“Batman” is arguably the most popular and influential superhero franchise of all time, even extending outside the realm of comic book media. The Christopher Nolan trilogy, for example, was the start of many trends in blockbuster cinema as a whole and “Batman: The Animated Series” is one of the most significant action cartoons of all time.
Given that background, this movie had a lot of big shoes to fill but I think it succeeded on almost every front. On the whole, this is the best overall live-action Batman movie. While “The Dark Knight” does reach some greater highs, this is a greater overall package.
This movie draws a lot of inspiration from the work of David Fincher as well as lifting many elements directly from the “Batman” comics, specifically “Batman: Year One” and “Batman: The Long Halloween.” This is not unusual for Batman as “The Dark Knight” drew a lot of inspiration from Michael Mann’s “Heat” and the same comics, while “Joker” drew a lot of inspiration from Scorsese films “Taxi Driver” and “King of Comedy” and the comic “The Killing Joke.”
However, unlike those films, this one has a very unique flavor to it. Batman was always drenched in noir and detective tropes, so the movie doesn’t feel as derivative as the parts being emulated are already well-established parts of the Batman character.
I’d say the world is probably the strongest part of this film. Gotham feels like a character in of itself. It’s got a unique aesthetic and feels like a unique place and not like any specific real-life city. For example, in “The Dark Knight,” Gotham was basically just Chicago. While this isn’t the first movie to give Gotham a unique look — the Burton and Schumacher movies had their own interpretation — this one is special in how it feels very grounded but still stylized with a strong personality.
As for the other characters, this movie has essentially three leads and three villains, but the three-hour runtime gives ample time for everyone, and it never feels crowded. While no performance quite matches the heights of Heath Ledger’s Joker, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and it is overall the best cast. There is no weak performance or link. Everyone is engaging.
I’d argue this movie has the greatest focus on Batman himself than any other “Batman” film. He is present and active in every single scene of this movie. No other “Batman” movie outside of “Batman Begins” has given such a dedication to exploring his character. What’s especially impressive is that it’s able to do so without retreading the origin story.
Batman is often a character that is sidelined in his own projects to focus on the villains, but due to the mystery and conspiratorial nature of this film, the villains are not able to take up the same real estate as they would otherwise. With this much heavier focus on the lead, Batman has to be a lot more compelling, and I think they succeed with Pattinson’s unique portrayal. Rather than living a double life with a fake playboy persona, he plays Bruce as a recluse.
This is a younger Batman and therefore is still clearly recovering from his personal trauma and has fully committed to his Batman persona, not really seeing the value of Bruce Wayne in his mission. It’s fascinating and covers a lot of new ground for a character that’s existed for almost a century. Overall, I’d say this is my favorite interpretation of Batman in live action.
As for the other main characters, Gordon was a great foil and Pattison and Jeffrey Wright bounce off each other well. However, the real show stealer is Catwoman who functions as a sort of second lead. This specific interpretation of Catwoman is one of the elements lifted directly from the aforementioned comics and I would argue is the most interesting interpretation of this character.
If not the best, it’s at least on par with the one found in “Batman Returns.” While that movie opted for a much more tragic, operatic story, this one keeps with the grounded, bitter feel of the rest of the product. Still a romance but a very different dynamic and relationship. I’d also argue this is the strongest romance Batman has had in live action, with their interactions being a highlight of the film.
As for the villains, The Penguin, played by Colin Farrell, is an absolute show stealer and a source of a lot of the comedy for the film. The other side villain, Carmine Falcone, is also fun. Not quite as over the top as The Penguin but genuinely very interesting mostly due to the performance of John Turturro. He was able to elevate what to me was a very boring character in the source material.
The film also benefits from them being already established elements of the criminal underworld. There aren’t any rushed plot developments concerning them as opposed to say Harvey Dent in “The Dark Knight” who only becomes a villain in the last act.
