By Will Barber Taylor
“Fear is a tool. When that light hits the sky it’s not just a signal – it’s a warning.”
Two years of stalking the streets as Batman, striking fear into the hearts of criminals, has led Bruce Wayne deep into the shadows of Gotham City. With only a few trusted allies amongst the city’s corrupt network of officials and high‐profile figures, the lone vigilante has established himself as the sole embodiment of vengeance amongst his fellow citizens.
When a killer targets Gotham’s elite with a series of sadistic machinations, a trail of cryptic clues sends the World’s Greatest Detective on an investigation into the underworld, where he encounters Selina Kyle/aka Catwoman, Oswald Cobblepot/aka the Penguin, Carmine Falcone, and Edward Nashton/aka the Riddler.
I’ve written a great deal about Batman for this site – both the previous Batman films but also Batman throughout his eighty odd years in comic books. Batman is a fascinating character and one who a great deal of time has been spent by a variety of people discussing and analysing his inner most workings. Batman’s psyche is part of why Matt Reeves latest addition to The Caped Crusader’s canon is so compelling, but it is not the only reason.
Reeves film deals with the politics of the Dark Knight in a way that hasn’t been touched upon in film as much as it should or could have been. Certainly, the films have never strayed away from the corruption that is presented as seeping from Gotham’s every pore in the Batman universe – Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy goes to great lengths to demonstrate how much the GDP run by Commissioner Loeb is in Carmine Falcone’s pocket in Batman Begins and similar corruption is seen throughout the other two films. Similarly, Batman Returns sees Max Shreck blithely disposing of whoever he wants and attempt to manipulate the election of Gotham’s Mayor to plant Oswald Cobblepot as his stooge in the role.
Yet, whilst the innate rot of Gotham has been depicted, and depicted well, in previous films, Reeves goes deeper than that. It is the way the corruption is depicted as being funded by Falcone’s control over Thomas Wayne’s Renewal fund, perpetuating a lie that fund is to improve Gotham and rebuild the city whilst using it to make it worse. It is at the heart of the Riddler’s motivation for exposing the rot of Gotham city – to lay bare in front of the eyes of the whole city that they have been sold a lie of hope. It is a fascinating comparison to how many would view modern politics in America – that much is made in cities like Gotham and across the country of progress being made, of things getting better without any change actually occurring.
It, therefore, allows Reeves to make his film have a deeper message whilst also giving an explanation as to why this Gotham needs Batman. Reeves brilliantly intertwines the film’s overarching message with Bruce Wayne/Batman’s journey as a character. Beginning the film as an agent of rage, an agent of vengeance (he is referred to by more characters as vengeance then he is as Batman) Batman realizes that both he and the legacy of his family, the Renewal fund which he took no prior interest in, have had an impact on Gotham but rather the opposite of the effect he intended to have.
Indeed, Reeves intertwining of the Dark Knight’s inner most struggle for identity with Gotham’s struggle to evolve makes this, though not billed as an origin film, very much akin to one. Although unlike Batman Begins it does not depict the murder of the Waynes or Bruce’s years of training to become Batman this film does show Gotham’s transition from a town dominated by the mob to one of “costumed freaks” (like The Long Halloween which the film draws upon) as well as Bruce defining what it means to be Batman. His horrified realisation that he has in part inspired both The Riddler and his supporters leading him to lead the people of Gotham away from the flood waters that are consuming the upper reaches of the city marks Bruce turning his back on being an agent of vengeance and making Batman both a tool to make criminals afraid and to give those in need hope. Batman as a symbol of hope was most prominently, in film at least, explored in The Dark Knight Rises but it has a well deserved place in the core of why the Batman mythos are appealing in the comics. Reeves draws deep on the well of Batman stories taking inspiration not just from The Long Halloween but also from Darwyn Cooke’s seminal Batman: Ego (a characterisation which is core to Bruce’s transition from angel of retribution to saviour of the city) as well as Scott Snyder’s triumphant Batman: Zero Year.
