A review by Mark S. Reinhart
All of the grand plans that Warner Bros. had for the Batman character as a big screen property hit a major roadblock with the release of their DC Extended Universe films Batman v Superman (2016) and Justice League (2017). The studio had banked on those films being great successes, which would have paved the way for a standalone Batman movie simply called The Batman. That film was to have been written and directed by Ben Affleck, the man who had donned the cape and cowl in Batman v Superman and Justice League.
Well, we all know how THOSE plans turned out! Both Batman v Superman and Justice League were huge critical and commercial disappointments, so no one was very interested in the idea of a Ben Affleck Batman film, including Affleck himself. He eventually dropped completely out of the project, and The Batman was turned over to director Matt Reeves. So the film was basically moved back to square one – it was going to be yet another complete Batman movie reboot, one that had no connection to the DC Extended Universe film series. Fans were left wondering how this new screen interpretation of Batman would measure up to all of the other Batman films that had been made over the years.
I was certainly one of those fans who was wondering about The Batman. And as I write this review in May 2022, I've seen the film 14 times so far. I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about just how I would express my feelings about The Batman with my words. Well, after all of this thought, the only way I can think of to start this review is to say this – I have been a Batman fan for 56 of my 58 years on this earth, and there has never been a Batman screen work that made its way into my mind, heart and soul like The Batman has. It is hard to find the words to describe how much I love this movie, but I'm going to try!
Let's start with the basics of the film. The Batman stars Robert Pattinson as Batman/Bruce Wayne, Zoe Kravitz as Catwoman/Selina Kyle, Paul Dano as Riddler/Edward Nashton, Jeffrey Wright as James Gordon, John Turturro as Carmine Falcone, Andy Serkis as Alfred Pennyworth, and Colin Farrell as Oswald Cobblepot/Penguin. It was directed by Matt Reeves, and written by Reeves and Peter Craig.
The film tells the story of a young Batman who is only about two years into his crimefighting mission in Gotham City. During this time, the vigilante has formed a close covert relationship with Gotham City Police Lieutenant James Gordon. Despite all of their efforts to help lift Gotham City out of crime, illegal drugs, chaos and hopelessness, the city does not get any better – in fact, it keeps getting worse.
Batman's mission becomes even more difficult as he encounters a number of dangerous criminals in Gotham for the first time. Crime boss Carmine Falcone and his right hand man Oswald Cobblepot, known as the Penguin, grow richer and richer as they flood the city with crime and drugs. A masked serial killer who calls himself the Riddler begins systematically and brazenly murdering high-profile city officials. And a cat burglar named Selina Kyle keeps crossing Batman's path as well, though it is hard to tell if she is his friend or his foe.
After all of Batman's almost superhuman efforts, he is finally able to bring these villains to justice – but his triumph comes at tremendous personal cost to both him personally and Gotham City as a whole. He realizes that he needs to be a symbol of hope, not just vengeance, to help the city heal from all of its wounds. But given all of the criminals who continue to lie in wait for a chance to prey on Gotham, he knows that his odds of ever really saving the city are long indeed.
My feelings about The Batman are so deeply-held and so personal that there really isn't any way to appear even the slightest bit impartial about the film in this review. So I'm not even going to try! I'm only telling you this because in this review, I will be sharing my own personal philosophies about the Batman character a LOT. But I feel that this is the only way for me to properly discuss this film that will mean so much to me for the rest of my life.
On February 25, 2022, right before The Batman was released, I posted this observation about the film on the message board of Dan Greenfield's wonderful comics website 13th Dimension. "Even though the movie looks very dark, I’m really hoping that it ends up leaving both Bruce Wayne (and the movie’s audiences) feeling like you can make a difference when you do good works. For me personally, the Batman character is one that carries a great sense of hope even when there is great darkness. Given all of the wonderful Batman material The Batman appears to be based on, it looks to me like the film may well capture this aspect of the character. We’ll find out for sure next week – I can’t wait!"
My optimism regarding this element of the film turned out to be very, VERY well-founded. When I first saw The Batman at the DC Fan First IMAX premiere on March 1, I was thrilled by how perfectly the film captured my musings regarding Batman being a symbol of hope. In fact, the film's dialogue in one of its final scenes basically stated exactly what I had written on 13th Dimension.
