Bruce Wayne – and more to the point, his alter ego Batman – has become a well-worn presence on the big screen over the years. It’s easy to see why. There is something iconic, even archetypal about the image that he strikes. “That shape, if you show practically anybody in the civilized world, people will go, ‘Yeah, I know what that is,’” cinematographer Greig Fraser says. Dating back to his serial debut in 1943 with actor Lewis Wilson, the character has now appeared on the screen more than a dozen times. And the Batman universe continues to branch out with films like Joker and The Suicide Squad riding the Caped Crusader’s, well, cape.
How does one even begin to craft something new within such a saturated spectrum? A filmmaker could, of course, approach the material from its original perspective in the pages of Detective Comics #27 published in May of 1939, the comic that introduced the character to the world. This perspective, somehow, is one that other directors have, for the most part, avoided. Batman is the superhero nicknamed The World’s Greatest Detective after all, and presenting him as the brilliant detective that he is makes perfect sense cinematically.
I knew it could not be an origin tale.
Writer-producer-director Matt Reeves felt that an actual detective story could certainly be crafted and presented in a Batman film. And he knew that going down that path would allow him to leave his mark on the Batman mythos. “I knew it could not be an origin tale,” Reeves says. “When you look at the series of movies, the origin tale is almost always the one where Batman’s arc is the strongest because, of course, that’s a very powerful story. But I still wanted Batman’s arc to be the powerful part of this movie, so I thought I could put him on the trail of a story that is kind of describing the history of Gotham – and came back to his origins unexpectedly – and became very personal.”
The epic, nearly three-hour plot follows a Batman who has been lurking the streets of Gotham as a vigilante for over a year now as he attempts to solve the murders of key figures like the mayor and police commissioner, with a set of clues laid out by the twisted and diabolical Riddler. Along the way, the story interweaves Bruce Wayne’s family history, the city’s seedy underworld of organized crime and the fraternity of its crooked police force into a tale of scope the likes of which we haven’t seen in a Batman movie.
Reeves was inspired, in part, by the work of an early mentor: writer Jeph Loeb, one of his screenwriting teachers when he was a student at the University of Southern California. Loeb and artist Tim Sale’s 12-part 1996 saga The Long Halloween has been modestly referenced before in films like The Dark Knight, but its narrative sprawl – the story unfolded for readers over the course of an entire year – has never been harnessed like it has in The Batman. The new film isn’t an adaptation, it just drips with similar scale and atmosphere.
Reeves was also inspired by Darwyn Cooke’s 2000 standalone tale Ego, particularly its ideas of Bruce Wayne’s duality, his lack of fully incorporated self-knowledge and how that is exactly what’s driving him to avenge the childhood murder of his parents. All of that motivation made things so personal for the character that Reeves endeavored to work it into his and co-writer Peter Craig’s screenplay.
"It’s a desperate way for a guy to try to make sense of his life, and it’s actually a kind of a doomed plan," Reeves says of Bruce Wayne’s mission. "Because every night, he’s going to go out and revisit that primal nightmarish experience that happened to him as a child, and he’s never going to be able to fix it. So, he’s constantly fighting with this beast that he is never going to be able to contain."
Frank Miller’s Year One is another clear influence, as is more recent canon like Scott Snyder’s Zero Year. There’s even a wink to Loeb’s popular storyline Hush for eagle-eyed fans. But, while Reeves took a huge dive into the comics with cinematographer Greig Fraser and star Robert Pattinson, he also pulled from movies of the 1970s like Alan J. Pakula’s Klute and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, as well as Wong Kar-wai’s 2004 short film The Hand. It was a big soup which ultimately informed the story, motivation, imagery and tone.
In addition, Reeves wanted to try and reimagine Bruce Wayne himself. Just about every Batman casting decision has raised eyebrows, from Michael Keaton to George Clooney to Ben Affleck. Pattinson was no different. But the Twilight star was perfect for Reeves’ vision of someone akin to a Kennedy or a British royal, a very public figure who has retreated from the burden of fame, almost like a reclusive rock star. The script was in fact written with Pattinson in mind for the role. How the actor chose to portray Batman physically is unusual in the fray of previous Batmen as well. It’s clear from the film’s first crime scene sequence, as this odd fellow in a wacky costume surveys evidence alongside wary and weirded-out police officers. There’s a slow and methodical nature to the way he moves, an observational glide.
