Evolution is the change of characteristics or attributes over time that builds upon the past iterations to create something better than we’ve experienced before in the original form. We see this a lot in our pop culture with beloved characters that are remade and repackaged into something new for us to consume, thus debate if this latest version of the property is better than the last one and the one before that.
In superhero movies, the iconic hero, Batman, created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, has been presented in many forms on the big screen. From Adam West’s groovy, Saturday morning interpretation to the gothic tones of Michael Keaton to the campy styles of Val Kilmer and George Clooney to the modern, realistic take from Christian Bale to the seasoned veteran portrayal from Ben Affleck to even two animated forms in Kevin Conroy and Will Arnett, there have been a lot of versions of the Dark Knight over the years. Why you may ask? Beyond any cynical answer involving studio greed, the truth is, Batman is the relatable, realistic character we have, as he is a man fighting for justice and change within a broken society that doesn’t deserve his saving. With this history and understanding, in steps Robert Pattinson’s edition of the character, which is the darkest yet optimistic version we’ve ever seen yet.
We pick up in the second year of the Batman’s existence, and the Caped Crusaders impact has been a mixed bag so far. On the one hand, the streets are slowly becoming safer, as small-time criminals are fearful of the Batman showing up. Every shadow, lamp post, rooftop, alley way, he could be there, waiting to strike with his own force of vengeance. As he states, “I can’t be everywhere at once…it’s a big city,” to which the Bat-signal is used as a warming that rage and justice could be headed your way if you commit an unlawful act. This has also led to his involvement with a major narcotics bust, alongside his contact in the Gotham Police Department, Lieutenant James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright). Together, the two have formed a partnership that many in the GCPD still have reservations over considering the Batman is taking the law into his own hands, a masked vigilante. All eyes are on him given this level of scrutiny, but he and Gordon stick to the task at hand, trying to solve case after to case to keep the city safer each and every night.
When the night is over, the figure known as Batman disappears, but not in a cool Batmobile or in a full suit, but as a guy on a motorcycle heading home to a gloomy version of Wayne Manor, expertly put together by production designer James Chinlund. It’s here we meet the other side of the heroes’ coin, Bruce Wayne, the orphaned son to Thomas and Martha Wayne, who were killed when he was a child and thus Bruce was raised by his butler Alfred Pennyworth (Andy Serkis). In past films, Bruce and Alfred are seemed to have a close, jovial relationship, one of care and mutual respect, but here, they are hostile towards one another, as if the wounds of Bruce’s childhood are still not healed, thus he takes his long term, and nightly, frustrations out on Alfred, who only wants the best for the boy he raised, and wants him to be more present in the world rather than spending his nights beating up every bad guy he can. Through their conversations, we learn that the Batman has become Bruce’s obsession, with him barely sleeping, focusing solely on making Gotham safer that Alfred has taken over as head of Wayne Enterprises, and Bruce has become a ghost within his own city. And though Alfred would want him to stop, there is nothing he can do to change Bruce’s mind, especially after he gets the signal and is led to the house of the Mayor of Gotham, Don Mitchell Jr, who is brutally murdered, left with duct tape wrapped around his head, and a note left for the Batman.
With this, it is revealed that the killer is the Riddler (Paul Dano), a sociopath who murders his victims, takes trophies, and leaves clues for Batman and Gordon to use to solved the bigger puzzle. As Batman is looking for clues to who killed the Mayor, he notices a photo the major and a young girl leaving a club run by Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), Gotham’s crime boss who has everyone in his pocket. In the photo is Falcone’s number one henchmen, Oz Cobblepot (Colin Farrell), aka the Penguin, whom Batman pays a visit to and that’s where he meets Selina Kyle (Zöe Kravitz), a cat burglar infiltrated disguised as a waitress in the club to get information on her missing friend within the photo. Using each other to get the answers to their own personal and professional mysteries, Batman and Selina, aka Catwoman, form a partnership to catch the Riddler and bring some justice to those who wronged Selina’s friend. But as the case gets deeper, the more personal it becomes, as the Riddler begins to target not just the people of Gotham, but rather Bruce’s soul and the imagine of his deceased parents, which not only puts everyone around him at risk, but leaves the future of the Batman hanging in the balance, within the palm of the Riddlers hand.
While it sounds like a lot of story to handle, with a close to three hour run time, this story moves at a confident pace in large part to one of the best talents working today, writer-director Matt Reeves. Starting his career with television episodes and directing the first entry into the Cloverfield series, Reeves took over the helm of the last two Planet of the Apes films (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) and War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)), which were met with critical and commercial success, thus landed him this gig. In line with what director Christopher Nolan did with his trilogy, Reeves, alongside the excellent cinematography by Greig Fraser, gives us a grounded, moody, realistic world for his Batman, where the system in which our hero is trying to fix is corrupt at every single level. Drugs, sex, money, politics, violence, all tools for the elite to use against the people of Gotham, with the one figure of hope being Bruce’s masked persona. It’s in his confident story structure that Reeves also creates something that goes beyond your standard origin story, because by jumping a year in time, and choosing to already have a world where Batman exist, we don’t have to see things we are familiar with, and thus he trusts the audience to know who these people are, and go along for a different ride. By doing this too, relationships and tension are pre-established for most of the characters we see on screen, thus raising the stakes with every decision made. In using David Fincher’s Se7en and Zodiac as inspirations for his vision, Reeves has made his magnum opus that rivals the best we’ve seen from any previous version of the Dark Knight on the screen.
Pattinson, an actor who ran away from the big budget movies of the beginning of his career to independent projects for the last ten plus years, is immaculate in performance as both Bruce and Batman. Though he spends most of the run time behind the cowl, his layered, shut off exterior is pitch perfect for what The Batman is trying to sell, as he is a constant state of doubt that any of his work is actually making a difference at all, and will it ultimately lead to his downfall. He rivals Bale and Keaton as the best to have ever dawned the suit, and his chemistry with Wright, who plays the ‘by the book’ portrayal of Gordon is so effortless, and Kravitz, who is dynamic and vulnerable as Catwoman in every moment she is in, is the glue that makes this movie stick its landing. Mix in an unhinged, menacing performance from Dano and a surprisingly hilarious turn from Farrell, alongside good work from both Serkis and Turturro, and you have one of the best comic book ensembles in a long time.
With a mood piece like this, it could be a lot for audiences to handle. But for fans of this character, the world Reeves and company has plenty of heart pounding action and spectacle that adds up to one of the best comic book action movies we’ve gotten in the last two decades.
The Batman is fantastic start of a new era of the Dark Knight and part two can’t come soon enough.
Warner Bros will release The Batman only in theaters on March 4.