In that scene, Batman reads aloud from his journal entry that he writes after The Riddler has been apprehended. Batman says, "Vengeance won't change the past. Mine or anyone else's. I have to become more. People need hope." Seeing my own philosophy regarding the Batman character expressed so eloquently in a Batman motion picture for the first time will always stand as one of my all-time favorite Batman-related memories.
And The Batman is full of many other scenes that seem to have been pulled directly from my own personal philosophies about the character. In fact, the film's very first scene that shows Batman seems to be very much based on my all-time favorite Batman work of all time. In my 2013 book The Batman Filmography and in a number of different articles I have written, I have repeatedly sung the praises of Batman: War on Crime, a 1999 oversized graphic novel by writer Paul Dini and artist Alex Ross.
In Batman: War on Crime, Batman encounters Marcus, a young inner city boy whose parents are murdered in front of him, a tragedy mirroring Bruce Wayne’s loss of his parents. In grief, the boy turns to a life on the streets, joining a gang and participating in criminal activities. Batman is able to convince the boy that to rebuild his shattered life and cope with the loss of his parents, he must not become part of the cycle of violence that took their lives – because turning to crime can never be a remedy for crime.
In The Batman, the first view we get of the crimefighter shows him taking on a gang that is trying to initiate a young man into their ranks. Batman confronts the gang just as they are trying to persuade the young man to assault a defenseless subway passenger. The young man obviously does not really want to be part of that gang, and he even tries to stop one of the members from shooting Batman. After Batman pummels the gang members, he turns and stares at the young man. Grief-stricken and terrified, the young man runs away.
This is exactly what Marcus does in Batman: War on Crime. When the boy is committing a crime with a gang who is initiating him into their ranks, he runs away in terror after the gang is attacked by Batman. The look on Marcus's face in this panel looks very much like the look on the young man's face when he runs away from Batman in The Batman.
These scenes are so similar that Matt Reeves and Peter Craig just HAD to have been drawing inspiration from Batman: War on Crime. But interestingly, Paul Dini and Alex Ross were not listed among the Batman comic creators that the filmmakers chose to thank in the film's credits. And I have not encountered any other Batman fans who have drawn this comparison between The Batman and Batman: War on Crime. Well, that's not quite accurate – my sons Taylor and Keaton are huge fans, and they instantly made the connection. But I suppose that is because all three of us are such big admirers of that particular book!
At any rate, there are a number of Batman comic works that Reeves DID directly cite as his inspirations for The Batman. And not only did he discuss these works before the premiere of the film, but also DC Comics released them as part of a box set that tied into the film's merchandising. The Batman Box Set collected Batman: Year One, Batman: The Long Halloween, and Batman: Ego.
Batman: Year One, written by Frank Miller and illustrated by David Mazzucchelli, originally ran in Batman #404, February 1987, through Batman #407, May 1987. The series focused on Bruce Wayne’s decision to become a costumed crimefighter, and his very first exploits as Batman. In Batman: Year One, the hero battles against all of the corruption that is running rampant in Gotham City's political and justice systems. During this fight, he has his first run-ins with the powerful Gotham crime boss Carmine Falcone.
The 13-issue graphic novel series Batman: The Long Halloween was first published between late 1996 and late 1997, and was written by Jeph Loeb and illustrated by Tim Sale. The series told a story that basically picked up right where Batman: Year One left off. In Batman: The Long Halloween, Batman is still working to break the stranglehold that crime boss Carmine Falcone has on Gotham City. But Falcone ends up being only a part of the trouble that the crimefighter has to face – an unknown killer is murdering members of the Falcone family on major holidays, starting on Halloween. Because of the timing of these murders, the killer is dubbed “Holiday.”
The 2000 graphic novel Batman: Ego was written and illustrated by Darwyn Cooke. In the book, Batman faces perhaps his all-time greatest enemy – himself. The hero's continual fight against crime in Gotham has left him so physically and mentally exhausted that he considers giving up the Batman persona. This leads to a battle within his mind between his two selves, Bruce Wayne and Batman. Bruce is guided by his rationality and humanity while Batman is driven by his never-ending desire for justice and vengeance, and it appears that these two sides cannot co-exist with one another. But they are finally able to come to to a compromise. Bruce will accept the responsibility of Batman's war on crime if Batman can accept that he must stand as a symbol of hope as well as fear – and to be this symbol, he must never kill. Batman accepts this compromise and disappears, which brings an end to the division in Bruce's mind.
