For years I’ve said that “The Dark Knight” is the one great comic-book movie. The films you might consider to be runners-up — “Spider-Man 2,” “Superman II,” “Guardians of the Galaxy” — are splendid entertainments, but none of them earn the G-word. Not really. “The Dark Knight,” though, had an operatic grandeur fused with a creeping noir dread merged with a conspiratorial intricacy that added up to a true vision of the world. It also had a snazziness — that big-wheel Batpod! — that just about popped off the screen. At the time, the film wasn’t just “dark” but resonantly dark. It seemed about as elaborate and exciting as a comic-book movie could be.
Christopher Nolan, staging it all with a foreboding big-canvas flair, made Batman the gothic nihilist antihero he always was in spirit — a vigilante steeped in rage, at the end of his bat tether. Yet as perfect as Christian Bale was in the role, playing the now-debonair, now-raspy-voiced society-bachelor-turned-avenger, Nolan was smart enough to build the film around Heath Ledger’s extraordinary performance as the Joker, a character as real as he was terrifying — a leering sick-fuck clown, all stooped psychosis and oily green hair, licking his own scars, speaking in a voice pitched several notches beyond sarcasm as he devised ever more showy ways to send Gotham City hurtling into chaos. A villain whose goal — whose only destination — is disruption may speak even more to us now, in the age of Trump the showbiz fascist and Putin the warmonger with no endgame.
We have a culture that reflexively tears down the things it once loved. In recent weeks, I’ve seen some hindsight grousing about “The Dark Knight,” including a handful of commenters suggesting that neither Ledger’s performance nor the movie would have earned the reputation it did had Ledger not tragically died. That’s an observation as lame as it is unseemly, for it’s simply not true — no more so than it would be about the films of James Dean or Janis Joplin’s “Pearl” or Jonathan Larson’s “Rent.”
Ledger’s performance is worthy of Brando at his greatest. And though “The Dark Knight” was never a perfect film (it’s got a handful of narrative glitches and a subplot or two I actually wish were longer), it’s a comic book movie made with a sinister passion and a memorable human center. It came out in the summer of 2008, and by the end of that year, when it was the fourth-highest-grossing domestic release of all time, as well as a movie that some (like me) were shouting should get a best picture nomination, I was sure that it would prove revolutionary — the movie that, at long last, could inject a voluptuous shock volt of reality into our fantasy culture.
How wrong I was! “The Dark Knight” was a one-shot. It’s a film that should have changed the game, opening the door to a new kind of blockbuster. Instead, it stood as the exception that proved the rule — the rule, in this case, being that movie escapism wasn’t going to get any more artful or provocative or creatively ambitious. And one key reason the film failed to have almost any influence is that its sequel, “The Dark Knight Rises,” which didn’t come out until four years later, was such a colossal letdown.
“The Dark Knight” was Nolan at his best: tasty and fleet and accessible, almost classical in its precision. “The Dark Knight Rises,” with the exception of Anne Hathaway’s delectable performance as Catwoman, was Nolan at his most murky and overblown — not a terrible sequel, exactly, but surely one of the most disappointing sequels ever made. The measure of it was Nolan’s outrageously bad decision to follow up the greatest movie villain of the franchise era with Tom Hardy’s all-too-perfectly named Bane — a mushmouth psycho cipher in a complicated mask — and to treat his bizarrely muffled speech as if that somehow made him succulent in his evil. No, it made him an uninteresting bonehead you couldn’t hear. “The Dark Knight” deserved a great sequel as much as “The Godfather” did. Instead, it got one that only served to diminish the previous film’s mystique.
But “The Batman” is like the follow-up that “The Dark Knight” should have had. It’s a spectacular movie, with an epic sense of fear and corruption, a hero played more subtly than Batman has ever been played, and a villain worthy of our fascination at the larger malevolence he evokes. More than that, what’s amazing about “The Batman” is what an exquisitely layered onion of a script it has, and how much further into reality it tips than “The Dark Knight” did. Robert Pattinson’s Batman truly stalks through Gotham like a freak in a hellbent Halloween costume — the film is set two years into his midnight reign, when he’s just becoming notorious as a vigilante. In a weird way, it manages the minor miracle of letting us see the character, after so many blockbuster incarnations, as if he were unprecedented.
