Ever since 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” the (controversial, but generally dumb) question of whether superhero movies could be considered “Oscar worthy movies” has been posed. This question has only become more relevant, given that 2008 also birthed the omnipresent Marvel Cinematic Universe and started the now-dominating trend in modern Hollywood filmmaking of focusing almost entirely on sequels to, remakes of, and franchise-expanding takes on existing comic-book intellectual property. I could do a deep dive on the capitalist-oriented decisions that are made behind the curtain to create and continue this trend, but quite honestly, there would be no point. Nothing any critic says, much less my opinion, will do anything to change the dominating public desire for these types of movies, and for good reason: we know what we’re getting when we buy the ticket, and the formula has been essentially perfected to ensure their endurance and to make even more money. These are, for the most part, well-made movies, and they are well-made with the intention of being entertaining. If it sounds like I’m jaded by this seemingly-never ending stream of superhero content, make no mistake, I definitely am, despite the fact that I continue to buy tickets too and honestly have fun engaging with these movies.
That being said, as both a blockbuster audience member and a self-proclaimed cinephile, I want something new. I’ve started to become so aware of the behind-the-scenes decisions that produce these types of movies, that they now appear extremely uniform (visually, narratively, thematically, all of the above, etc). I want something that actually feels like it was made with an artistic vision in mind, and not solely to continue a franchise, which is an aspect of post-Endgame MCU movies that I’m beginning to become exhausted by. Enter: “The Batman,” the answer to this problem. Director Matt Reeves and his production team have realized that if you can’t change the current trend, you might as well deliver a product that pushes the boundaries of superhero blockbusters as a whole and does something new within the confines of that trend.
“The Batman” resonated with me on a level I have not felt from a superhero movie since 2018’s Into The Spider-Verse, and before that, 2017’s Logan. It left me leaving the theater feeling genuinely inspired and revitalized, and even excited, by the possible future of the genre. This is a Batman movie, yes, but more importantly, it’s the culmination of an artistic vision about the cyclical nature of violence, told via deconstructing its title character and addressing his problematic aspects in a way no other live-action Batman adaptation has ever attempted.
In this film, Batman and Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) are not two separate characters, but essentially the same. This illustrates how Wayne has let himself be taken over and utterly transformed by his other persona, which is a reaction to his childhood trauma that the film (thankfully) does not recreate for the nth time on screen. This is not the billionaire-playboy Bruce Wayne that we are used to seeing, but an introverted, reclusive Bruce Wayne, clearly still coping with the death of his parents. We are used to seeing Batman as a triumphant hero with dark, vigilante undertones, but here, we see Batman positioned as the physical manifestation of fear and vengeance. From his very first scene in the film, we are forced to address the character’s borderline villainy. While we ultimately know the character is not a villain, we are, for the first time, presented with the idea that our hero is scarred, possibly beyond repair. Over the course of the film’s nearly-three hour epic runtime, we see this version of Bruce slowly come to terms with his shortcomings as Batman, forcing him to confront both his actions, and the way in which his privilege as a sheltered billionaire has blinded him to the consequences of his actions. The film is now positioned not as simply “a Batman movie,” but a nuanced character exploration of a man’s reaction to trauma and his growth as both a human and into the symbol he aspires to be for those around him. As Bruce is confronted with his shortcomings, we see him make the conscious decision to selflessly be better for the sake of the people and the city he has vowed to protect, a complete character arc that perfectly encapsulates why this superhero is one of the most enduring and beloved of all time.