Just the synopses of these three works go a long way toward explaining their influence on The Batman. Still, I think it is worth pointing out certain elements from the works that made their way directly into the film. In The Batman, Bruce records his exploits as Batman in a journal, and his journal entries sound very much like Bruce's self-analysis of his Batman mission in Batman: Year One. And the film's first scene of Bruce walking the streets of Gotham looking for criminals while wearing shabby street clothes is pulled directly from a panel in the series. Plus, both the appearance and mannerisms of Selina Kyle/Catwoman in The Batman are perfectly in line with the way the character is depicted in Batman: Year One.
And not only is the ongoing serial killer murder mystery in Batman: The Long Halloween similar to the Riddler murders in The Batman, but also the film directly incorporates some plots points from the series as well. Bruce's father Dr. Thomas Wayne operating on Falcone after Falcone is shot in the chest, and the revelation that Falcone is Selina's father, are events in The Batman that were originally part of Batman: The Long Halloween.
And the concept of Bruce making his Batman mission about hope as well as vengeance The Batman is obviously directly drawn from Batman: Ego. (I must admit, when I wrote that post I discussed earlier about my belief that the Batman character is one that carries a great sense of hope, I had completely forgotten that the concept of hope within the character was so central to Batman: Ego. So thank you, Mr. Reeves, for bringing that wonderful book back to my attention!)
Interestingly, there were several other Batman comic works that influenced The Batman every bit as much as Batman: Year One, Batman: The Long Halloween, and Batman: Ego did, but they were not officially tied in with the film's release. Far and away the most prominent of these works was Batman: Earth One, a graphic novel series written by Geoff Johns and illustrated by Gary Frank. The series was published between 2013 and 2021, and it was a modern re-imagining of Batman and his world that had no connection to Batman canon found in the character's regular DC Comics titles.
The list of story elements that The Batman drew from Batman: Earth One is a very long one indeed. A young Batman is inexperienced in his crimefighting mission, and he wears a kind of "work in progress" costume that appears to have been hand-stitched by him personally. His crimefighting headquarters are not a cave, but rather an abandoned subway station. Alfred is not a loyal butler, but rather Thomas Wayne's trusted friend and security advisor with a military background. Martha Wayne was descended from the Arkham family, so the wedding of Thomas and Martha was a uniting of two of the most powerful families in Gotham City. And The Riddler is a serial killer who targets Gotham's corrupt elite.
Another comic work that had a noticeable influence on The Batman was the 2013-14 series Batman: Zero Year written by Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV, and illustrated by Greg Capullo, Danny Miki, and Rafael Albuquerque. Batman: Zero Year retold Batman's origin within the framework of DC Comics' The New 52 reboot, and its depiction of The Riddler inspired The Batman's version of that character. In Batman: Zero Year, The Riddler targets some of Gotham City's most powerful citizens, and he carries out a plot to bomb Gotham's water system and completely flood the city.
Even after discussing all of these earlier works that had an influence on The Batman, I must say that the reason I admire the film so much is that it presents a depiction of Batman that is uniquely its own version of the character. The Batman is a brilliant synthesis of over 80 years of Batman history, drawing from the character's many time-honored traditions to tell its own well-crafted story. And that makes the film a truly amazing standalone chapter in Batman history.
Speaking of drawing from the character's many time-honored traditions – I feel that The Batman is full of not only many wonderful homages to Batman comic works, but also to past Batman screen works. I was very surprised how often I was often reminded of the 1960s Batman television show and feature film while watching The Batman. A number of reviewers and Batman fans have noted The Batman's Shakespeare bust in the Wayne residence that looks just like the 1960s Batman Shakespeare bust. (Of course, the 1960s Batman Shakespeare bust in the Wayne Manor study concealed a switch that opened the bookcase leading to the Batpoles.)
But it wasn't just that direct reference that made me think of the 1960s Batman while watching The Batman. I felt that the kinship between these two vastly different Batman works was much broader than that. The film's overall depiction of Batman infused him with a sincerity, determination and purpose that made him solely devoted to his crimefighting mission – just like the 1960s Batman was.
