoë Kravitz as Selina Kyle/Catwoman, giving us the best on-screen portrayal of the character on film. She effortlessly plays off of Pattinson and their chemistry perfectly embodies the simultaneous attraction and ideological opposition that is central to their relationship.
The Batman is an astounding movie. It is the product of a filmmaker, his crew, and a cast inspired to craft a new cinematic interpretation of a seminal American character. Although The Dark Knight remains the gold standard of Batman films, I think The Batman is a Batman film that similarly deserves to be a great movie in its own right.
Michael Oross is a senior in the College majoring in Film Studies and English.