But of course, the main villain is Paul Dano’s The Riddler. This interpretation draws a lot of inspiration from real life serial killers, particularly The Zodiac Killer. While not quite the showman as other “Batman” villains, this one makes up for it with how scary his presence is. His introduction feels like a scene from a horror movie.
What’s particularly strong is how he’s a thematic mirror to Batman’s character. Superhero movies have a time-honored trope of the villain essentially being the main character but evil. This one does something similar but has it more as a twist on the hero’s ideology rather than just sharing powers. It leads to a fascinating dynamic that spurs very interesting developments in Batman’s character.
The main reason people go to a Batman movie is for the action and that is incredibly strong. The hand-to-hand combat and choreography are the best of the franchise in both live-action and animation. The way the action scenes are shot and edited add quite a lot to it. There is a fantastic use of light in some of these scenes and the director knows when to hold on a shot and just let you revel in the physicality on display.
The opposite is true as well; the use of light is fantastic but so is the use of shadows. I love how people move in and out of them throughout the film. The movie also used some of the benefits of digital photography. The muddier looks and lighting of digital as opposed to film really worked here. The movie really loved the color orange, being mostly black and orange throughout. It gives the movie a sort of Halloween look which is fitting as that is when the movie starts.
There are lots of fun camera techniques overall as well. Many of the action scenes have a technique where they lock the camera onto a moving object rather than filming it entirely from exterior shots and it results in an incredibly unique but intense visual. For example, the chase scene in the movie. While it doesn’t quite top the one from “The Dark Knight,” it’s able to feel incredibly different and not like a carbon copy because of these camera choices.
As for the film’s writing, I’d say this is thematically one of the strongest outings. For as good as the Nolan movies were, their biggest shortcoming were often the commentary and themes it tried to tackle. It also doesn’t fall into any of the trappings of the Snyder films. It has a very sentimental ending similar to what Snyder was trying to get at but this time it lands due to having the time to earn said conclusion.
In fact, I’d say it’s probably the best “Batman” ending and the best last act. The last act of “The Dark Knight” was a bit more thrilling and better paced but I feel it was also the messiness part of that film and where it kind of fell apart. That film’s last act was more so carried by inertia and the momentum already built from the rest of the film as well as ending with strong emotions. This film ends on a similar emotional note but without the aforementioned shortcomings.
The pacing for the film was strong overall. The last act does drag just a tad but right as you feel it, the credits roll, so it’s not much of an issue.
If there is one shortcoming to the writing, it is the dialogue. Nothing is bad but nothing is terribly memorable, especially when comparing it to the sharp speech of the Nolan movies. However, I would argue that this movie’s strengths are in its silence. Pattinson knows when to be quiet and just let his looks do the talking.
Stylistically this movie feels like the in-between of Nolan’s grounded take and Burton’s stylized approach. Directly comparing them, it’s interesting seeing what parts Nolan and Reeves chose to be realistic and what parts they didn’t. Reeves chose to set it in a more Gothic world.
Despite that, Batman himself is the most realistic Batman. He wears eye makeup and more realistic gadgets. He does have some neat gadgets like eye cameras, but they glitch and has digital noise and needs to be adjusted and focused. It feels more real.
Nolan set it in a realistic world but Batman himself was more fantastical. The villains and characters were a bit more cartoony in comparison. The vehicles and gadgets were grounded but still very much out of the realm of possibility.
As for the score, it was OK. They only really used 3 tracks: Batman’s theme, “Ave Maria,” and Nirvana’s “Something in the Way”. It’s good, but nothing really tops Elfman’s theme or the thrilling nature of Zimmer. This one tries to hit the in-between, and it works, but it doesn’t stand out quite as much outside the main theme.
Overall, this is my favorite live-action portrayal of Batman and my favorite live-action “Batman” movie overall. It feels distinct from my other favorites, “Batman Returns” and “The Dark Knight,” but also has a lot in common. It even has some in common with animated films like “Mask of the Phantasm.” This feels like a perfect amalgamation of everything Batman has been up till this point but still with its own unique identity.