This may seem like a stretch here, comparing these two screen versions of Batman that are so completely different in tone from one another – but hear me out for just a moment. In most all modern live-action Batman screen works, the character seems to always be looking for a way out of being Batman, and that way out always involves his latest love interest. In Batman Returns, he was going to give up his mission for Selina Kyle. In Batman Forever, he was going to give up his mission for Chase Meridian. In The Dark Knight, he was going to give up his mission for Rachel Dawes. And in The Dark Knight Rises, he was going to give up his mission for Selina Kyle again!
The 1960s Batman was NEVER going to give up his mission, not for anyone – and neither is the Batman of The Batman. In both works, the character is so fervently devoted to his fight against crime that he comes off as naive, almost to the point of being almost childlike. Bruce Wayne's unwavering fidelity to being Batman is a time-honored tradition of the comics that made it into both the 1960s Batman and The Batman.
Another element of The Batman that reminded me of the 1960s Batman is that the character is simply a man in a real-world, albeit odd costume, and seems plausible that he could be wearing that costume around regularly-dressed people. In most every other modern live-action Batman screen work the character has a costume that is adorned with fake, rubbery muscles, which makes him look so ballooned up that he can barely walk through a doorway, let alone fight criminals. The Batman finally gives the character a functional costume, one that allows him to run, to move his head freely, and to carry his crimefighting equipment.
Now, I obviously realize that the campy, pop art tone of the 1960s Batman made the character infinitely more absurd that he is supposed to be in The Batman – but still, in both works, we get a determined, functionally-costumed hero that can be plausibly standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Gotham police and firefighters, working together to keep their city safe. This straightforward, dare I say optimistic, depiction of Batman speaks both to the fan I am now and the fan I was when I was in grade school.
There is one final comparison between the 1960s Batman and The Batman that I just can't resist making. The 1966 Batman feature film and The Batman are the only two Batman big-screen works to feature the character's four most well-known villains. If you've made it this far into this very long review, I can't imagine that you haven't already seen The Batman. So I'm going to assume that you know about the film's big Joker reveal. That reveal meant that the 1966 Batman and The Batman's common villains were The Riddler, The Penguin, The Catwoman, and The Joker!
And I should point out that these qualities of The Batman I've just been discussing remind me not only of the 1960s Batman, but also of the classic 1990s television series Batman: The Animated Series. That series made you feel like Gotham City was a real-life place, one that was filled with all of these fascinating people that were constantly crossing paths with one another. In both The Batman and Batman: The Animated Series, the common citizens of Gotham go about their everyday lives as strangely-clad heroes and villains continually melt out of and back into the shadows.
And when Batman: The Animated Series made the leap to the big screen with the film Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993), it featured flashback sequences showing Bruce Wayne as a young man that were very similar to the manner in which Bruce was portrayed in The Batman. In both works, Bruce is angst-ridden and almost unbearably restless as he tries to find a way to balance his life between the person he was born as and his newly-created Batman persona.
After all the praise I've heaped on The Batman, you might be wondering, "Isn't there ANYTHING he doesn't like about the film?" Well, there are a few things in the film that don't quite line up with my own interpretation of Batman and his world. First and foremost, the film's depiction of The Riddler as a Zodiac Killer-style murderer is not the way I think the character works best. I personally always loved the way The Riddler was depicted in Batman: The Animated Series – that Riddler had a flamboyant, smug air about him that left you thinking he believed himself to be the smartest guy in any room. And he was always more interested in outwitting people than he was in killing them. Those more lighthearted qualities are not really a part of The Riddler at all in The Batman, and I definitely miss them.
And I feel that Martha Wayne's influence on Bruce is sorely underemphasized in the film. In The Batman, Bruce and Alfred discuss Thomas Wayne a number of times, but Martha is barely mentioned other than fleeting references to her psychological problems. And when the injured Alfred discusses the Wayne murders with Bruce, he says "You needed a father...and what you had was me." In my opinion, it would have been so much more appropriate, and frankly less gender-biased, if that line had been "You needed your parents...and what you had was me."
