At this point, Batman has been portrayed on screen for longer than many of us have been alive. My parents grew up while the Adam West show was airing, and their parents grew up while a collection of cheapie serials featuring the character were in circulation. I grew up with the VHS tape of the 1989 Batman that featured a Coca-Cola commercial and a Looney Tunes promo for Warner Brothers merchandise at the start. I was horrified as a child by Batman Returns (which I now, of course, adore), amused by the two Schumacher films (until I wasn’t, until I suddenly was again), and watched the Animated Series on a semi-regular basis.
Eventually, around the time the Christopher Nolan take on the character was gaining steam, I began to explore the world of the comics themselves, reading some of the more popular takes on the character over the years. Batman: Year One, The Dark Knight Returns, The Long Halloween, Hush, The Killing Joke, etc., each of which deepened my appreciation for the character and for the format of comic book storytelling. And I’m sure my responses to the trilogy of films we got from Nolan largely mirrored those of others at the time. A phenomenal first film (Batman Begins) full of possibility, a thrillingly dark sequel (The Dark Knight) whose efficacy catapulted the sub-genre of superhero action films far beyond any heights it had previously known, and a fitfully-fascinating third film (The Dark Knight Rises) that swung for the fences hard enough for my memory of it to remain largely positive.
And I mention all of this because I don’t think I’m alone in this experience. Batman was a gateway into comics for me more than Watchmen was, in part because this character has always been part of the larger comics continuity in a way that the figures in Alan Moore’s standalone masterpiece simply weren’t. And I suspect many others could probably chart a similar trajectory with the character. Batman stood out from the comics because he could be real. In a world of gods and monsters, he was just a human being. A man with a tragic past who sought to put his inherited fortune to good use, and who used his cunning and intellect to develop the kind of technological means capable of placing him on equal footing with literal gods.
When the DCEU launched with Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, it seemed like a bold attempt to build a shared on-screen universe where the character of Batman could actually make a certain amount of sense alongside Superman. Snyder’s follow-up film (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice), which jumped straight into an adversarial match-up between the two while also introducing Wonder Woman and a smattering of other characters from the world of DC comics, was an admirable attempt to execute that vision, with Snyder’s belatedly-realized follow-up opus (Zack Snyder’s Justice League) ultimately serving as a fitting capstone to that character’s journey. But what became clear over the course of those films was that Snyder wanted to tell stories about the gods more than anything else. By the time his Justice League was finally finished, the world in which those films took place couldn’t have been less recognizable from our own, which made the character of Batman/Bruce Wayne that much less compelling. The big climactic sequence of that film is largely handed over to the triumphant return of Superman, and the purposeful application of The Flash’s superpower as a means to save the day. Although Batman is instrumental in the final act, his ultimate role in the story was more to assemble these superheroes and let them get to work than anything else. Far from the most impressive illustration of his skills as a sleuth.
So, after toying with the idea of directing his own solo turn as Batman, Ben Affleck ultimately stepped away, leaving the door open for a new filmmaker to execute their version of the character. At some point in the process, the decision was made that this would be a film that was more or less insulated from the rest of the established DCEU (much the same way 2019’s Joker was), and – while I’m sure this will be folded in through some kind of multiverse-related exposition at some point – the slate was effectively cleared for something new and singular to emerge.
This new film, from director Matt Reeves, who scripted alongside Peter Craig, serves as the perfect culmination of the entire journey this character has taken over the years in the public consciousness. The Batman is both a summary of all that’s come before, and a film that charts a thrilling path forward for the character. The Gotham in which this new film takes place bears more than a few traces of the expressionistic design presented in the Tim Burton films. Some of the less-garish conceptual work from the Joel Schumacher films finds purchase here in the character design of some of the gangs haunting the streets of Gotham. The functional approach to everything from the batsuit to the batmobile taken here ends up striking an agreeable balance between the purely utilitarian aesthetic of the Nolan films and the more aggressively armor-plated hyper-tactility of the Snyder films. Even the conception of the character of Bruce Wayne feels like it may have had its origins in an aborted sequel to one of the Nolan/Bale films.
But the reference points incorporated here are also so much broader and more malleable than the ones explored by those earlier takes on the character. The crime films and paranoia thrillers of the 1970s are colossal touchstones for the narrative here, and for the film’s frequently potent allusions to a litany of American tragedies, be they the broad evocations of the alienation, isolation, and rampant disinformation which plague our modern society, or something as strikingly specific as the looming specter of a lone gunman in a window. It’s enough to make you wonder why more big studio films don’t take quite so many chances, and to bemoan the extent to which almost nothing else within the superhero genre is even aiming for the heights this film manages to reach.
The entire ensemble cast here is pitch perfect, and faultlessly attuned to the frequencies at which Reeves and his team are aiming to operate. There’s not a moment that feels false throughout, and – aside from perhaps one brief sequence late in the film – there’s a seeming absence of the kind of over-driven CGI that tends to make so many films on this level feel like they take place within a vacuum of consequential action. I say “seeming absence,” because I have no doubt there are a preponderance of seamless set extensions and other CGI-abetted embellishments throughout, but the world Reeves and his team create here is so thrillingly tactile that it almost beggars belief. It’s hard to believe a studio blockbuster on this scale can still look this good.
Until, of course, one considers that this was shot by one of the new masters at executing cinematography at this scale, Greig Fraser. If that name sounds familiar, it’s probably because he was recently nominated for an Academy Award for his work on Dune, which is also almost exclusively operating in a completely different register than his work here. Both films create tactile backdrops out of an almost certain absence of them, and Fraser’s lighting scheme is essential for grounding each film in its own very specific environment. Fraser also shot Rogue One, which is easily the best-looking of the new Star Wars films, and almost certainly faced similar issues when it came to grounding the CGI hyperreality films of that scale invariably seem to demand in a world with relatively realistic physics.
For many fans, including the one I saw the movie with (and, in case it wasn’t already obvious, including me as well), this is the version of Batman that they’ve been wanting to see on screen since they first discovered the character. The world is dark and grim (and, I should note, a potent simulacrum of our own), the villains are complex creations that keep the audience genuinely on edge throughout (Paul Dano’s turn as the Riddler is shockingly effective), the “only good men left in this rotten town” are never good enough (but they can still try), and – perhaps most importantly – the man who debuted in Detective Comics #27 finally does some good, old-fashioned detecting.
Without spoiling anything, I will say that the mystery here is rich and well-drawn. Even when I felt like I got ahead of it as an audience member, I was either wrong, or I wasn’t anywhere near as far ahead as I may have thought. The way the film’s overarching story ties into this version of the Batman/Bruce Wayne character is both emotionally rich and thematically complex. The manner in which the multiple narrative threads dance around each other throughout before being finally pulled taut (both literally and figuratively) at the film’s conclusion is masterfully executed. And, honestly, this is just a film that serves the character I grew up with, the character that sparked my imagination as a child, in a way I never could have imagined. I’m frankly in awe of what Reeves and his collaborators have accomplished here, and I can’t wait to experience it on the big screen again.
And finally, while the comparatively small scale of this story might seem like it’s a complete course correction from Zack Snyder’s ornately-rendered pursuit to portray each of the characters in his trilogy of films as god-like beings worthy of awe, I would argue that this isn’t the case at all. As this film’s visually overwhelming climax comes into focus, and the images conjured by Reeves and Fraser achieve their fullest flower, it becomes abundantly clear that this is the story of a man ascending into myth. Even gods have to start somewhere.
The Batman is available in theaters everywhere, starting Friday, March 4th.