Back in 2005, when Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins hit the theatres, it was a like a breath of fresh air. Here was a serious Batman for a serious, post-9/11 world, light years away from the buffoonery of Joel Schumacher’s travesties, Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997), which turned Batman into a comedy gag. Batman Forever at least produced a cool soundtrack album, and these days that’s pretty much all I can permit myself to remember of those movies.
With Batman Begins, and especially with its bravura sequel, The Dark Knight (2009), the movie version of the Caped Crusader finally started coming closer to the edgier and more sumptuously narrated stories of the comic books. They revitalised Batman films by making a 180- degree turn away from campy silliness to darkness.
Over a decade down the line though, Nolan’s movies betray their flaws, especially the third movie of the trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises (2012). By then, Nolan’s Batman had become an establishment figure in the narrative, literally protecting the rich and pummelling the poor. That film’s climactic depiction of a popular insurrection in Gotham City mocked the very real-world Occupy movement, and the story strongly hinted that citizen’s protests are at best wrong-headed, and at worst fraudulent and a menace to law and order;just because the simmering discontent was being manipulated by the villain, Bane. And here was a militaristic and authoritarian Batman, morally sure of himself, leading state forces against protestors. It hasn’t aged well.
Which is why Matt Reeves’ The Batman feels like a much better beginning, building on the heavy-lifting that Nolan’s films did with public perception of the character. Many of the choices that the director makes about re-imagining The Batman are instinctively correct. This includes creating a plot that is a cross between a detective story and a serial killer manhunt, portraying Gotham as a seedy, shadow-filled, miserable, rain-lashed city with a mind of its own, and keeping most of the action confined to close, claustrophobic spaces.
While watching the movie a second time, another important fact shifted into focus—there isn’t much of Bruce Wayne in the film, it’s entirely about The Batman. This is a welcome change from pretty much all the previous films (including the Justice League ones), as is the decision to not show the murder of Wayne’s parents on screen yet again. The deeply haunted look with which Batman stares at a young boy who has been similarly bereaved is much more effective. The Batman of The Batman is just two years into his vigilante crime-fighting career and Robert Pattinson’s withdrawn, sunken-eyed, Goth version, equal parts defeated and determined, is just a brilliant fit. I would even say he’s the best movie Batman so far, much as Michael Keaton remains the best Bruce Wayne.
But the best thing about the movie is how much further it moves towards the Batman comics. Ever since Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986), Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One (1987), and Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s Batman: The Killing Joke (1988), Batman books have reached a level of storytelling sophistication that the films can only dream of. Whether it is Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On Serious Earth (1989), Joseph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Batman: The Long Halloween (1998), or Joseph Loeb and Jim Lee’s Batman: Hush (2004), to name just a few, the comics have consistently churned out excellent stories and great art that have turned the last 35 years into something of a golden age of Batman fiction.
To the above-mentioned writer-artist duos, you can add the names of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo. Alongside inker Danny Miki and colourist Fco Plascencia, writer Snyder and artist Capullo have created some of the defining Batman stories of the past decade, many of which are now regarded as all-time classics. Snyder and Capullo’s work on The Batman began in 2011, when DC Comics launched the New 52, a revamped relaunch of its entire line of superhero comics. Although the project wasn’t really a success—leading DC to create another revamp in 2016 with DC Rebirth—Snyder and Capullo’s re-imagining of The Batman was a complete success. Over a period of five years, the duo built The Batman from the ground up, revisiting themes from earlier comics arcs and giving them new life.
What Snyder and Capullo do very successfully is to imbue The Batman with sustained character growth, beginning with his initial attempts to make a difference to Gotham, his adoption of the bat-persona, and then jumping through different moments in time to bring new perspective on the other heroes The Batman inspires, the villains he inadvertently helps create, his complex relationship with the city and its people, and the fact that he primarily remains a sleuth and problem-solver. They also create some extremely good and devastating storylines, including two with the Joker—Death Of The Family and Endgame—and with an entirely original story about a city-wide secret society, the Court of Owls, that hints at a hidden history of both the city as well as the Wayne family.
There are many similarities with Snyder and Capullo’s vision and that of the Matt Reeves film. Both incorporate the city as a character in itself, as well as The Batman’s almost quasi-romantic relationship with it—“You’re spoken for,” says Catwoman in the film, echoing Bruce Wayne’s butler, Alfred, in the books. Both are also at great pains to show how The Batman fails, sometimes despite succeeding, as well as the fact that it is probably Bruce Wayne that’s the mask, and not the cowl and cape of The Batman.
Some of the most obvious connections between the two come from the two-book arc of Zero Year: Secret City and Dark City, from the first year of The Batman’s career. They involve a deadly face-off against The Riddler, Edward Nygma, who tests The Batman’s ingenuity to the limits. In the books, The Riddler, tired of being an intellectual muscle for hire by a corrupt Wayne Enterprises, takes over the city, plunging it into darkness, cutting it off from the outside world and flooding it by blowing up Gotham’s sea walls. He rules over a crumbling city, an amoral monarch who ostensibly wants nothing more than to make Gothamites more intelligent through extreme suffering and devastation. In the books, the character of The Riddler is in line with his nearly eight-decade-old history in Batman comics, and not the “nobody” serial killer of the new film. However, the way his actions force The Batman to re-evaluate his mission, turning, as it were, from an instrument of “vengeance” to that of “hope”, is in line with the narrative arc of the film.
You can also find the influence of other seminal Batman stories in the film, notably The Long Halloween, where The Batman hunts down a serial killer, as well as tonal notes from Year One. Matt Reeves’ Batman, much like Snyder and Capullo’s, is grounded in the real-world cityscape of a crumbling Gotham filled with cynical crime, hollowed out institutions and general hopelessness. In this, it is broadly similar to Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan’s approach as well, but the film actually sets the ground for The Batman to develop that one thing neither Burton nor Nolan allowed: a character arc.
Batman comics, including the New 52 ones, always allow for weird tales, and incursions of the supernatural and the extraterrestrial, but they usually earn the right to do so by first fleshing out The Batman’s persona, including his humaneness and his rage. It appears that Reeves has been successful in doing so, thus setting the ground for the next stage in the development of any self-respecting Batman narrative arc: how the appearance of a mysterious, otherworldly masked vigilante can alter the nature of reality. This rent in the mundane allows fantastic villains and allies to proliferate, thus creating a Batman universe. It will be interesting to see where Reeves takes this. I, for one, would love to see it move towards a reckoning with Gotham’s deeply strange secrets, like the Court of Owls. Fingers crossed.