The Batman Is the Definitive Dark Knight Noir Film

As a character in pop culture, Batman has been everpresent in various forms of media for over 80 years now. In that time, we’ve seen a multitude of live-action iterations of the caped crusader, and while all of them share the same base similarities, it’s still quite special to see a completely new take on the character in this age. Matt Reeves' The Batman is one of those, taking cues from the Dark Knight’s detective days of the past and presenting a ferocious young man, isolated from society finding solace in hunting down criminals of Gotham from and within the shadows.

In The Batman, Robert Pattinson (The Lighthouse, Tenet) plays a young Bruce Wayne in his second year as the eponymous hero, working alongside Gotham’s Police department (or more specifically, Jim Gordon) to hunt criminals. At this point in his career of vigilantism, the Bat hasn’t quite managed to earn the trust of GCPD, or the whole of Gotham for that matter. The only people to be on his side are Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) and his trusted companion Alfred (played by the talented Andy Serkis). The film sees Batman at the heart of a murder mystery at the hands of the Riddler (Paul Dano), that swings him across the entirety of Gotham seeking new allies like Catwoman (Zoe Kravitz) and enemies like the Penguin (Colin Farrell).

Scouring the dirty streets of the city whole nights, this Bruce is a nocturnal, socially isolated person who really hits home the idea of “Bruce Wayne is the mask”. This isn’t the billionaire playboy persona that Christian Bale and more recently Ben Affleck deployed as their guise. This is a Bruce who starts off finding catharsis in beating and hunting thugs, not inspiring hope for Gotham. It’s an interesting start to a character we’ve seen a dozen times before. We’ve seen previous iterations only touch on this aspect, and usually with levity coming from Bruce’s interactions with his one true friend, Alfred. Here, we see a Bruce who does not, and cannot act human in front of society, though that doesn’t mean he lacks compassion. Pattinson doesn’t use a voice modulator, mechanical or natural, and instead presents the Bat and Bruce in a rather soft-spoken manner. This is a guy that attracts attention through his silent gaze, which both inspire confidence and radiate fear, depending on the situation. We start off hearing Bruce’s narration of his journal, instantly reminding me of Rorschach (Watchmen), although the contents of his journal don’t go that dark.

Alright then, let’s start off with his companions. Batman’s best partner in crime-fighting, Alfred, is present sparingly but with good impact. It’s certainly an interesting choice to pick Andy Serkis for the role, with his physical demeanour in the film suggesting a more combat-worn butler than we’re seen in the past. While Alfred doesn’t get to throw any punches here, I have no doubts that he can stand his own ground in the heat. You know who does get to join Batman in the action? Gordon. Played to perfection by Jeffrey Wright, he’s one of the only people in the entirety of Gotham that trusts Batman, starkly contrasting the rest of the GCPD. It’s a tough role for the character, to stand up for the caped vigilante amidst a crime scene where his colleagues belittle the Bat’s freakish nature. Being the good cop he is, Gordon is willing to go to any lengths to save his city, even if it is from his own department’s corruption, which plays a major part in the narrative.

Moving on, we get to…less friendly faces, with Selina Kyle’s Catwoman leading the bunch. An anti-hero of sorts, Kravitz’s Selina is the most independent, self-made version of the character since Michelle Pfeiffer’s version, although with no supernatural ties. The Cat joins the Bat reluctantly, with a deeply personal motive connected to the ongoing Riddler murders. We learn a lot about this new Selina Kyle, with some narrative threads that, while comic accurate, even left me surprised. Similar to Batman Returns, this Catwoman has ties to the Penguin’s empire, and my god is the (soon to be) king of Gotham done well. Completely unrecognisable thanks to incredible makeup and voice work, Colin Farrel’s Cobblepot feels like a mob boss straight out of a twisted Martin Scorsese gangster drama. The theme continues with the biggest surprise in the film with John Turturro’s Carmine Falcone, who turns out to be much more central to the plot than I had previously thought he would be. Both Cobblepot and Falcone are kings in their own right, pulling the strings atop the Iceberg Lounge, with sinister motives of their own that pose a serious threat to the Batman’s sense of justice.

