Editorial: 'The Batman' is a Triumph of Matt Reeves' Dark Vision
by Dan Marcus
March 4, 2022
"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." That final line of dialogue from 1974's Chinatown summarizes the film's theme incredibly succinctly. Jake Gittes (played by Jack Nicholson), a private detective, is investigating a series of crimes that unravel the level of high corruption prevalent in Los Angeles. The investigation leads Gittes down a deflating and tragic path, as he eventually realizes there's simply nothing he can do to curb the pervasion of corruption in his own city. Matt Reeves' new Gotham City noir, The Batman, has a similar thematic throughline, even if the ending is a bit more optimistic. What it shares with Chinatown, and other street-level, grounded crime films of the 1970's, is a singular and clear vision. The Batman is a triumph of an auteur's artistic vision, a film that feels deeply personal amidst the occasionally bland and dispassionate studio blockbusters that Warner Bros (and other Hollywood studios) has been known to churn out as of late.
Whether it was the theatrical cut of David Ayer's Sucide Squad, recut by trailer editors and released as a Frankenstein disaster of a film, or the butchered version of the theatrical Justice League, so many recent DC superhero films feel less like movies and more like products coming off an assembly line. So many of these films feel like they have nothing remotely interesting to say, other than to exist to make a profit and that's it.
Before François Truffaut was a filmmaker in the French New Wave, he was a critic along with the likes of Jean-Luc Goddard, Jacques Rivette, and Claude Chabrol. They wrote for a film magazine called Cahiers du Cinema where they inscribed passionately about auteurs, as well as filmmakers working in the Hollywood system. They devised what became a popular phrase to describe the kind of films that were hackneyed or made without artistic merit, a phrase called "cinema du papa". If Truffaut or Goddard were around today, they would have likely called films such as Suicide Squad or Justice League cinema du papa. While I cannot speak for their opinions now, I have a feeling The Batman would not fall under this category. After all, they also wrote about filmmakers who strived within the Hollywood system, such as Alfred Hitchock, Robert Aldrich, and Otto Preminger. They were filmmakers with "something to say". If Cahiers du Cinema was still what it once used to be, I'd bet good money Matt Reeves would be added to that list of filmmakers. Reeves has made a name for himself as a director and a producer making movies within the Hollywood system that have, irrefutably, something of significant importance to say. So – what, then, is The Batman trying to say?
This is, after all, the 11th big-screen Batman adventure (if you're counting Batman: Mask of the Phantasm and The Lego Batman Movie as well) and one of three live-action films featuring the Caped Crusader slated for this year. What separates The Batman from other cinematic incarnations of the Dark Knight is how Matt Reeves, by adhering to his own singular voice, has made a nearly three hour, bleak, methodical "detective story" that has the patience to tell its story with effortless confidence. This is more "Zodiac meets Saw" than any burgeoning, abrasive blockbuster. As a matter of fact, The Batman is a very restrained film, perhaps the most grounded take on Batman yet (and yes, even more grounded than Christopher Nolan's hyperrealistic portrayal). It's also very distinctly a Matt Reeves film.
When Matt Reeves originally talked about his inspirations for the project during 2020's DC FanDome event a few years ago, he mentioned the crime thrillers of the 1970's, dubbed the "New Hollywood movement of the Seventies." Some of these, iconic films such as Serpico, Taxi Driver, The French Connection, and Chinatown, were essentially street-level, grounded films that wrestled with a flawed hero dealing with overwhelming odds in the way of massive, city-wide corruption. As Reeves mentioned at the event two years ago, "That idea of a gritty, flawed humanity that was very much inspired by those kinds of movies, like The French Connection, and cop movies like that… and even a movie like Taxi Driver, in the [depiction] of a place and getting inside someone's head."
While Tim Burton may have found his inspirations in gritty, gangster films of the 1940's for his early Batman movies, and Christopher Nolan borrowed more from James Bond and the films of David Lean (such as Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai), Matt Reeves was much more interested in commandeering aspects from the crime thrillers of the 70's to inform his cinematic portrayal of Batman. While Nolan's Batman is a hodgepodge of various comic book and cinematic inspirations – 2005's Batman Begins is at once both a globe-trotting adventure film and origin story for Bruce Wayne – The Batman is singularly focused on creating a certain atmosphere and sense of dread. Matt Reeves' Batman doesn't leave Gotham City, unlike Nolan's Batman, he is entrenched in Gotham City. It's as if Batman was ltierally created in the very shadowy, crime-ridden streets Reeves is so keenly interested in exploring.
Robert Pattinson's Bruce Wayne starts out in the film as a drifter, as he carefully picks his targets on the streets of Gotham City before adopting the terrifying persona as Batman. This is a Dark Knight that wasn't trained by ninjas, he was trained by Andy Serkis' Alfred (a former military commander in this version). He doesn't go to Lucius Fox and Wayne Enterprise's Applied Sciences to get his Batmobile; he retrofits a 1970's Plymouth Barracuda. His Batsuit looks homemade, with clunky armor pieces instead of a sleek, high-tech military prototype. Everything about this Batman is deeply personal. It doesn't just end with Matt Reeves' inspirations or vision of the film, but the way he has adapted Bruce Wayne and his alter ego is dripping with a sense of perspective that gives The Batman a darkly unique personality.