Most of that has to do with how Pattinson plays him. This is the first Batman who’s almost completely uninterested in being Bruce Wayne, who Pattinson turns into a dolefully unkempt neurasthenic shell. Yet as the Batman, he’s a hypnotic anger junkie; you feel the totality of his wrath in every vicious punch. He may be the first Batman who utterly belongs in that suit. It completes him, just as Pattinson’s jawline completes the beautifully rigid black cowl like a piece of sculpture. And he’s got a voice that shoots beyond the mannered growl we’ve heard variations on far too often. Pattinson talks in a way that’s steely and resolute but hypnotically quiet, with a mythic echo of another timeless movie voice — the all-knowing tightly coiled seethe of Clint Eastwood in his “Dirty Harry” era.
“The Batman,” as directed and co-written by Matt Reeves, is many things: night-and-the-city spectacle, quasi-origin-story, parable of 21st-century social and political rot, complete with drug burnouts and nightclub inner sanctums where gangsters rub elbows with civic leaders. But the reason we get immersed in this three-hour movie is that it’s such an intricately staged detective story. It may be the most stylishly etched contemporary version of a ’40s noir mystery since “Chinatown.” That’s one of a number of movies it evokes, but the cross-referential details, such as the rain-soaked “Blade Runner” cityscapes or a four-note motif that calls up the Dark Side theme from the “Star Wars” films, don’t make it a pastiche. It’s more like a noir aria drawn out of our collective movie unconscious.
Pattinson’s Batman talks quietly only because he seems to be sitting on a can of dynamite; he’s trying to keep himself, and the world, under control. Trying to track down a serial killer who keeps sending him riddles, he’s got the voice of Eastwood but the incisive exactitude of William Petersen’s Will Graham in “Manhunter” — the Batman is the only investigator smart and maybe crazy enough to understand the killer from within. He’s nicely matched with Zoë Kravitz’ elegant and wary Catwoman, who wears a ragged torn strip of stretchy synthetic fiber as a “mask” and seems to be inventing her every leap and prowl.
“The Batman” achieves the true moral ambiguity we associate with the ’70s (though it’s also there in films like “Boogie Nights” and “Munich”) in the hypnotic scene when Paul Dano’s Riddler, with his schizophrenic codes and avenging smirk, not only outs Bruce Wayne as the Batman, but uses their contrasting orphan stories to target him as one of the one percent. This is a superhero-as-desperado thriller that’s also a dissection of how people today feel about a system so ruled by big money that it’s starting to cave in on itself. Dano’s Riddler has a grand critique of Gotham City, and he’s right about all of it (though not about Bruce Wayne’s father). He’s about uncovering lies, and one of the pieces of graffiti he writes says “Renewal is a lie.” The word “Renewal” refers to a corrupt Gotham City program, but it’s really the film’s metaphor for any politician who tells you that he’s going to make your life better. The Riddler, an avenging angel with duct tape, slays the corrupt officials, one by one, like rats in a maze, but his deranged rampage raises the question: Who’s going to lead us out of the maze?
I hadn’t seen “The Dark Knight” since 2008 but watched it again recently; it more than held up. Yet there’s one way it looks different, and that relates to the very existence of “The Batman.” Fourteen years ago, “The Dark Knight” seemed as dark as a comic-book film could be, and in Ledger’s performance it still is. But the rest of the movie is… a comic book movie. A brilliant one, scripted and shot with a glistening clarity, but it remains true to the stylized graphic origins of the genre. I would say, in that sense, that it’s still the greatest comic-book movie I’ve ever seen, with a playfully why-so-serious frisson that made it the perfect vision of terroristic madness for its time.
But “The Batman” is something else, more like the greatest movie that also just happens to be a comic-book movie. (I’m not counting “Joker” in all this, because that film, much as I adore it, is its own non-comic-book thing.) “The Batman” allows us to revel in the presence of the Batman, with his Phantom of the Belfry cape whooshing behind him — a crime-fighter who declares “I’m vengeance” because for a while that’s all he is. He’s policing a world that’s in tatters; even the Bat signal seems stitched together out of shards. But the beauty of the movie isn’t just in how dark it gets, but in how mesmerizingly it hones in on the meaning of that darkness. “The Batman” leads us in — and out — of a vortex. I predict it will have no problem breaking the awards barrier (and maybe winning best picture), because even more than “The Dark Knight” it channels the scalding miasma of the here and now. It’s dark enough to touch who we’ve become.