You may recall that roughly five months ago, I wrote an expansive piece on Daniel Craig’s final James Bond movie and how the franchise should move forward. In it, I said that I believe the two best fictional characters ever created are Bond and Batman. Thus, it should come as no surprise that I was beyond excited for The Batman, and counted the days until its release this past weekend.
First, let’s dispense with the origin story behind my love of Batman: I like to say that, as a kid, the only two things I cared about were baseball and superheroes, and the only thing that has changed as an adult is that I have added movies to that sacred list. As consumed as I have always been by various costumed crimefighters over the years, Batman has always been number one in my (comic) book. I collect comic books as a hobby, with thousands of them resting in mylar bags on top of acid-free cardboard backings. Naturally, they are alphabetized in long boxes in a bedroom closet, where it is cool and dry and pretty much perfect for storing my collection. It includes two full boxes dedicated exclusively to Batman comics, of which I have more than 600.
One of the wedding gifts my fiancée got for me before we tied the knot was two pairs of Batman socks, one of which I am wearing right now as I write this. I spend far too much time reading and thinking about Batman, especially considering that I am firmly in middle age and should have better things to do with my life.
And yet, reading Batman comics and diving into the mythos of Gotham was an escape of sorts that has brought me infinite joy over the years. Sure, numerous movies, TV shows, and animated series have played a part in my ongoing fandom, and I acknowledge my Bat-habit unapologetically, but as vices go, collecting comic books is cheaper than many and healthier than most.
The odd years when a Batman movie comes along are fraught with anxiety, because never, not once, have I ever thought that any of the filmmakers who came along really got the character right. As much as I enjoyed 1989’s Batman and Michael Keaton’s performance in it, the movie was too interested in Jack Nicholson’s Joker and Keaton’s portrayal of Bruce Wayne to truly satisfy me. Yes, it was groundbreaking at the time, and modern superhero movies are direct descendants of Tim Burton‘s film, but still… I was left wanting more.
No other Batman movie since has come close to making me happy, especially not Christopher Nolan‘s spectacularly overrated trilogy, the worship of which continues to baffle me. Batman Begins is a solid if run-of-the-mill action film but The Dark Knight is a ham-handed exploration of good versus evil, elevated by a once-in-a-generation performance from Heath Ledger, and The Dark Knight Rises is downright garbage, the essence of lazy storytelling.
Additionally, in all three of Nolan’s films, the character of Bruce Wayne and the villains he faces are all given more attention and focus than Batman himself. That difference, making viewers understand the character of Bruce Wayne and not Batman, might seem counterintuitive, as they’re the same person, but it’s deeper than that. Batman is the monster that lives inside the man, and while the Nolan movies pay it lip service, they don’t delve too far beneath that surface.
On top of all that, in none of those movies was Batman’s foremost comic book trait — his skill as a detective — ever really explored. To me, that was something that was constantly missing from the previous films. We never saw Batman actually solve any mysteries. So when director Matt Reeves took on the project and announced that he wanted to make a gritty detective noir, my heart soared. Yes, soared. This, I hoped, would finally give me what I wanted. After all these years, after decades of wanting, at long last I would get the one thing Hollywood had never granted me — a Batman movie that focused on him rather than the villains, and on his skills instead of his gadgets. This film would feature a crime that needed to be solved, rather than bad guys who just needed to be beaten up.
Of course, I had been sucked in before, especially with Nolan’s films, and yet hope sprung eternal. I tried to manage my expectations, especially after I saw some of the reviews. While I avoided spoilers, there were people whose opinions I respect who liked but didn’t love it, including Below the Line Editor Jeff Sneider, who gave the film a solid if uninspiring ‘B’ grade at the end of his review.
Now with all of this build-up, let’s cut to the spoiler-free chase:
I loved every second of The Batman.
I was thrilled, enthralled, moved, and utterly blown away. It was everything I have ever wanted from a Batman movie, and then some. It wasn’t about Bruce Wayne, it was about Batman, and his insatiable obsession with “fixing” Gotham City.