“We’ve seen other grounded iterations, but I wanted to look at it like, ‘What would it really be like if you had a guy going to crime scenes in a cowl and cape?’” Reeves explains. “Everyone would be looking at him, like, ‘What the hell are you doing here? This is ridiculous.’ What would that do to the guy psychologically? You’re projecting a symbol that’s meant to have an effect on the criminal element and on the broader city in general. So, it’s very theatrical. But then, with the detective side of the story, there is this incredible minutiae of having to look at clues and all of that. The collision of those two ideas was so weird to me.”
It was weird to Pattinson, too. Attempting to really put himself in the Dark Knight’s headspace, the actor considered how embarrassing the circumstance would undeniably feel. He eventually settled on the idea that the Batman behaves almost like a shaman or spiritualist as he cases a crime scene.
“That made total sense to me,” Reeves says. “He goes into an instinctual state, so he kind of drifted and moved around like an apparition.”
Visually, of course, the movie had to be dark. This isn’t the high-key world of Metropolis and Superman, or the New York of wise-cracking web-slinger Spider-Man. This is grimy, corrupt Gotham. For The Batman, Reeves tapped into his 2010 horror film Let Me In roots, also shot by Fraser, whose cinematography for Jane Campion’s 2009 romantic drama Bright Star had completely blown Reeves away before they ever worked together.
Fraser shared with Reeves a document called “Dark but Light,” which was a kind of vision board for low-contrast images. Cinematographer Gordon Willis was a reference, as was photographer Todd Hido. The idea was to figure out how to avoid lots of contrast while not making things visually numbing and losing definition in darkness.
“It was just a simple document going, ‘This is a light image, but it’s dark. How do we achieve that,’” Fraser says. “Obviously, the comic books achieve it through silhouette. They achieve it through shapes in the foreground. They achieve it through creating pools of light that the character isn’t in, but we can see the character move past that pool. That’s a style of lighting like in noir in the 1940s and 1950s, sort of pools of light, which we didn’t want to do. What we wanted to achieve was what I would call ‘urban noir,’ where we’re not doing slashes of light on a wall. It’s more of, ‘Where does the street light fall off? And is there a shadow created by a car parked somewhere? And does the lead actor walk into an area that’s kind of reflected in the light?’ We’re just taking a modern aesthetic of what we understand now and we’re placing it in combination with some of the greats from the ‘70s."
One final reference of note, which was more unconscious than anything, is the recent series of Batman: Arkham video games. In particular, the film’s third act – including the Riddler’s final devious ploy, which ought to remain unspoiled, as well as a series of hand-to-hand combat fights – felt like it was reflective of the layout and gameplay of the popular games.
Reeves insists that was probably more by osmosis. Part of his deep dive included playing through Batman: Arkham VR, an immersive experience as the title implies. He isn’t a gamer at all, but the director delighted in the mechanics of that game, and its crime-boss iteration of the Penguin in particular. Being plunged into that world undoubtedly had an effect.
“That vibe was definitely drawn into it,” Reeves says. “I already knew what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to break the fight sequences into too many component pieces. I wanted to feel like we could connect a series of oners and bridge one shot to another, because I wanted you to not be lost in the detail. I wanted you to see Rob in this environment and go with that experience. One of the tools that Batman had was that he had trained himself to fight as a street fighter. At the end, I didn’t want to suddenly change the scale and have him bring out all of these weapons or some sort of thing we haven’t seen that makes him more fantastical.”
Again, it’s all one big soup of influence and innovation meant to conjure something at once evocative and unique. The Batman has been an ongoing presence on the screen and he will continue to be for years to come. All filmmakers like Reeves can do is put their spin on things, connect the character to new audiences in fresh ways and maintain what’s everlasting about him in the first place.
The Batman is now in theaters.