OK, let's get back to heaping praise on The Batman! I've been going on and on about the way the film portrays Batman, but I haven't written a thing about the actors who really bring the movie to life. Robert Pattinson as Bruce Wayne/Batman is – well, perfect! He brings a vulnerability, even a sweetness, to his scenes as Bruce, and a constant intensity to his scenes as Batman, that makes the character more compelling and believable than he has ever been on screen.
And all of the film's other lead actors are every bit as stellar in their roles as Pattinson is in his role. Jeffrey Wright delivers his lines as Gordon as if what he has to say about Gotham is so painful to him that it makes his throat hurt – his performance is truly a film noir-style tour de force. Zoe Kravitz's Catwoman, Colin Farrell's Penguin, and John Turturro's Falcone have instantly become my favorite live-action depictions of these characters. In fact, I'll even go so far as to say that I find their performances in The Batman to be the definitive screen versions of their respective characters.
I can't go quite as far in my praise for Paul Dano's Riddler – that is because as I just stated, the film's version of the character isn't really the way I see him. That said, however, Dano brings a menacing creepiness to the role in The Batman that is both powerful and memorable. Finally, Andy Serkis's Alfred is a wonderful counterpart for Pattinson's Bruce/Batman. Serkis plays the role in a manner that is perfectly in keeping with the way the character was depicted in the Batman: Earth One graphic novel series.
There is one more actor I feel I need to mention here. Since I had discussed the young man being initiated into a gang in the film's Batman first scene in such detail, I want to point out that the young man is played by Jay Lycurgo. Interestingly, Lycurgo has since been cast as Tim Drake/Robin in the HBO Max series Titans. This prominent casting could lead one to wonder if Lycurgo might again be called upon to cross over between between these two DC screen worlds. Could Lycurgo's character in The Batman return in a sequel? Only time will tell!
Speaking of a sequel to The Batman – it sure looks like Barry Keoghan's Joker will be a major part of that film if and when it gets made. Keoghan was billed as "Unseen Arkham Prisoner" in his scene in the movie when he talks to The Riddler in Arkham, but obviously there was never any doubt as to just who that prisoner really was. In fact, Matt Reeves took it upon himself to make the prisoner's identity crystal clear – just weeks after The Batman premiered, the director released an intriguing deleted scene from the film showing Batman speaking with a shackled Joker at Arkham about the Riddler case. The scene was made even more intriguing by the fact that it revealed that Batman and Joker had already encountered one another during Batman's early crimefighting exploits.
The performances of all of these actors are matched by the film's amazing production and set design. The Batman has a real-world sensibility to it that no Batman film has ever had. The character's costume, his equipment, and his Batmobile all have a do-it-yourself, homemade feel to them that is such a welcome departure from the fantasy-based way the character has so often been portrayed on screen.
The stitching on Batman's cowl and his police-style utility belt give his costume a plausibility that it has never had in a live-action movie. One of the most memorable features of the costume is its bat-shaped chest insignia – instead of being just a decoration, the insignia is actually a batarang that is built into the suit's body armor. This detail reinforces the idea that everything about the costume is designed for practical use. And the Batmobile has the character of a kitbashed hot rod that a model car enthusiast might dream up. The vehicle provides some of the most thrilling action scenes in the film when Batman pushes it to the limit chasing down the Penguin on the streets of Gotham.
Now that we've showed some love for the actors and production values in The Batman, it's time to do the same for the film's director and writers. Matt Reeves and Peter Craig have brought Batman and his world to the screen in a way that I feel is compelling, believable, and hugely entertaining. As a lifelong Batman fan, I will always treasure this film.
Please understand that my feelings about The Batman do not any any way diminish my affection for my favorite past Batman movies. I will always love the 1989 Batman, because its release will forever stand as the first time a worldwide audience appreciated Batman in the way Bob Kane and Bill Finger had intended him to be appreciated when they created the first Batman comic story back in 1939. And I will always love Batman Begins, because when it was released, I felt that it treated the character more seriously than any previous Batman film ever had.
But I think my feelings for The Batman are even more powerful than my feelings for those two films, because it infuses the character with an even higher level of intelligence and seriousness. So it seems appropriate to close out this review by restating what I said at its beginning – there has never been a Batman screen work that made its way into my mind, heart and soul like The Batman has. Mr. Reeves and company, thank you so much for this film! And by the way, I'm ready to head back to Gotham whenever you are!