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The Batman brings the caped crusader back to his detective roots

The Batman realizes the character’s greatness in a classic noir detective story.

The Bat and the Cat in The Batman!
Jonathan Olley/Warner Bros.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Maybe Batman doesn’t need to save the world.

Hear me out: Yes, merely cleaning up the streets of Gotham instead of defeating all-powerful bad guys and preventing the apocalypse sounds like a demotion. Yes, Batman has recently been teaming up with heavy hitters like Superman, Wonder Woman, and The Flash to save the entire world.

But after watching director Matt Reeves’s fantastic The Batman, I’m not convinced that the bigger the accomplishment, the greater the heroism.

Reeves turns down the lights and lowers the stakes for a classic story: Batman (played by Robert Pattinson) needs to find a murderer with a passion for blood and riddles. In doing so, he explores the hero’s worldview and personality, showcasing his guilt and doubts and spirit that recent movies like Justice League and Batman v. Superman overlook.

Those blockbusters tend to shortchange Batman’s skills — investigation, planning, strategizing — because they’re not as sexy compared to his teammates’ superheroic powers. Reeves, on the other hand, has made a detective noir flick that fluently understands the caped crusader’s skills and weaknesses.

The result is a Batman movie with far less spectacle. But the exchange is welcome; Reeves has created the best iteration of Batman in years, in a film that examines the humanity behind the character. And it’s one that I would like to see again and again.

What The Batman gets right about Batman

To really get why Reeves’s Batman is a success, we have to look at how low the bar has been set for the character (I’d argue that it’s basically subterranean). Since Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed Dark Knight trilogy (2005-2012), Batman (played by Ben Affleck) has appeared in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice in 2016, Justice League in 2017, and the corrective Zack Snyder’s Justice League in 2021. In these two and a half movies, Batman faces the all but impossible task of stopping the apocalypse reluctantly coupled with more super-powered friends.

Superman is the most powerful being on the planet, these movies show us. Wonder Woman is an indestructible demigod. Aquaman is essentially the Wonder Woman of the sea. Flash has super speed. Cyborg can talk to machines. And Batman is ... rich?

In this all-star roster, Batman isn’t as strong, as fast, as indestructible, or as good of a swimmer as his teammates. They do the heavy hitting. They do the fun stuff. Bats is relegated to zipping around in a vehicle of some sort or firing space guns when he’s not being tossed around by villains. Personality-wise, he’s often been written as the group’s cynical realist, flattening the character into a one-note grump.

Reeves avoids these pitfalls by first skipping the team-up-to-save-the-world aspect of those stories. The other superheroes don’t exist in Reeves’s world; only Batman does. There’s no one else to turn to. Even then, the jury’s still out when it comes to the “super” and “hero” labels. The city’s rotting by the minute, as gangsters and crime lords use money and drugs to strengthen their grip and influence over its people.

Batman is brooding!
Jonathan Olley/Warner Bros.

The menace this go-around is the Riddler (Paul Dano), who has gotten a grimier, more sadistic makeover than his previous iterations. Instead of a brightly-colored pop quiz imp, he’s now more of a domestic terrorist with an appetite for gore — a nightcrawler draped in greasy sleaze. The Riddler’s villainous plan involves murder, puzzles, and throwing Gotham into chaos. Reeves’s hero can’t punch his way out of this problem and instead has to outsmart him. Fittingly, while there are a couple of action sequences that thrill, they aren’t the focus of the movie.

Without those heightened stakes of saving the entire world, Batman doesn’t have to spend an entire movie uselessly driving around and/or trying to out-fire some cataclysmic, personality-less evil. Instead, Batman can do things that separate him from other heroes like lean into his slyness, or resort to hand-to-hand fighting, or learn to be the greatest detective with the sharpest analytical mind in the DC universe.

Batman’s gifts of intellect and planning are a staple in the comic books that haven’t really been reflected in the movies of late, and Reeves threads Batman’s penchant for sleuthing into the emotional and stylistic throughline of the movie. His most powerful gadget in the movie isn’t some fancy car (though that’s impressive too) or bat-motif jet; rather, it’s a pair of contact lenses that allows him to record and focus on every minute detail he sees.

Granted, a guy with a “penchant for sleuthing” isn’t exactly as sexy a draw as an Amazon wielding the goddess Hestia’s magic lasso or an alien orphan with laser beam eyes. But Batman isn’t a glamorous hero. And when faced with a villain who enjoys murdering Gotham’s most venerated public figures, Batman needs to rely on the strengths only he has to save his city.

Though he’s plenty smart, Batman isn’t always successful. Batman’s repeated failures to stop the Riddler result in the city’s withering trust in its protectors, and contribute to Batman’s own doubts about himself and his duty to the people.

Riddler’s homicidal plan also functions as blistering political commentary. Of course, no one knows that Batman is Bruce Wayne, but Riddler’s havoc calls into question whether Batman should be tapping into that billion-dollar trust fund to help the city — e.g., resources for mental health problems, homelessness, poverty — instead of hoarding it and pouring it into vigilante crime-fighting. The Riddler also brings Batman’s father, Thomas Wayne, into the fight and makes all of Gotham question if the generous philanthropist was really all that virtuous or whether he was just well-loved because he was rich (a theme from the miniseries Batman: A Long Halloween).

This grim story enriches Batman’s legacy, complicating it by trusting its audience to interrogate his heroism and eventually ponder what makes Batman a hero — or if he’s even a hero at all. There’s a good reason that the vigilante archetype Batman originated in comics has been continuously scrutinized for its moral implications, and whether or not his “heroism” would stand up in the real world. Reeves doesn’t see that as a weakness of character, nor does he flinch in putting his hero through hell — and in doing so, restores the legend of Batman to its rightful status.

The Batman is in theaters on March 5, 2022, and screenings begin the night before.