In a bold move, Reeves has decided to back up that decision to pivot away from aspects of the tried-and-true superhero movie formula by making his movie a noir-detective film. As a noir film, the themes of corruption, cynicism, disillusionment, and grime are at the forefront, leaking into their surroundings at every step of the turn. And this is exceptionally rendered in the visual style of the movie, which gives us not only the most beautifully disgusting-feeling version of Gotham City to date, but also the most visually appealing setting for any comic-book movie ever made, in my opinion. Dominant reds and oranges contrast against the inky black darkness of the city we’ve come to know and love over the countless adaptations. Additionally, we see a masterful use of camera work, with the camera interacting with this environment in myriad ways. Most notably, we see the camera work emphasizing the theme of voyeurism that creates eerie parallels between the Riddler (Paul Dano) and Batman, a theme so intrinsic to the events and narrative of the film that one can’t help but feel as if Reeves was partially inspired by the numerous Hitchcockian psycho-thrillers of the 20th century that made voyeurism a relevant cinematic concept to begin with. It particularly stands out to me that the most advanced piece of technology in the film isn’t a Christopher Nolan-esque Batcycle or Batplane, but a contact lens containing a camera that allows Bruce to film everything he looks at and play the footage back later. The camera is also used in a much more restrained, artistic way in the way it interacts with the environment, whether that be fogging up in the rain or turning upside down to showcase the point of view of a flipping car. This all combines to give the film a wonderful tactility that simply wouldn’t be there if there had been an over-reliance on CGI.
Though, some viewers may take issue with the film’s dark tone. Ever since Nolan revamped the character in 2005, the overly dark, grounded, realistic take has not only been a staple for the character but a transformation the entire genre of superhero movies has elected to undergo, for better or worse. However, within the confines of the noir genre, not only is this tone a little bit necessary, but it allows for just the right amount of pulpiness and camp to override unnecessary and repetitive realism, enough to remind viewers that at the end of the day this is a comic book adaptation. The film doesn’t take itself seriously in the sense that it’s palpably begging to forego its campy comic book roots. Rather it leans into those roots 100% of the time and is made all the better for it. Bruce’s angsty narration feels like it has been taken directly off the page, and the visual style feels almost painterly, as if it were inked by comic book artists. The dialogue is cheesy at times and the aforementioned themes hit you over the head with how bluntly they are expressed, but within the context of the film and its comic book origins, this feels internally consistent and not entirely a bad thing. We also see at times an underlying sense of humor when it comes to Batman, positioning the role not as a glamorous one to be desired, but one where the audience can clearly see the over-the-top angst and theatricality of the person who chooses to dress up like a bat every night, though this is done in a way that still has us rooting for him when he succeeds in his endeavors. This is a fully fleshed out world taken straight from a comic book, rooted in the original noir themes that Batman himself was created from in the thirties and forties and the fact that it never tries to be anything else is genuinely refreshing. The success to which this is rendered is a testament to Reeves’ artistic vision and his production team.
At the end of the day, though, I think it’s important to understand that I’m not making any claims about the inherent quality of superhero movies at large. Again, for the most part, I thoroughly enjoy these movies, and I think there’s something to be said about being in a room full of like-minded individuals, all cheering for Spiderman as he slams the Green Goblin through 3 floors of a high-rise. And I’m also not trying to say that “The Batman” isn’t one of these movies — this is still a 185-million dollar blockbuster, funded by the overlords at Warner Brothers, meant to be the start of a new Batman franchise. But I enjoy “The Batman” in a different way entirely from the rest of the superhero genre (the same can be said for 2017’s “Logan”), and I think this is specifically because of the craftsmanship put into it by Matt Reeves. Marvel producer Kevin Feige has long been vocal about his desire for one of his movies to be awarded with an Oscar (one of the big ones: best picture, actors, screenplay, etc.). So far, the only superhero movies (with the exception of 2018’s “Black Panther”) that have gotten nominations in major awards categories have been “Logan” for adapted screenplay and Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix for portraying the Joker, the latter two of which deservedly won. Ultimately, while I think the Oscars are a joke and don’t have any real bearing at all on dictating a movie’s quality, if Feige genuinely wants his Oscar, he has to stop with this entitled narrative that his movies are being shut out from the race and needs to start asking whether he thinks his movies actually deserve to be considered. He needs to stop pretending that the majority of his movies are anything more than fan-service, designed to ensure the continuing of the Marvel brand for god knows how long. Matt Reeves and Warner Brothers could have given us a mindless, enjoyable spectacle to turn a quick profit, but they used the character’s inherent lucrativity to give us a boundary-pushing, character-driven story that trusts and honors the pulpiness of the source material and genre while also having something pertinent to say for a modern audience about trauma, violence, and accountability. If the next few films in this franchise are as good as this one, then by all means, take my money.