Of course, then there’s the final piece of the puzzle — Paul Dano’s Riddler who might go down as one of the most terrifying antagonists of cinema, if only stopped from reaching those heights in moments of (slightly) campy behaviour. Keeping the Batman and the rest of our good guys guessing for most of the movie, the Riddler loses some steam in the film’s third act, which itself is a little messy. Nearly 3 hours long, The Batman meanders a little bit in the final third, reaching crescendos multiple times only to stop in its tracks to chase new leads. That third act sticks out even more upon a second viewing, with what could be perceived as multiple endings, complete with a direct tease of the future as well. That’s the only thing that stops me from calling this a perfect film but that doesn’t mean it won’t satisfy most DC fans to the fullest.

With a story centred around both Gotham’s finest and wretched, it makes sense for the film to also dive into the political machinations of its characters. Through that, we not only learn more about this Gotham’s history, but also of Bruce’s. We don’t get to see his origins story play out again, but enough is left to infer from his surroundings that the audience can pick up on the years of pain and suffering a young Wayne has endured, as have many in a similar position without the riches and resources of a billionaire.

The Batman is very much inspired by and made in the style of a 90s suspense film that harkens back to the character’s rise in the noir spectrum of the 1980s. There have been numerous comparisons to David Fincher’s films like Seven and Zodiac, and it fits right in with those. Like the unnamed city in Seven, Gotham is a sprawling metropolis either always in rain or under cloudy skies. As long as Batman has existed, his home city has always played an important role in his stories. Gotham is a character in itself, evolving with the Bat in each iteration, and this one is perhaps the perfect mixture of realism and creative liberty. Neon signs lit every which way in its underbelly but also laden with tall towers for the rich and powerful, this Gotham shares many similarities with previous versions, but it’s the atmosphere that separates it from the rest. It’s not too real like in Nolan’s trilogy, nor is it too fantastical like in Zack Snyder’s world.

Perhaps the first thing that will stick out the most here is the way Gotham, and the people in it, are shot on camera. Greig Fraser brings his A-game to the cinematography, painting a completely different world than the one we saw in Dune, another WB blockbuster that came out less than six months prior. Fraser makes some interesting choices in his uses of lenses, with a shallow, dreamlike, spherical depth of field to focus on characters. Interiors lit dimly with often just a handful of light sources, and exteriors always under the clouds, this is literally the darkest Batman film yet, but it never looks unnatural. I know the film also used ILM’s StageCraft, a virtual production most famous for its use in Disney’s The Mandalorian, and it’s used effectively to paint gorgeous vistas behind the Bat’s silhouette.

I saw The Batman on a glorious IMAX screen, and while the film doesn’t have any sequences that use the format’s expanded aspect ratio, it’s worth seeing it in a premium format for the sound mix alone. One particular sequence that serves as the introduction to the new, sleek Batmobile is extremely well done, with the modded muscle car imposing more of a physical threat that the overly stylised vehicles of the Burtonverse. When the Batman comes out at night, we get introduced to him through the criminals’ perspective, and sound plays an extraordinarily vital role in amping up his presence. Michael Giacchino’s haunting score evokes imagery from the victorian era with a unique twist. Mixing that in with ‘Something in the Way’ (Nirvana) is a genius choice, that plays perfectly with Bruce’s inner monologues throughout the film.

While it is mostly a murder mystery, playing to the strengths of the world’s greatest detective, the action sequences are also a feast for the eyes. With familiar but cool gadgets at his disposal, this Batman can take on the toughest of opponents Gotham can throw at him. Of course, being relatively new at the job, the Bat can still occasionaly feel overwhelmed by the craziness, which always keeps him grounded. While he doesn’t move as swiftly as Ben Affleck’s crusader did in the glorious warehouse scene from BvS, he also doesn’t feel uncomfortable while throwing punches like Christian Bale did (The Dark Knight is great, its fight scenes are not). As he is still grounded in reality, even more so than Nolan’s films, this Batman hasn’t quite learned to swiftly fly over Gotham yet, and the moments of doubt he shows before using the tricks up his sleeves tell a lot about Bruce without exposition.

Verdict

The Batman is the perfect film for fans of both comic books and the noir genre, bringing Batman back to his roots in a well-realised Gotham, complete with familiar yet unique cast of characters. It’s some of the most thorough, and darkest, looks at Batman’s world of the criminally insane, and even though it’s primarily a detective film, the action sequences also mark some of the best moves we’ve seen the Bat dancing to in a long while for the big screen.

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