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Character Development
April 7, 2022

Breaking Down "The Batman"

You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone that's never heard of Batman. He's everywhere.

I can't remember the first Batman story I saw, whether it was a Batman movie, cartoon, or comic. I can't remember a time before I knew about this man. He was always there.

Whether or not you're into this superhero, it's hard to escape knowing certain aspects of his character. For example, in Batman's most recent big-screen outing, director Matt Reeves leverages this to find ways to avoid treading old ground and bringing new character traits to light.

Let's look at the similarities and differences between Batman portrayals throughout the years and what makes this current take different.

How many times has Batman been rebooted on screen?

Bruce Wayne and his alter ego have undergone six different iterations since the 1940s. But the many adaptations of this character have received varying degrees of success over the years.

In 2016, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, headlined by Ben Affleck, received only 29 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. This poor rating opened the door for another iteration. Matt Reeves' The Batman, was recently released in theaters worldwide. With an all-star cast including Robert Pattinson playing the role of Batman, Zoë Kravitz as Catwoman and Colin Farrell as the Penguin, it has received raving reviews (currently with an 85 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes).

Robert Pattinson in The Batman.
Robert Pattinson in The Batman. Image credit: Warner Bros.

Character analysis: Breaking down Batman

Before digging into Matt Reeves' new film specifically, let's look at what nearly everyone knows about Batman. These are the traits I've identified as consistent across every iteration.

1. He dresses like a bat.

The costume changes in detail, but it's always a bat. Always. I mean…you kind of have to when the character is called Batman.

2. He's rich.

Regardless of his personality, he is always portrayed as having plenty of wealth.

3. His parents were murdered in front of him when he was a boy.

While the details of his origin story change, his parent's death is always included. This event drives him to pursue justice as a vigilante. (Watch a supercut of all the times we've seen it on film.)

And even with these details being the same each time, there are other qualities that we've generally come to expect from Batman stories, especially in the modern era of the character.

He's fairly rigid in his beliefs and terse when speaking. He uses gadgets and is a loner with few relationships.

A fair amount of camp defined the character in early iterations, particularly the Batman TV show starring Adam West (though the Joel Shumacher films may have given the show an unintentional run for its money). But this camp is largely gone at this point, and while they aren't always realistic portrayals, most modern Batman stories are at least earnest in their desire to show him as grounded.

So the question that remains is: With so many "takes" in an already narrow landscape of the character, how does anyone make a fresh Batman film without veering outside of that landscape itself?

What's the same in Matt Reeves' The Batman?

Matt Reeves' film is not without its flaws, but I do think it is a good film mainly because of its focus (outside of act three, anyway). Despite the runtime, it feels like a much smaller story than the Burton films, the Shumacher films, and the Nolan films.

This character interpretation works to significant effect because rather than adding elements or answering questions, Reeves strips the character down to his essentials, avoiding common character tropes. He also sticks to the same theme of a dark and gritty superhero tale.

Batman and Catwoman stand together on the top of a building in Gotham.
Batman and Catwoman in Matt Reeves' adaptation.

What does Batman do during the day?

In most adaptations, when he isn't out fighting crime, he is at home pouring himself over the behind-the-desk Batman duties.

Does Batman use gadgets?

Yes, but just a few, and they're pretty bare-bones (by previous Batman standards). And we never explore how they're made, how he got them, etc. So they're there, but they aren't the focus.

Is Batman a loner?

Yes, absolutely. Bruce Wayne is such a recluse that it's huge news when he shows his face.

I'm barely using "Bruce Wayne" throughout this article because The Batman explores the idea that Batman is the person, and Bruce Wayne is the mask. Besides interesting character implications, it allows the film to stay rooted in the central mystery and not have to do the Batman/Bruce Wayne balance-act that many other iterations do. (Interestingly enough, this is similar to how many of Batman's successful comic runs are. The vast majority of the time, he's in the suit.)

How The Batman is different

While it is referenced in a news segment, the audience doesn't have to sit through another screen version of the night Batman's parents were murdered.

Early on, he shares a long look with a young boy whose father was just killed. It's early on, and because Batman's origin is universally known, the audience can emotionally backfill this moment with everything it needs.

Reeves is essentially leveraging the audience's knowledge of Batman's origin to get emotional payoffs in the early minutes of the film without having to do the legwork of setting them up.

Watch this video for Captain Midnight's take on Pattison's "Bruce Wayne."

The surrounding characters have changed

While Batman is arguably the most Batman he's ever been in this latest adaptation, the supporting characters undergo drastic changes.

The Riddler in The Batman.
The Riddler is reinvented without his trademark costume.

The Riddler is a far cry from iterations we've seen before, both in his costume (sadly, no green question marked suit) and his motivations. And while this new Batman movie has been described as a neo-noir mystery, this character is more like something out of a horror movie like Seven or Saw. Other than the quintessential penchant for leaving riddles for Batman at the crime scenes, he's a mostly original character in his motivation and characterization.

Alfred is less of a butler and more of a partner while also seeming more detached from Batman's "Gotham Project." A line hints at Alfred's time in service (possibly MI6), and another line suggests he was more Thomas Wayne's bodyguard than a servant.

Catwoman, similar to the Riddler, has the same general suggestions of her character (cats and cat-burglary) but is a mostly original character.

The Penguin has some hint of the affectations we've seen in the character before but doesn't have nearly as much agency as past versions of the character have. This may be due to keeping the character on the sidelines until his official spinoff when he'll have more to do.

Additionally, The Batman does an excellent job with developing their side characters such as Harvey Bullock, a Gotham police detective. We have seen plenty of previous Batman movies create quite flat side characters.

The essential character of Batman

There are, of course, plenty of stylistic and cinematic changes that make this movie feel different than other iterations. A completely different creative team will generally make a different-looking movie. But the changes in story and character stand out to me as making this film different in more than just the cosmetics.

In essence, The Batman stretches the world of Gotham by making its most significant changes in everything surrounding the main character while reducing the main character to his essential and straightforward qualities.

The result is a fresh film that feels like it's getting the character completely correct with what we understand while feeling like a new vision and original story.

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Breaking Down "The Batman"
David Wappel

David Wappel is a feature writer. Recent work includes the screenplay for Long Gone By, now available on HBO. He was named a Top 25 Screenwriter to Watch in 2020 by the ISA and is the 2019 Stowe Story Labs Fellowship winner. He is an avid Shakespeare and Tolkien fan.

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