New from Jeff York on The Establishing Shot: “THE BATMAN” SHOWCASES THE CAPED CRUSADER’S BRAIN OVER HIS BRAWN

Original caricature by Jeff York of Robert Pattinson, Zoe Kravitz, Jeffrey Wright, Paul Dano, and Colin Farrell in THE BATMAN. (copyright 2022)

In the decades of Batman lore, the Caped Crusader has often been described as “half ninja, half Sherlock Holmes.” Outside of the animated series from the early 90s and its cartoon off-shoots, most adaptations have missed the detective side of the Bat. Until now. This new effort from director Matt Reeves not only showcases Batman’s brain more than his brawn, but it also creates a filmgoing experience for audiences that is as tense and rich as almost any cinematic mystery of the last 20 years. That’s right, at the end of the day this is more of a detective story than a comic book adventure. And Batman is better for it.

Reeves pays great respect to the detective heritage of the hero while finding plenty of room to put some unique spins on the tried and true tropes of the cowled hero. Gotham City remains the sprawling mecca it’s always been, but here it’s grungier, meaner, its buildings leering downwards over all the corruption going on below. Rain is constantly falling too as if God is forever mourning this shithole of a city that needs a true reckoning. And indeed, cleaning up the unscrupulous town is exactly what drives Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) to don his cape and stalk the streets at night, looking for the human vermin infesting it. 

Gone, for the most part, is Wayne’s “split personality” and replaced by a man on a mission. In voice-over narration, Wayne tells us of what his career has now become. Running Wayne Enterprises is only a lark; his true calling is now as a full-time crime fighter. This Batman is in his second year of vigilantism and he knows what he’s doing. He also knows how to work with the police and one of the better elements of Reeves’ version is that this Bat is more a part of the team than working against it. In fact, here, detective Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright, terrific as always) is almost like Dr. Watson, working alongside Batman in his Sherlock Holmes mode. In a terrific early scene, Batman enters a crime scene as a guest of Gordon’s and proceeds to offer his shrewdly calm assessment of the evidence just as Holmes would. It’s clever as both procedural and character study.

The evidence that Batman and Gordon discover associated with the murder of the town’s corrupt mayor is left conspicuously by a villain who calls himself The Riddler (an insinuatingly creepy Paul Dano). The clues left to be found are in the form of riddles, meant to taunt the police and invite Batman to play. As Batman and Gordon soon figure out, the Riddler is picking off those in City Hall who are on the take, robbing the city blind and looking the other way from the syndicate’s many businesses.

The Riddler is also having fun with it all, leaving behind ciphers and puzzles at each crime scene to taunt the police. If that sounds like the famed Zodiac killer from the ’70s to you, you’re spot on. Reeves and his co-screenwriter Peter Craig have designed the Riddler in the same mold, not just in his gamesmanship, but in his taunting arrogance. This Riddler even wears the same style of specs that the Zodiac favored, and he wears them over a hooded face, just like the serial killer did when he attached that young couple at Lake Berryessa back in 1969.

Reeves revels in masks here and most everyone is wearing one, literally or figuratively. All of the big-wigs running the city are in the pocket of mob boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro, dressed up to look like Sam Giancana). Slinky Selina Kyle (AKA Catwoman) is played by an intense Zoe Kravitz, and she’s out partial to masks and disguises too. All the better to get revenge on Falcone for betraying her mother decades ago. Kyle’s undercover at one of his clubs, hoping to get close enough to off the gangster. When she’s out on the streets, tooling around on her motorcycle, she likes to wear a mask as well, this time a black ski cap that buckles and makes its own cat ears. It’s a clever homage to those “Pussy hats” that all those women wore to protest Trump after his inauguration in 2017.  Reeves throws in a number of clever Easter eggs like that, and yet they never become too distracting. 

Instead, Reeves keeps his focus on the detective story with Batman trying to stop the Riddler, as well as figure out where the murders overlap with Falcone’s crime family. To do so, Batman enlists Kyle since she’s already waitressing at the mafioso’s nightclub. They have some sexual chemistry sure, but it’s downplayed in favor of them acting as a dynamic duo working together to solve the mystery. 

The Penguin shows up too, but he’s not a cartoonish lout as he’s often played. Instead, he’s part of Falcone’s crew, a funny but vicious henchman, played by British actor Colin Farrell under heavy makeup. It’s yet another choice that Reeves makes to ground his Batman story in something more that makes it more accessible, and with higher stakes. That holds true in the scene where Batman chases the Penguin down a rain-soaked freeway. The car chase feels like THE FRENCH CONNECTION, full of kinetic energy and madness, but one where cars get damaged and even the Batmobile comes out significantly worse for the wear. 

It’s hard to believe that the violence on hand here didn’t yield an R rating. There are some killings in the film that could’ve taken place in a SAW movie. Thankfully, Reeves doesn’t dwell on the carnage. Instead, the filmmaker invests in character instead, and in Pattinson, he’s got a more thoughtful and soulful hero than the brawler of past takes. Pattinson is quietly intense throughout, always thinking, occasionally being drolly funny, but giving his Batman a no-nonsense air too. When he punches a thug, it’s to take him down. In fact, the fight scenes throughout this film are swift and sharp. This Batman needs to get back to his detective work, and the bad guys in his path are merely a distraction.

Thus, with a strong detective story, more grounded action, and well-developed characters across the board, this Batman film stands out as the best in years, perhaps even since the animated THE MASK OF THE PHANTASM back in ’93. It also looks incredible, with the grungy, dilapidated Gotham feeling like New York in the early 70s. The production design team, headed up by James Chinlund, should be remembered at Oscar time next year for creating such a wreck of a city. (Is it possible to give an award for best performance by urban sprawl?) Additionally, composer Michael Giacchino adds much to the mix with a score that’s alternately menacing and poignant. I particularly like Giacchino’s use of clanging percussion, sometimes in the form of church bells, other times an anvil chorus, to drive the bass line. 

The film clocks in at just under three hours, and some trimming could have been done, but this film is a riveting one from the first frame to last. Is this Batman the Batman? Hard to know this early, but I’m sure Reeves and Pattinson will be back for more. Here’s hoping they delve into Arkham Asylum, as promised in the denouement. 

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