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The Batman breaks free of the Dark Knight trilogy’s legacy by literally breaking Batman

Eat shit, Batman!

Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

The Batman, the new DC comics-inspired thriller from War for the Planet of the Apes director Matt Reeves, struggles to create distance from Christian Nolan’s still-impressive trilogy. Both are inspired by seminal Batman texts, including Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s down-and-dirty Batman: Year One, and rely on top-tier cinematographers (Wally Pfsiter on the Dark Knight films, Dune’s Greig Fraser working with Reeves) to create hyper-realism in contrast to Tim Burton’s gothic vision, Joel Schumacher’s living cartoons, and Zack Snyder’s mythological frescos. But Reeves finds a unique spirit through a simple pleasure: beating the living crap out of Batman. Robert Pattinson can’t body slam into enough walls, in my opinion.

Christian Bale’s Batman was more vulnerable than the screen incarnations before him — who worried more about surviving a horde of evil penguins or being turned into a block of ice by Mr. Freeze — but between armor and high-tech gadgetry, he was still mostly untouchable in skirmishes with the common Gotham goon. There are a few moments of brutality across Nolan’s trilogy; a pouting young Bruce has his ass handed to him in a Bhutan prison early on in Batman Begins, but he’s just (Batman) beginning, and we know he’ll be walloping back in the immediate future. After the psychology-heavy The Dark Knight, Nolan wrote Bane into The Dark Knight Rises to deal maximum pain, recreating the scene from Batman: Knightfall when Bane cracks Bruce Wayne’s back. Nolan pushed the franchise to extremes, and if anything was going to derail Bale’s Batman in the final act, it was going to be the ultimate takedown.

But in The Batman, Reeves asks Pattinson to become Bruised Wayne. His millionaire goth kid dons the cowl, cape, and bodysuit like every other Batman, but underneath, he’s Extremely Human and susceptible to violence. Though only in his second year thwarting crime, this Batman (excuse me, THE Batman) knows how to throw a punch — and he unleashes his fist force upon street gangs, mafiosos, and the occasional incel with a gun. But he is only one man, and when his opposition is eight harlequin-painted thugs with machetes and baseball bats, he can’t avoid taking a hit. After a brutal early encounter, Reeves pushes his camera in close to see Batman’s weary eyes, and quiets things down enough to hear his shortness of breath. The close-up becomes a key tool for the director, not only as a way of observing the gears turning in Batman’s head as he deciphers the Riddler’s clues, but to allow the strain of being Batman to set in.

The Batman huffs and puffs Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

After 100 years of car chases, there aren’t too many ways to improve upon vehicular choreography, but Reeves’ philosophy of banging up his boy enhances even the most straightforward set piece. Midway through the film, Batman, riding his sleek black Batmobile, pursues the Penguin (Colin Farrell) through incoming traffic. Reeves ditches the Nolan-esque IMAX-wide stunt showcase for a more suffocating experience, sticking to shots of the two drivers and wheel-side vantage points to build momentum. The camera occasionally drifts behind Batman to see out the windshield, where mack trucks begin careening out of control and slamming into his car. The tank-like Tumbler from the Dark Knight movies would have no problem smashing through everyday cars to catch a bad guy, but Pattinson’s Batman finds himself whipped around as he attempts to maintain proper 10-and-2 steering-wheel positioning.

Car metal crunches, tires squeal, and there’s a sense that Bruce Wayne may be dealing with a bit of contrecoup when he finally captures the Penguin. The stunt work in the sequence is subtly impressive, and it’s unclear how much CG is required to make Robert Pattinson flail like ragdoll.

Reeves batters his Bat with glee. An interior fight lit almost entirely by muzzle flashes finds the superhero assaulted by rifle shots, each one pinging off his breastplate, but noticeably causing him to stumble. A late-game fight knocks Bruce on his ass hard enough that he resorts to shooting up some kind of adrenaline venom that sends him into rage mode. And shortly after surviving a close-contact bomb explosion, which fully concusses him into a Bat-sleep, the hero finds himself trapped in a room with a squad of policemen who want nothing more than to punch him in his dumb Batman face. And they do! It looks painful!

The success of these wince-worthy moments has everything to do with the new suit design. For all the horror stories of previous Batman actors being trapped in leather suits or stiff padding that barely allowed them to move, Pattinson’s outfit allows the actor to be light on his feet and physically emote. Pain is more than gnashing teeth and squinting eyes — it’s felt in how an actor, theoretically, picks themselves back up. That this Batman can fall down, then stand back up again, is an achievement in comic book reality-setting.

The Batman gets exploded by a bomb! Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

Reeves’ other ingenious touch is to keep Pattinson in the suit for most of the movie’s run. Batman standing around a crime scene or showing up at the door of a club normalizes the suit as more than a protective layer. It’s a second skin, required to do business, and seeing it mundane action makes the instances of more bombastic action feel even deadlier. The suit can’t be that protective if Bruce Wayne can do 100 other things in it.

Reeves’ persistent denting of the Dark Knight culminates in The Batman’s best scene: In an attempt to flee the aforementioned squad of policemen, Batman zips his way up from the ground floor of GCPD HQ to the roof and activates a wingsuit, which, in theory, allows him to glide through the city streets to freedom. Based on the noticeable gulp he takes before leaping, it’s Bruce’s first true free fall — and the actual jump goes well. The landing … not so much, in that he crashes into a bus and an overpass before hitting the pavement and rolling a block. The entire moment is stitched together through visual effects, but Pattinson sells it through aches and agony. Batman, welcome to Jackass.

Stakes are the quixotic goal of a superhero movie. When characters can’t die and sequels loom, drama can only rely on the aura of danger. To make up for the constraints of franchise-making and set that tone, Nolan chased larger-in-life thrills enabled by Wayne tech. Inversely, Reeves goes all in on Pattinson’s performance, and the Man part of Batman. The writer-director avoids plodding origin beats by focusing on what happens when a mere mortal man steps into street-level crime and swings from the rafters for the first time. The answer is injury — of all kinds, played for gasps and laughs. I was never quite sure how this version of Batman would stand up again, and the dire moments were when Reeves’ movie was most alive.

Ultimately, The Batman lacks the genuine lightbulb moments of deduction to be an effective ticking-clock mystery, or a cohesive film like Batman Begins or The Dark Knight, but the moments where Reeves and his writing team interrogate what life as an actual masked vigilante must be like nearly makes up for it. It’s a much-needed exploration; as DC and Marvel’s output becomes more fantastical and entranced by the multiverse, sequels to The Batman could bring welcome balance to the landscape. Give me a hero winded by a punch to the gut and left limping after an ill-timed three-story leap. There’s no reason Batman can’t be highly relatable.

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