Whilst Batman’s transformation at the end of the film is important it is also worth discussing how Reeves present Batman as the angel of retribution; throughout the film whether it be during the chase sequence with the Penguin or in his initial appearance at the train station, Reeves imbues his Batman with a relentlessness that lends itself to him being considered to be a representation of remorseless revenge. This is not only reflective of the talent of the film maker but also his ability to draw on the long and storied history of Batman to create a film that is dynamic in its own right and yet pays homage to elements from the comics. The audible sound of Batman’s footsteps approaching is evocative of Frank Miller’s 1985 classic The Dark Knight Returns in which Batman uses the sound of his footsteps to create greater fear and uncertainty in a group of hired thugs his is pursuing.
Reeves and others have stated in interviews that they drew both upon Darth Vader as well as classic Hollywood monsters in their approach to how Batman is presented to his criminal prey, and it works sincerely to the films advantage. By giving that intensity to how relentless and angry Bruce feels for the majority of the film it not only ensures that his presence on the screen is visually striking, but it also works wonderfully in reflecting the arc that he goes through in the film; defining what it means to be Batman.
The intertwining of Reeves beautifully filmed shots with the captivating score by Michael Giacchino raises the film to almost operatic levels of foreboding menace – the sequence prior to Batman’s initial appearance in which his narration signals the way that the Bat Signal’s mere presence sends criminals into a frenzy would not be nearly as effective without Giancchino’s score.
The film’s cast of course help to emphasise the excellent mixture of tone and pacing that is at the core of Reeves’ film. Robert Pattinson’s portrayal of Bruce Wayne and Batman, a man who seem addicted to his life under the cowl plays well with the film’s central driving force that even despite Batman’s attempts to clean up crime in Gotham, the city’s sickness is much deeper than he thought. Pattinson manages to not only fulfil his role as a menacing and at times truly frightening Batman but also as a Bruce Wayne who is still deeply hurt by the trauma of his parent’s death. Pattinson’s ability to convey Bruce’s inner thoughts, whether scanning the funeral service of the Mayor or connecting with the Mayor’s son because of their shared trauma, demonstrates why he was the perfect choice to play Reeves’ iteration of the Caped Crusader.
Jeffrey Wright’s version of Jim Gordon, at this point still a Lieutenant, is another key role that is played with an understated grit. Wright convincingly plays Gordon as a man who is stuck in a system he knows is corrupt and one that he must find a way to mend. One potential problem that the film has is that unlike with the Nolan trilogy, there seems to be (as of this film) little reason for Gordon to trust Batman as much as he does. Certainly one could argue that having established relationships means the film doesn’t have to spend far too much time depicting the kind of relationships that film goers would already be familiar with however this is a metatextual explanation and not the most fitting in film explanation as to why Gordon trusts Batman as much as he does (or how, given the Commissioner Pete Savage’s utter hatred of Batman and one that seems common throughout the GDP during the film Gordon was able to get the funding for a Bat – Signal unlike at the end of Batman Begins where it makes sense for the GDP to want to fund the signal).
This is in somewhat contrast to Reeves’ careful depiction of the relationship between Batman and Catwoman. Reeves allows for them to spend time getting to know one another and helps to establish why they would end up working together and becoming romantically involved after initially distrusting one another – it gives their relationship a more three dimensional feel. The clear panache that Zoe Kravitz brings to the character and her clear chemistry with Pattinson adds to this and they fully develop and utilize the time Reeves gives them in the film to explore their character’s rapport.
The Batman is truly a superb movie that defies many of the preconceptions about both a superhero film and a Batman film. It is a film not only about one man’s never ending battle for redemption, both for his city but also for himself, but it is a film that also shows how often progress or the seeming presentation of progress can be used to stop real change. Efforts to change society can often be cossetted attempts to keep it from truly developing as the film presents. The contrasting ways to make Gotham better presented by the Riddler and Batman are truly brilliantly intertwined by Reeves to make audiences question how far apart the two are and how easily they could have each gone on different trajectories.
Through this film, Reeves helps to redefine comic books greatest superhero for a new generation and provide a film that embraces the history and heart of Batman. If you are a fan and haven’t seen this genuinely astounding addition to the Caped Crusader’s cinematic catalogue then make sure you change that now by seeing this incredible film.