To Let Batman Begin (Again), Matt Reeves Had To Ignore All The Batmen Before
The title of The Batman feels definitive.
And just a little bit haughty.
It’s as if all previous Caped Crusader movies were counterfeit versions of some Batman — not The Batman — and this new entry is here to correct the record.
And it’s all sort of true.
Directed and co-written by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), The Batman represents the latest attempt by Warner Bros. to turn its best-known DC Comics superhero into a critical and commercial hit. (Below you can watch a trailer for the film, which was released in theaters Friday.)
In the 14 years since Christopher Nolan made The Dark Knight, the studio’s efforts to revive Batman have come up short. Zack Snyder’s 2016 film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice failed to impress critics or deliver a good return on investment. And The Lego Batman Movie a year later generated just two-thirds the ticket sales of its animated predecessor, The Lego Movie.
It’s not as if moviegoers have abandoned comic book adaptations: Last year’s Spider-Man: No Way Home just passed Avatar as the third highest-grossing movie in domestic box office history and has grossed more than $2 billion worldwide.
Reeves inherited a production that was once going to star and be directed by Ben Affleck. As is often the case in such situations, Reeves did not tinker a little bit with the script and recast the lead role with another actor, in this case, Twilight veteran Robert Pattinson.
Instead, Reeves essentially went back to the Bat Cave and assembled a new origin story (yes, like a patient forever trapped in therapy, Bruce Wayne keeps having to revisit his past) that looks and feels more like Chinatown and Blade Runner than most comic book adaptations. Yes, The Penguin (Colin Farrell) and The Riddler (Paul Dano) are part of the story, but The Batman plays out as an old-fashioned tale of civic corruption rather than a modern superhero extravaganza with endless action scenes and high-tech gizmos.
Reeves talked about his approach to The Batman in an interview for KPCC’s FilmWeek. Here are edited and condensed excerpts:
Q: Was there a particular approach, a worldview, a style that really spoke to you?
A: It was that kind that allowed for these characters to be human—to try to find a way within this kind of fantasy to ground it, so you could imagine that this could really happen, and explore a world that looks like our world.
Q: You’ve referenced movies about corruption, and I think of films like Serpico or Three Days of the Condor. They're straight-ahead narrative filmmaking but done with a lot of style.
A: When I started out, I thought I was going to make sad comedies in the vein of Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude, Being There). And the industry changed so dramatically. Superhero movies dominate the landscape. What was exciting was to find the intersection between the paranoid thrillers of the 70s, something like The French Connection, with the mythic storytelling of Batman, a character that's endured for 80 years.
Q: When you're dealing with Batman, can you pretend that this is the first Batman movie ever? Or do you have to pay attention to history and place Batman in some sort of timeline? Or can you ignore that and say, "This is the movie I'm making?" How much do you have to advance the broader DC Comics extended universe, like all the Marvel movies where other characters are always coming in?
A: When I was first approached, I said I don't want to feel like I have to service anything but the character. I really want something that doesn't have to have characters come in from the rest of the films. I just want to be able to focus on this story. I also wanted to find a way to do an iteration. So that you could say, "This is why there's a new Batman because it is new, it is different." And that's a real challenge to take a character that's been around for over 80 years and find a way to keep those qualities that make him that mythic character that people are so drawn to, but then find a way to do it in a way where the movie itself feels different and fresh.
Q: It’s often the case in James Bond movies where the villain becomes as much the story as the hero. So how do you keep the presence and potential peril of a villain central to the story without losing focus on, well, the Batman?
A: I knew early on I wanted to turn it into a detective story. I thought, what if a serial killer is leaving correspondence to the Batman, whose whole power comes from anonymity—no one knows who you are. And then someone starts killing and leaving messages for you? What does this guy want to talk to me about? I’m meant to be in the shadows. So everything the villain does somehow confronts Batman with a question about himself.
Q: This is a movie that at one point was going to be made by and star Ben Affleck. It doesn't. It's Robert Pattinson. A lot of people when they think of Robert Pattinson, think of the Twilight movies. But I think of other movies that he’s made; smaller films with remarkable performances. I think about the Robert Eggers film The Lighthouse and, much more notably, Ben and Josh Safdie’s Good Time.
A: In every movie, he's a chameleon. And he went off on a bold path and decided to work with these really interesting directors and push his craft. When Ben [Affleck] decided that he didn't want to continue being Batman, I realized I could begin with a new Batman, and make him younger. I wanted someone Rob's age and I just started looking at movies of actors in that age range. And I watched Good Time and there was something in that performance—the movie is so crazy and intense. It's a wild movie, and his performance has such drive. And that to me felt like Batman: there was a kind of wild, propulsive and desperate drive. But there's also that vulnerability in him. And so that was really it.