When the release of The Batman (2022) was announced two years ago, I was hesitant. Could this be just another rushed, processed, and artificial cinematic confection meant to saturate the struggling DCEU? Overall, the Batman franchise’s track record has been hit or miss, providing more flops than masterpieces. Fortunately, when I walked out of the movie theatre, my hope in the Batman film had been restored. Inspiration from a myriad of popular Batman stories and the injection of filmmaker and writer Matt Reeves’s style and vision culminate in a cinematic stand-alone that proves the comic book film has not been exhausted. Reeves’s The Batman offers the most earnest interpretation yet.
Ruminating on my reverence for the film, I began to wonder, what exactly makes a successful Batman film? I came to the following conclusion: like the presence of Gotham City or the Batmobile on-screen, visibility of cinematic style is essential to a Batman film. Specifically, direction from an auteur— who injects individual directorial style into a work— is that special ingredient that makes these films shine, and push the boundaries of what a Batman film, or a comic book film, can be. Reeves’s style, inspirations, and treatment of genre can be felt throughout The Batman, as he creates a genre-bending film noir in which a younger, angrier, and uninitiated Dark Knight must solve a mystery leading him deep into Gotham’s corrupted heart. Reeves creates a fresh, grounded, and visceral cinematic and thematic vocabulary that both homages the source material and innovates upon the films that came before, resulting in an iteration that resonates not just with fans of Batman, but of the comic book film as well.
To create his version of Batman, Reeves draws on such stories as Batman: Year One (1987) by Frank Miller, Batman: The Long Halloween (1996), and Batman: Earth One (2012) by Geoff Johns. These stories depict Batman at the beginning of his career, questioning whether his presence can rid Gotham City of corruption and if he is to blame for the city’s rising supervillain element. Reeves also draws inspiration from the comic Batman: Ego (2000) by Darwyn Cooke, a story that delves into the duality of the Dark Knight’s psyche as he rationalizes the methods and motivations behind his one-man war on crime. Reeves boils these stories down to their essential plot points, themes, and motifs, blending them to create his own unique take on the story, the world, and the characters. As a result, Reeves’s pastiche creates a turbulent Batman in constant negotiation with himself, struggling to find the balance between vengeance and hope to become the symbol Gotham needs. Additionally, Reeves builds a comic-book world one can get lost in, a rain-splattered, sprawling, and grimy Gotham city where skyscrapers and Gothic cathedrals choke the skyline. The filmmaker populates this world with fresh, modern, yet recognizable interpretations of beloved characters, including a Penguin ripped right from Goodfellas (1990), an emotionally resonant, nuanced Catwoman, a cerebral Jim Gordon, and a digitally savvy, deranged Riddler. Unlike past iterations, which either disregard the source material or follow it too closely, Reeves strikes a balance, evoking the spirit of the comics while innovating upon the mythos of the source material, creating original work that enhances the Batman experience, feeling both fresh and familiar to the most devoted of fans.
Reeves’s auteur style can be felt throughout The Batman as he develops an innovative cinematic vocabulary that renders the film instantly unique from its predecessors. Unlike past adaptations, which emphasize more traditional superhero genre narratives, Reeves’s film showcases an underrepresented yet equally compelling perspective of the Batman character. He’s not just the Dark Knight; he’s also the World’s Greatest Detective. To display this often-ignored dimension, Reeves constructs a postmodern detective story, developing cinematic motifs and techniques inspired by the film noir genre. Reeves draws upon film noir classics such as Chinatown (1974), The French Connection (1971), LA Confidential (1997), and Seven (1995), blending and homaging their motifs to construct his neo-noir. The Batman evokes the Dark Knight as a hardboiled detective, the noir archetype that delivers its own brand of justice beyond a decaying legal and moral system (the perfect genre in which to frame the vigilante and the city he operates in). As a result, this Batman must solve a trail of clues and high-profile murders committed by the Riddler, leading the Dark Knight Detective into a conspiracy involving Gotham’s most powerful political figures.
Reeves evokes the noir aesthetic, in which characters and sets are framed against stark contrasts of light and shadow to evoke a kind of cynic isolation. Like Chinatown, the film’s lighting is grimy, dim, and low contrast, where pools of colour and light must fight overwhelming shadows—the perfect noir environment for The Batman’s mystery to unfold. Reeves reinforces this noir motif through cinematography. His camera rarely shifts perspective, focusing on the Batman’s view through static, low angles, and close-ups for more introspective shots, simulating the hard-boiled detective’s methodical, focused gaze. However, the film’s true gem of cinematic prowess is its iconic Batmobile chase. This chase sequence is shot from low-angle cameras mounted beside the vehicles, reminiscent of the cinematography of The French Connection. Viewers see every detail of high-octane action from Batman’s screeching monster of a muscle car as he pursues his prey. As a result, this sequence is rendered one of the most visceral car chases in cinema. To complete the evocation of the film noir, a beautiful musical score envelops the film. Composer Michael Giacchino creates a sweeping, romantic score composed of piano, strings, and horns reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith’s work in Chinatown and La Confidential, enhancing the film’s gripping atmosphere and overall viewing experience.
By rendering his cinematic style and treatment of genre visible, Reeves makes a lasting, fiercely original Batman film, showcasing previously unseen dimensions of the character through the lens of a neo-noir. However, The Batman’s most endearing quality, incidental or not, is its resonance with our current times. The film evokes sentiments and themes we have become well acquainted with over the last two years due to global pandemics and political polarization: isolation, violence, social disparity, and radicalization. Still, the film does leave us with some hope as Batman declares to a weary Gotham that these hardships give us “the power to endure… and the strength to fight”. The Batman is a fiercely inventive film that cements its place within the Batman pantheon and offers a refreshing cinematic experience for these difficult times.