After many disjointed, gimmick-filled installments from the early 2000s, the latter half of the decade saw more polished superhero movies that significantly improved in writing, directing, cinematography and music.
One film that helped lead this transition was Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” a 2008 thriller that pitted Batman against Heath Ledger’s unforgettably maniacal Joker.
Since Batman helped fuel the renaissance of superhero films, it’s only fitting that The Defender of Gotham once again sends the genre soaring to new heights.
Director Matt Reeves’ “The Batman” does exactly that. The movie, released last week, seamlessly combines elements of a high-paced, action-packed blockbuster and a noir spy thriller into a package that well exceeds Nolan’s magnum opus.
From the very beginning, a gritty monologue from our protagonist playing over a torrential downpour and a montage of crime around Gotham City shows Nolan leaning all the way into the tortured, dark aesthetic that distinguishes Batman movies from their cheerier, more colorful Marvel counterparts.
A reduction in the film’s scale makes it a far more intimate journey than most recent superhero films. Instead of trying to stop extraterrestrial villains intent on interplanetary domination, Batman simply aims to keep his city safe from criminals and corrupt city officials.
Characters are shot at close range, with the camera focusing on their facial expressions and each minute movement amplifying their emotion without needing to reduce them to histrionics. Dialogue is curt and sharp — able to deliver just enough information to keep the plot moving while keeping the mystery of The Riddler’s puzzles intact.
Robert Pattinson’s restraint opens doors to an interpretation of Batman more creative than those of his predecessors. Viewers get a deeper look into the emotional turmoil that led him to become a hero, with his actions and gravelly tone speaking far louder than his words.
Pattinson’s stellar performance is accompanied by show-stopping performances from Zoe Kravitz and Paul Dano as Catwoman and The Riddler, respectively, and another great performance from Jeffrey Wright — who can seemingly do no wrong at this point — as Lt. Gordon.
Kravitz masterfully balances her character’s seductiveness with her dexterity and combat skills to serve as the perfect romantic foil to Pattinson. Dano, meanwhile, puts on a cold, calculated persona that sends chills down viewers’ spines and rivals the sheer insanity of Ledger, while also providing a unique take on one of the franchise's signature heroes.
The movie is remarkably paced, never dragging despite its nearly three-hour runtime. Investigations by Batman and Gordon are interlaced with intricate, carefully choreographed action sequences that ratchet up the excitement, and with the beautiful, blossoming romance of Batman and Catwoman.
The entire film is a feast for the senses.
Outstanding directorial work allows characters to emerge from the shadows, making surprise entrances while hiding in plain sight. Action sequences shine, literally and figuratively, through stunning visual effects against the dark background of Gotham’s steely cityscapes — with the pièce de résistance being a fight scene outside an elevator shaft illuminated only by the light of firing machine guns.
But the visuals pair beautifully with what may be the true star of the show: the score by Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino.
At its heart are the various leitmotifs that represent the film’s characters and their relationships with one another.
The repeating, four-note figure to represent Batman is instantly recognizable, whether it heralds the hero on the lower registers of the piano or with bold timpani and brass. A virtuosic theme of lilting strings and jazz piano makes audiences more sympathetic toward Catwoman while also serving as a beautiful vehicle for her and Batman’s love. Arrhythmic strings build tension and highlight The Riddler’s madness, while the use of Schubert’s “Ave Maria” is a reference to the cult of followers he builds up on social media.
Giacchino flexes his musical muscles even after the movie ends. His “Sonata in Darkness” perfectly summarizes all of the film’s musical ideas into a beautifully emotive piece that will keep you in your seat while you wait for an admittedly underwhelming end credits scene.
He will very likely be adding at least another Oscar nomination to his already stacked resume for his work on “The Batman,” with his combination of deeply immersive atmospheric sound and infectious melodies making for thrilling listening even well after you’ve left the theater. (I’m actually listening to the score right now … for the fifth time over.)
“The Batman” is easily one of the most complete superhero movies ever made, a cinematic triumph that uses everything at its disposal to provide a thoroughly engrossing, enriching experience for viewers lucky enough to see it in theaters.
Rarely is a superhero movie an award contender, but excellence in every facet of filmmaking has elevated this superhero movie to the point where even film purists must acknowledge it as a force to be reckoned with.
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