In Chinatown, Jake Gittes is trying to help Evelyn Mulwray (played by Faye Dunaway) solve the murder of her late husband. As Gittes' investigation lurches deeper into the corrupt bureaucratic structure of Los Angeles' Water & Power division, he unravels more about Mulwray's secretive history. There's a striking similarity to Gittes' relationship with Mulwray and Batman's relationship with Selina Kyle in the film, who is trying to find her friend that has been kidnapped given her connections with the mayor of Gotham City. As the film's plot unravels, and Batman learns more about Kyle's past, he learns more about the corruption that pervades Gotham City. Jake struggles to keep his wits about him in Chinatown; the more he investigates, the more danger he finds himself in. The same could be said for Pattinson's Batman.
Reeves is interested in exploring the very nature of what it means to be a hero. As Bruce/Batman discovers the truth behind the corruptive plot, he begins to question his own family's legacy. Is anyone truly good, and can anyone be corrupted? For much of the film, Pattinson's Bruce is running away from his pain and grief. He is a recluse, wearing sunglasses while sulking around Wayne Tower as if Nosferatu was forced to make an appearance in the daylight. He isn't the fully formed Bruce Wayne of other cinematic incarnations; he hasn't developed a "playboy billionaire" side to his personality yet. He is a loner, but someone clearly yearning for affection… the affection he was robbed of when his parents were taken from him.
Just as Jake doesn't trust anyone in Chinatown, similarly Bruce is afraid to let anyone get too close to him in The Batman. What's fascinating about this version of Bruce Wayne is the transformation he undergoes toward the end of the film. Tim Burton's Batman was fairly stagnant, an awkward weirdo living inside a huge mansion that used the idea of Batman to present himself as something more sinister. Nolan's Batman learned how to control his fears to become a symbol, but Reeves' Batman is arguably looking for something more personal. He's looking to belong. He's lived his life in isolated grief, and it is through the visage of Batman that he is finally able to reach outside his own pain and anguish. He finds common allies in Jeffrey Wright's Lt. James Gordon from the GCPD and Zoe Kravitz's Selina Kyle. In particular with Kyle, whom he shares a very fascinating kinship. He wants to trust Selina Kyle, but he's shut off from the world.
This is a Batman who is emotionally stunted, quiet and reserved, the scared young boy who watched his parents get killed in front of him and never grew up. In prior cinematic versions of The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne was the alter ego. In this version, The Batman is the primary and dominant identity. Bruce spends most of the film as The Batman, and even when he appears as Bruce, he is still firmly in Batman mode. The film spends a good majority of its screentime forcing Bruce to realize that he can't just be "Vengeance" all the time. He has to be more… but in what way, exactly? In The Batman, Bruce Wayne starts to grow and mature, congruent to how crime begins to also mature in his own city. In Reeves' vision, Bruce's personal development is linked to the crime seeping underneath the tall, gothic skyscrapers of this sprawling city.
This deftly personal touch is what makes The Batman so different from some of the typical blockbusters we see today. Matt Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig trust the audience has the patience to watch this story unfold with unwavering precision. So many films are so eager to cut to the chase, so to speak, nor do they have the personal touch of an artist with a clear idea of what they want to communicate. Through the nearly three hours of relentless fight scenes, betrayals, and corruption, what makes the ending so uplifting is seeing a Dark Knight who embraces the Knight aspect to his persona more than ever. Unlike perhaps any other incarnation of Batman, Matt Reeves has embraced the compassion of the "Caped Crusader."
If The Batman borrows heavily from films such as The French Connection and Taxi Driver, it becomes its own animal as it reaches the climax in the third act. There's a look of utter devastation on Jake's face as he walks away from Evelyn's corpse at the end of Chinatown. Despite all his best efforts, he couldn't save her. As Batman leads a group of scared Gotham City citizens among a flooded city, he overcomes the scars of his past to become the hero he always imagined himself to be. The image of a weary, exhausted, dirtied Batman putting his arm on a scared girl's shoulder to comfort her, is more endearing and inspiring than any other similar image in any previous live-action Batman film.
There is something deeply inspiring about watching a Bruce Wayne who is able to overcome the trauma of his past and realize the errors of his ways. Yes, Nolan's Batman explored this as well – and you could argue every incarnation of Batman explores this – but not in the way Matt Reeves does. This feels more singularly focused than even Batman Begins. This is a Batman who isn't fully realized just yet, he's still learning and growing, making mistakes along the way. The way Batman becomes a true hero by the film's end, despite the trials of tribulations he faces throughout the film's narrative, feels so earned and cathartic given the bleakness of the story that just unfolded. The Batman is very much the bleakest Batman film yet, but that bleakness feels justified when the ending is so hopeful. It feels as if Matt Reeves is saying, despite whatever hardships one might face, there always exists an ability to rise above them, to overcome them. It feels like an incredibly hopeful and earnest message. It also feels incredibly personal.
Every mainstream, Hollywood blockbuster should aim to be as personal and as singular as The Batman. It raises the bar for what these behemoth productions can be. The movie trusts its audience, is patient with its storytelling, and does not compromise the integrity of a filmmaker's artistic vision. I still can't believe a film like The Batman was allowed to be made, and here's hoping Hollywood follows suit and learns the right lessons: When you let a talented filmmaker with a clear and singular vision tell their story unhindered by studio interference, you end up with something truly special. A film with something deeply personal to say.