The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘The Batman’ shows that it’s always best when he works alone

Robert Pattinson stars as a young and still-learning vigilante in “The Batman.” (Jonathan Olley/Warner Bros./DC Entertainment)
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The key to DC regaining the superhero movie crown was never going to be about forcing a Justice League team-up or trying to do things the Marvel Studios way with a never-ending story. The solution was much more simple than that.

The answer was always the Batman. Comic-book culture’s great equalizer.

When things look bleak critically for the DC brand, the bat-signal is always there. When a Batman movie is good, DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. are stronger and can compete. The equation practically writes itself.

In the eyes of this Batmanologist, “The Batman” is the first WB/DC film since the late Heath Ledger’s Joker in 2008’s “The Dark Knight” that can stand toe-to-toe with anything from mighty Marvel. Not even a billion-dollar Aquaman movie, the “Peacemaker” opening credits on HBO Max or Wonder Woman’s first film — no matter how brilliant and successful it was — have been able to close the gap Marvel created by assembling the Avengers in 2012. This time is different, in part because Batman is riding solo again.

Director Matt Reeves’s stunning achievement is equal parts superhero thriller and detective drama and a refreshing reinvention of a Batman movie franchise that desperately needed to be dusted off. Warner Bros. is the studio that made you believe man can fly with Christopher Reeve as Superman and invented summer superhero hype with Michael Keaton’s “Batman” before the Marvel Cinematic Universe was a thing. The expectations for its DC movies have always been high, which is why the past few years of trying to out-marvel Marvel Studios with the likes of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Justice League” have been disappointing at times. “The Batman” is a return to form for a studio that can again say it’s an elite superhero movie maker.

“The Batman” isn’t trying to connect to everything DC has done at the movies since it formed the Justice League (who are still around — just don’t expect a get-together anytime soon). And the film is better for it. You won’t see star Robert Pattinson showing up in November’s multiverse tale “The Flash,” which stars both the O.G. Batman, Keaton, and the last actor to wear the cowl, Ben Affleck. And that’s how it should be.

While writing “The Batman,” Reeves listened to Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” — a song he later used in the film’s trailers and in the movie — and envisioned how Bruce Wayne was like the late Kurt Cobain, someone whose talent was immense but who wasn’t interested in the adulation that came with it. Reeves also likened the bright lights of fame that follow Bruce wherever he goes to being a Kennedy in America. The public’s intrigue born from tragedy leaves Batman completely uninterested in being Bruce, which is apparent in how disheveled and zoned-out Pattinson looks when he’s unmasked.

Reeves has also built a world filled with top-notch supporting characters such as Zoe Kravitz’s sidekick/adversary/love interest Catwoman and an unrecognizable Colin Farrell as mob boss Penguin (more like the comics, less like Danny DeVito). With Reeves and Pattinson at the bat-wheel — and speaking of wheels, the Batmobile has never been meaner — Batman is back on top.

It’s too powerful a brand to be sharing the superhero spotlight. Which may explain why Affleck’s time as Batman produced more GIFs and memes than praise as he became the only cinematic Batman to never star in his own film franchise, which in and of itself is a failure of vision. Batman is a superhero who looks cool next to other heroes on-screen but doesn’t need them for relevancy. Batman isn’t a co-star, he’s the star. He doesn’t need a cavalry. He is the cavalry. This Caped Crusader is the one card in DC’s hand that can beat anything Marvel can throw at them. “The Batman” won’t be compared to a Marvel movie because it isn’t trying to be one — and the never-ending popularity of this character means it never had to be.

The film represents a rare shift in the power of superhero cinema in Hollywood. DC is truly back to form, with a film that has an 85 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and earned a stellar $134 million at the domestic box office over the weekend. Pattinson’s performance as a young Dark Knight still learning the ropes is the most exciting Batman debut since Keaton suited up. And with the direction of Reeves, who just happened to study writing under Jeph Loeb (writer of “Batman: Dark Victory” and “Batman: The Long Halloween,” two of the great all-time Batman comic tales) at the University of Southern California, the franchise is now helmed by someone with the Batman mythos encoded in their DNA. He cares about getting it right.

To maintain what “The Batman” has achieved, there’s only one thing to do: Let Pattinson continue to shine on his own. The only other hero who should possibly come to his aid is a Boy Wonder named Robin, who has been out of the Batman spotlight for far too long.

But the group days are over. No reunion tour. No more punching Superman. George Clooney did indeed say it best in 1997’s forgetful “Batman and Robin”: “This is why Superman works alone.”

This story has been updated.


An earlier version of this article misspelled the names of actors Colin Farrell and Danny DeVito. The article has been corrected.