Chaos Theater Redux is a Features series that follows up on topics previously discussed during the podcast’s 2011-2017 run.
We talked about Batman a lot on Chaos Theater – eight full episodes were devoted to discussing the Caped Crusader’s adventures in comics, live action and animation. Who knows how many more times Pedro and I mentioned Batman in other episodes, or how many off-air conversations we’ve had about the character. Much has happened in the Bat-world since Chaos Theater ended in 2017: Joss Whedon’s version of Justice League was not a critical or commercial success, and years of fan campaigns led to the creation of the reimagined Zack Snyder’s Justice League as a showcase for HBO Max. During the same time period, Ben Affleck stepped back from his plan to write, direct and star in a solo Batman movie. We will also see the return of Michael Keaton in 2023 in the multiverse movie The Flash. Sandwiched in between all of that is Matt Reeves’ 2022 film The Batman, starring Robert Pattinson as Batman/Bruce Wayne.
Reeves thankfully avoids the trap of doing a rebooted origin by showing us a Batman who has been on the job for two years, but still learning his way. Everyone knows Bruce Wayne’s origin story, and we didn’t need to see yet again Martha Wayne’s pearl necklace hitting the ground or Bruce’s journey to embracing the cape and cowl. The inciting incident for this movie is a series of serial murders perpetrated by a radically reimagined Riddler (Paul Dano). One aspect of Batman’s character that has frequently been underplayed in the live action movies is his skill as a detective. He’s been referred to as the Dark Knight Detective, and in Batman: The Animated Series, Ra’s al Ghul frequently called him “detective” as a sign of respect for Batman’s intelligence. You wouldn’t necessarily know that from watching the live action movies, which tend to place a greater focus on Batman’s gadgets. By embracing the detective aspect, Reeves deliberately set this movie up as a film noir – something that Nolan came close to with 2008’s The Dark Knight, but which Reeves fully embraces. This is the dirtiest, most broken, most corrupt Gotham City we’ve ever seen on film, and it is the most comics accurate depiction I’ve seen.
Pattinson offers perhaps the most balanced portrayal thus far of Batman and Bruce Wayne. His Batman is driven by that never-ending need to fight injustice, but he’s also not Frank Miller’s sadistic maniac who gets off on punching people. Pattinson probably spends the least amount of time as Bruce Wayne in this movie compared to his predecessors, but Bruce is still an important part of the story. This incarnation of Gotham is brought to life by an incredible supporting cast, including Jeffrey Wright as Jim Gordon, Zoë Kravitz as Selena Kyle, John Turturro as Carmine Falcone and Andy Serkis as Alfred Pennyworth. Wright’s Gordon gets the most screen time for the character we’ve ever seen for any incarnation of the character, and you can feel the partnership and trust with Batman, as a masked weirdo is the only person he can trust compared to a wholly corrupt police force. Kravitz’s Selena has a great chemistry with Batman, and Turturro’s Falcone manages to be equal parts charming and sinister. Serkis gives us a more rough and tumble Alfred that hints at his British intelligence background. Compared to other Alfreds, this one is full of regrets about trying to raise Bruce and feeling guilty about whatever part he played in leading Bruce down the path to becoming Batman.
The influences from other movies are clearly evident – an intense car chase involving the Penguin (Colin Farrell) felt quite reminiscent of the famous chase scene from The French Connection. Paul Dano’s Riddler is definitely closer to the TAS incarnation than to Jim Carrey’s interpretation in 1995’s Batman Forever, and he succeeds in portraying a character who constantly challenges Batman and who you sort of can’t blame when you discover what his motivation is. I also want to make mention of Michael Giacchino’s score, which in contrast to other movies and their sweeping scores is much more limited and atmospheric. It definitely helps set the mood and is never an overbearing presence, which puts it at a stark contrast to most superhero film scores you hear out of DC and Marvel.
I don’t want to get into spoilers regarding the movie’s biggest revelations, but I will say it excels at presenting a Batman who is flawed and imperfect. Bruce doesn’t have all the answers, and the events of this movie force him to question both his own past and the role that he plays in his war on crime. Many Batman stories have played with the question of if Batman makes things better or worse by inspiring the creation of so many rogues, but it’s not often that we see a story asking what Bruce Wayne’s responsibility is in all of this. Reeves envisioned this incarnation of Batman as a trilogy, and a Penguin-focused spinoff is under development for HBO Max. Whatever comes down the road, I’m eager to see more about this version of the Dark Knight.