Paul Dano’s Riddler, Zoë Kravitz’s Catwoman, Colin Farrell’s Penguin — they were all supporting players, meant to allow us to see the protagonist’s arc, rather than take away from it, as previous films have. In this film, Batman (Robert Pattinson) starts out as a vigilante bent on vengeance, and by the end of the movie, he understands that for him to have the kind of influence he desires, he must be more than an instrument of revenge, he must be heroic and inspirational. Everything else, even Bruce Wayne himself, is secondary, even if it’s a realization Wayne has about his own past that helps Batman better understand his mission.
In previous films, Batman was Bruce Wayne’s alter ego. In this one, the alter ego is Bruce. Pattinson understands this, and his performance echoes it as he carries the movie on his shoulders. He simply is Batman, and it’s incredible.
The detective story aspect is equally well-executed, with moments spent at a crime scene where Batman sees things the crime techs initially miss. There is a gag with a thumb drive that would have impressed Sherlock Holmes. Clues offered by the Riddler are complex and difficult, and Batman solves them, showing his work as he does. That is the essence of being a detective, and watching it, seeing the mystery unfold as the method behind the Riddler’s madness becomes more clear, I thought that, if this movie had been about a detective who didn’t wear a cape and a cowl, people would be responding to it very differently.
Does it pull some punches? It does, yes, and that’s entirely because Warner Bros. gave Reeves one decree, which is that the movie had to get a PG-13 rating. In retrospect, this was a mistake, because the freedom that more adult rating offers could have further intensified this already remarkably intense film. For proof, I offer 2017’s Logan, which was rated R, earned a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination, grossed over $600 million worldwide, and is unquestionably one of the best superhero movies of all time. Part of the reason for that is because it didn’t have the standard superhero movie limits attached, and co-writer/director James Mangold decided to make the movie as if it were a deadly Western.
The Batman is similarly risky, in that it’s more a noir thriller — think 2007’s Zodiac — than a superhero movie. It goes right to the top of my list of all-time superhero movies (and as you can imagine, I’ve seen almost all of them), as well as on my list of great detective stories, as it’s every bit as complex and riveting as Chinatown or The Maltese Falcon. If this story had been about a protagonist like, say, Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) or Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart), people would be talking about a 2023 Best Picture nomination instead of lessening its impact because the main character wears a mask.
At the same time, though, if Warners had trusted that the R-rating would not have put too big a dent into the film’s eventual grosses, it could have been compared favorably to another David Fincher film, Se7en, which is about as good as it gets for modern crime films, even if the two main cops, Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and Mills (Brad Pitt), don’t actually solve anything. They get an illegal tip from a government agent Somerset knows, which leads them to the killer, who then escapes, only to reveal himself to them later on his own blood-soaked terms. And yet, it is hailed as a masterpiece. As a film, it unquestionably is. As a detective movie? Not so much.
Zodiac, on the other hand, is a terrific detective story, one that was badly overlooked come awards time, and The Batman is a close cousin of that serial killer thriller. It might even surpass it, precisely because it overcomes its own built-in handicap of being a superhero movie.
The bias so many hold against those movies, including good friends of mine who rudely dismissed my love of the film because it’s just another comic book flick, is quite real, but that’s just another reason why The Batman is so good. It adheres to the tropes of several different genres without ever being beholden to the obvious one. It’s a great superhero movie, yes, but more than that, it’s really just a great movie.
A movie I have waited my whole life to see. And now, thanks to Reeves and his co-writer Peter Craig, I have.
P.S: Before filing this column, I read it aloud to my wife, who asked me, since I’ve been satisfied by a Batman movie, “What will you do with your life now?” Well, luckily, I am married to a wonderful woman with whom I can share that life… as we wait together for the sequel. Indeed, the joke is on her.
Neil Turitz is a journalist, essayist, author, and filmmaker who has worked in and written about Hollywood for nearly 25 years, though he has never lived there. These days, he splits his time between New York City and the Berkshires. He’s not on Twitter, but you can find him on Instagram @6wordreviews.
You can read a new installation of The Accidental Turitz every Wednesday, and all previous columns can be found here.