‘The Batman’ Is A Great Murder Mystery Movie That Just Happens To Star Batman

Matt Reeves’s The Batman, at least as far as superhero movies go, feels so old-fashioned that it has come all the way around to unique again. While watching The Batman, it feels like it has more in common with gritty crime mysteries like L.A. Confidential or Se7en than, say, Spider-Man: No Way Home. (A movie I like quite a bit, for the record.) The Batman is a movie fully embracing its present and not looking forward to what everything might mean five movies down the line. At just under three hours in length, yes, it’s long, but it’s self-contained. And also rare for a Batman movie … Batman is actually the main character.

It was about halfway through The Batman when it hit me that the plot of this movie is just a murder/mystery movie where Batman happens to be the main character. I found myself caught up in the actual plot and mystery of the case Batman is trying to solve as opposed to wondering something like, “I wonder if Adam Strange might show up.” (It’s funny reading “fan theories” on the internet about The Batman because it’s just not that kind of movie.) Also, the use of Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” really does set the mood, even though there’s no way Kurt Cobain would be happy about this, no matter how good a Batman movie this turned out to be. (Though considering how many Nirvana songs pop up in movies now, maybe the spirit of Kurt Cobain has given up on this particular issue.)

A lot is being made about how “dark” The Batman will be. Look, I think I’m about all full-on “dark” right now and would much rather have something that’s just, I don’t know … good. And the thing is, The Batman doesn’t feel all that dark. (Keep in mind, it is a PG-13 movie.) Sure, yes, it starts out with a deceptively grizzly murder (deceptive in that we don’t see much, but Matt Reeves is very good at ratcheting up the tension) carried out by the Riddler (Paul Dano), dressed up in a number that makes him look disturbingly like the Zodiac. (This is not a subtle reference to Zodiac, the Riddler also likes to use ciphers. Though Riddler’s seem much easier since there are still people out there trying to solve the Zodiac version.)

There’s a letter addressed to Batman so James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) invites Batman to the crime scene to have a look around. The Riddler is killing city officials, leaving clues behind as to why these officials are being targeted and who might be the next on his list. Is Riddler mad, or trying to expose something even more sinister? I mentioned earlier that Batman is actually the main character of this movie and what I mean by that is we see a lot of Batman in this movie. There’s really not that much of Robert Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne, but there’s a whole lot of Batman. The Burton and Schumacher movies all had an established Batman and let whatever big movie star who was playing the villain dance and prance his or her way through the movie. (Granted, this could be very entertaining.) Two of the three Nolan movies go long stretches without Batman. And in The Dark Knight, it’s kind of hard to make the case the villain didn’t overshadow Batman when the actor who played the villain won an Oscar for that role.

The Batman does not subject us, once again, to the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne. There’s no reckoning with bats attacking a young Bruce. No training montages. When The Batman starts, Bruce is already Batman. He’s a young Batman (Pattinson is playing younger than his actual age and can very much pull this off), and his relationships with people like Gordon are new, but they are already established. So, from start to finish, we have Batman and the Batman that begins this movie is very different than the Batman that ends this movie. At the beginning of the movie, Batman identifies himself as vengeance. As he learns over the course of the movie, there are a lot of different people who also think they are on the side of vengeance – whatever that even means. And Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne is something we haven’t really seen before in the films. In that instead of a playboy, he’s a full-on recluse. At one point he shows up for a funeral and everyone seems shocked Bruce would attend. Nobody in Gotham is expecting to see much of Bruce Wayne. It’s a nice redefinition of Bruce Wayne that allows us much more Batman.

It’s hard to even pinpoint who the main antagonist of this movie even is. Okay, yeah, it’s probably the Riddler, but he works mostly in the background and at one point disappears for a good hour of the movie. I’ll admit, the number of Batman villains in this movie was a concern. But what Reeves does is weave them in pretty seamlessly where each interaction with Batman seems like something natural as he tries to solve these crimes. Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz) works at a nightclub that one of Batman’s suspects owns and a lot of city officials hangs out at. The Penguin (Colin Farrell, who is having the absolute time of his life here) is a mid-level goon with no real power yet, but has ties to people Batman is investigating. And it’s hard to figure what angle Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) is coming from: Is he a mob boss? Is he a longtime Wayne family friend? Is he both? Is he neither? These are all things for Batman, the world’s greatest detective (which is said out loud in this movie), to figure out.

Look, I really liked this movie and I went in feeling pretty suspect of the whole endeavor. I do think Matt Reeves is a terrific director, but, gosh, there have been a lot of superhero movies as of late and now it feels like charts and graphs are needed to figure out what timeline or universe anyone comes from. But with The Batman is all feels back to basics. It feels like a street-level Batman movie where Batman is just trying to figure out a murder and a mystery. There’s a pretty nifty car chase between the Batmobile and Penguin … and even that feels pretty grounded. This particular Batmobile looks literally like something this Bruce Wayne just tooled around with on the weekends. It makes sense it would be a car that wouldn’t draw much attention to itself, yet still goes really fast. No one would look at this Batmobile and think, I bet the guy who owns that is a billionaire.

The one drawback to The Batman is that it ends on a set piece that, considering the tone of the rest of the movie, feels marginally out of place. And it’s not even that crazy of a set piece! It’s not as of Batman is fighting off aliens or anything (which, come to think of it, we have seen in a movie not that long ago). So I guess that’s a testament to the first two and a half hours of this movie being so character an plot-driven that anything using effects seems a little out of place.

The Batman isn’t revolutionary. It doesn’t upend the superhero movie dynamic. Heck, people used to the recent superhero movies getting more cosmic and playing around with alternate timelines might not even like this more back to basics approach. But I, for one, found it refreshing. A nice little breather amidst the chaos. And proof that a good story with good characters can go quite a long way.

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