The city of Gotham has always been conceived of as a dark cesspool of criminality and corruption. It is the brutality and apathetic nature of the city that drives its less fortunate inhabitants towards crime. Matt Reeves’ The Batman opens by giving us a glimpse into this aspect of Gotham. The criminals of the city are afraid of the caped crusader, who is said to lurk in the shadows. Fear is what prevents many of them from committing crime.
The honest inhabitants of the city, however, do not love Batman. They do not know him and neither does Batman attempt to win over them. He is, in his own words, a “nocturnal creature”. In the opening scene, Batman fights off a bunch of thugs and saves a citizen from being assaulted. After the goons flee, the man he’s saved looks at him in palpable fear and pleads not to hurt him.
Unlike other cinematic renditions of the character, this one stays true to the world portrayed in its comic book renditions. Thus, the city is brimming with colourful characters such as the Penguin, Carmine Falcone, the Riddler and Catwoman. Unlike Christopher Nolan’s inclusion of multiple characters in The Dark Knight Returns, none of the characters here feel forced. Each of them are given the time and space to showcase their best potential, with the possible exception of Alfred Pennyworth portrayed by the talented Andy Serkis.
Of all the characters in the DC canon, Batman was the most likely character to fit right in the noir-detective genre (as is indeed evident from The Long Halloween series). Thankfully Reeves’ not only understood the potential but pushed the superhero genre to its boundaries.
Although many superhero-movies have attempted to showcase the vulnerabilities of their protagonist, this one does it most explicitly. In Nolan’s trilogy, Batman’s vulnerability stems from moral dilemmas and his failings. In The Dark Knight, for instance, Joker presents Batman with two equally bad options (rescuing Rachel vs. rescuing Dent) to highlight the blurry line between good and evil. In Reeves’ version, on the other hand, Batman’s vulnerability stems from a deeper existential crisis. Though Batman is supposed to be the “real” Bruce Wayne, one finds almost no difference between the two for the entirety of this movie. This is deliberate because Batman hasn’t cemented his identity yet in the movie. He is motivated more by vengeance, than by a desire to do good.
Giving one of the best performances of his career, Paul Dano as The Riddler is the archetypal anti-hero. He is one of those individuals that the city has pushed to their limits. Fashioned after the Zodiac killer and the serial killer in Seven, Dano’s Riddler is menacing yet at the same time calm and vulnerable (nevertheless he is not the best incarnation of Riddler. That honour goes to Cory Michael Smith in Gotham). Through his “riddles” accompanied by murder, he threatens to expose the lies and corruption of the city hidden from its inhabitants. One gets a sense that Batman is equally eager to find the truth as he solves the riddles. Unlike Nolan’s The Dark Knight, he does not attempt nor even contemplate about telling the noble lie to its inhabitants. This holds true even when Batman finds the truth near the end, which makes him question his very sense of self.
Zoe Kravitz as Catwoman is just perfect. Unlike Robert Pattison’s Batman, she is enigmatic, often vulnerable yet assertive with a strong sense of self. Her talent shines the most in the action scenes, making them seem effortless. Colin Farrell as Penguin is so immaculate that he’s unrecognisable behind the make-up.
At its heart, The Batman is a coming-of-age story disguised as neo-noir. Towards the end, Batman realizes that the Riddler’s acts are inspired by the same desire for vengeance that drives him. He understands that he has to do more than just fight criminals in the shadows of the night. Vengeance is not enough. He has to provide people with hope. He has to show he cares. As we near the end, the people of Gotham start trusting him and he leads them into the light (literally as well as figuratively). He is no more a nocturnal animal.
Pattison embodies this version of Batman better than anyone could have (certainly better than Ben Affleck’s terrible rendition).
Through this movie, Reeves has successfully shown that superhero movies need not be confined to the clichés of the genre. That they can embody the director’s auteur vision while being true to the source material. Whether future filmmakers will take heed or not remains to be seen. For now, Reeves has made us reasonably satisfied and hopeful for the future of The Batman trilogy in particular, as well as superhero movies in general.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.