Review: Matt Reeves' Noir 'The Batman' Wades Deep into Gotham
by Alex Billington
March 4, 2022
At the start of this new Batman movie, Bruce Wayne's voiceover talks about how his identity as the Batman has made criminals in Gotham City more fearful. They think he's lurking in the shadows, hiding down alleys, waiting to take them out. The very first reveal of "The Batman" in this movie has him literally walking out of the shadows, emerging from the pitch-black darkness to confront a group of hoodlums attacking a man on a subway platform. The darkness that permeates Gotham City is present in every frame of The Batman, it's unavoidable, a lesson that Batman comes to learn. This is the ultimate gritty, grimy Gotham City noir movie - easily the best Batman movie since The Dark Knight (read my old review). It's so incredibly dark that it's almost hard to see what's going on at times, but that's a feature not a bug. Matt Reeves has created one of the darkest Batman movies yet, both in tone and visual style, and it's an exhilarating big screen experience.
The Batman is exactly the movie that Matt Reeves pitched. He's been telling us what it is from the very start – a rain-drenched, Chinatown-inspired, full-on noir detective story of Batman's early years in Gotham City, as he struggles to figure out whether or not he's actually making a difference. It's "Year 2" for Bruce Wayne as the "Batman". He's already invested in the Bat persona, established himself as a "masked vigilante", and dedicated himself to cleaning up the scum of Gotham. But is it working? Is it making a positive difference? Or is he only making things worse? It's a question he doesn't want to ask, and really doesn't want to answer, but when a murderer who calls himself The Riddler starts taking out Gotham's elite, he is forced to confront the truth about the Batman's impact so far. The whole movie is about Bruce wondering whether he should ever cross "the line" and what even is that line to begin with. What he learns is: don't try to kill, try to help.
I'm already a huge fan of Matt Reeves – he never misses. Everything he has made is exceptional – from his vampire remake Let Me In to his monster mash Cloverfield to his two phenomenal Apes films. The Batman once again proves that he is a genuine visionary filmmaker who knows how to melt our minds visually while weaving us through the story. He's a filmmaker that cares about the visual experience as much as the story. He has a grand vision and he cares about making sure that vision is a part of every aspect of the filmmaking process. The cinematography by DP Greig Fraser is spectacular, much more meticulous and textured than most movies. The sound work and production design are top notch, elevating the storytelling with tangible realism throughout. The score by Michael Giacchino brings even more depth. The performances are all layered and nuanced, every last cop and security guard even has a backstory. I admire a filmmaker that puts this much effort into every last detail, every aspect of the movie, because it makes for a visceral experience.
As usual with Hollywood movies these days, it seems everyone's expectations are the determining factor on whether or not they enjoy the movie. It's not funny enough? Uh it's not supposed to be, it's a Batman movie. The wacky, humorous Batman belongs in the 80s and 90s - go watch those movies again if that's what you want. Leave the politics out of it? Too bad, you can't make a movie about a city and it's criminal underworld without putting some politics into it. There's not even enough here to really argue about, but it does make for an interesting discussion. For the first half of the movie it seems as if Batman doesn't really mind that Riddler is targeting corrupt politicians and cops. On one hand, it's cleaning up the city, on the other hand, it's not the right way to go about cleaning up the city. This movie carefully dances on that edge, pondering what is right / what is wrong, and how to help save a city full of criminals that own all the cops and judges.
Considering the movie is really, truly about what Batman's place is in a city full of crime and criminals, it's no surprise the best relationship in The Batman is between Lt. Gordon and Batman. In fact, the chemistry between Robert Pattinson as the Batman and Jeffrey Wright as Lt. Gordon is much more steamy and passionate than the chemistry between the Bat and the Cat. Zoë Kravitz is certainly ravishing and badass in her role as Selina Kyle, also known as "Catwoman", but she's not really the most important part of this story. And their romance is only there because it comes from the comics, not because Bruce is actually that into her, though he certainly does seem especially lonely. It's true that this is the most emo Batman we've seen yet, complete with a couple of Nirvana tracks to bring it all home, but that's because he's still working through his emotions and demons. He's still young, and hasn't entirely dealt with the death of his parents.
Even if the movie runs a bit long and could be tightened up in the third act, and even if it's the same kind of Batman story (Gotham's criminals vs this vigilante) we've seen before in Christopher Nolan's trilogy, it's still a riveting and awesome cinematic experience. There are a number of sequences that I can watch over and over and still be in awe: Batman breaking out of the police station, the car chase with Penguin, the final fight on the catwalks in the Garden. I love that this Gotham City is amalgamation of Chicago & NYC. This is full-on, epic blockbuster movie-making. Reeves is a visual mastermind, he cares as much about the experience of watching the movie as he does making sure it's a great script telling a compelling story. It doesn't try to be anything other than a Batman movie, but it excels at being a gripping comic book action movie exploring the darkest sides of both heroes and villains. This is iconic "The Long Halloween" story revisited, turned into a live-action noir that should make viewers seriously wonder whether Batman is helping Gotham… or not.
The main thread of this movie and what Batman is going through is trying to figure out where the line is as a "masked vigilante" – should he kill them, how should he "clean up" Gotham's worst – and what constitutes crossing the line. He goes through this one long Halloween week discovering that he should stop taking out the bad guys, and start focusing more on saving the citizens of Gotham. It reminds me of the iconic quote from Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi: "We're going to win this war not by fighting what we hate, but saving what we love." It may take three hours for Bruce to learn this lesson, but it's an incredible three hours. It may be fun to watch Pattinson put on black make-up and strap into the Batsuit to fight some bad guys, but there's much more to this story than just that. Matt Reeves' The Batman rocks. It has everything I want in a dark, thrilling detective movie about Gotham City. I'm ready for a sequel already, let's keep this party going.