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'The Batman' and Matt Reeves: Emerging from the shadow of other caped crusaders

At first glance, it's not clear that Matt Reeves has any secret identity like Batman. The 55-year-old filmmaker is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get guy, but Reeves is now the guardian of Batman's formidable cinematic legacy

By Dave Itzkoff
Published: Mar 5, 2022

'The Batman' and Matt Reeves: Emerging from the shadow of other caped crusadersMatt Reeves in Los Angeles, Feb. 2, 2022. On March 4, Warner Bros. will release “The Batman,” directed and co-written by Reeves, the latest attempt at a foundational adventure for the vengeful vigilante-by-night; Image: Devin Oktar Yalkin/The New York Times

Central to the mythology of Batman is the idea of the secret identity: Beneath his fearsome mask, he is really Bruce Wayne, the billionaire scion of grimy Gotham City, and beneath that, he is still the traumatized child who saw his parents murdered in front of him.

At first glance, it’s not clear that Matt Reeves has any secret identity. The 55-year-old filmmaker is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get guy; with his slicked-back hair, neatly trimmed mustache and affable manner, he’s like a friendly mirror image of Batman’s hard-nosed police ally, James Gordon, if Gordon traded his cigarettes for Sweetgreen salads.

But Reeves is now the guardian of Batman’s formidable cinematic legacy. On March 4, Warner Bros. will release “The Batman,” the latest attempt at a foundational adventure for its vengeful vigilante-by-night. Directed and co-written by Reeves, the movie, like its title, promises a back-to-basics approach, disconnected from previous Bat-franchises and starring a preeminent film vampire, Robert Pattinson.

This is the second time in a decade that Batman has re-begun since the 2012 release of Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster “The Dark Knight Rises,” and one of countless takes on the character since he became a box-office draw in 1989, kicking off a generational wave of superhero movies.

But the Bat-cycle churns much more rapidly these days: It inexorably demands a new movie about the Caped Crusader every few years, regardless of whether other recent efforts ended gracefully, as with Nolan’s trilogy, or abruptly, as when Ben Affleck, the most recent star to play the role, stepped away from the character.

In that same time, Gotham’s fertile turf has yielded all manner of intellectual properties including an Academy Award-winning movie about Batman’s archrival, the Joker; television prequels about the city before Bruce Wayne became Batman and about Alfred before he became Wayne’s right-hand man; a family-friendly Lego Batman movie; a video-game franchise; and numerous animated adaptations of comic-book story lines.

The proliferation of spinoffs leaves fewer opportunities for “The Batman” to do something truly original with the character. At the same time, Warner Bros. has made no secret of its desire for this movie to set up even more new TV shows and brand extensions.

These would be daunting tasks for any director, even Reeves, who has shown he knows his way around dystopian mass entertainment in his work, which includes “Cloverfield” and two sequels in the latter-day “Planet of the Apes” series. As he told me earlier this month when I visited his Southern California home, moviegoers are too steeped in Batman lore and have seen enough successful adaptations to accept one from a creator who isn’t fully engaged in the material.

“If you can’t find the way to do it with a passionate connection then it’s not going to work, and the audience knows it,” Reeves said.

Unlike other directors who have brought Batman to the screen, Reeves may not yet possess an offscreen persona as clearly defined as the ruminative Tim Burton, the playful Joel Schumacher, the erudite Nolan or the rebellious Zack Snyder.

But what Reeves has now are the five years he spent — far longer than he expected — building “The Batman” from the ground up. His film, awash in bloody red and bruising black hues, is as distinctive an interpretation of the character as those of his predecessors. And it is unexpectedly uncompromising where it could have been ingratiating, with a sense of foreboding infused into every frame and every decibel. (“There’s a lot of decibels,” he said.)

In Reeves’ telling, Batman is neither a novice nor a veteran; he’s an increasingly familiar fixture in a Gotham gripped by drugs and organized crime. This time, he is drawn into a mystery involving nascent versions of the Penguin and Catwoman as well as a murderous nemesis called the Riddler — trials that will force him to reconsider the morality and motivations behind what he does.

REEVES WAS NOT YET PART of the Batman conversation in late 2016, when Warner Bros. was still committed to making a new movie starring Affleck as an older, more seasoned version of the character introduced in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Affleck, a screenwriter on this project, initially planned to direct it and then opted not to, setting off a search for a new director.

Toby Emmerich, chairman of the Warner Bros. Picture Group, said that the difficulty facing any filmmaker was to “create a Batman that is compelling and dynamic and thrilling, but different than anything we’ve seen before. Who can reinvent it? Who can find a sensibility that hasn’t been explored already?”

That hunt — in which the names of filmmakers like Ridley Scott, Fede Álvarez and Matt Ross were reportedly kicked around — led the studio to Reeves. “He is a world-builder,” Emmerich said. “His movies have a weight and a darkness to them, but there’s still a pop sensibility.”

Reeves came of age in Los Angeles, a fan of auteurs like Hal Ashby as well as mass-audience genre movies. When he was an adolescent, his amateur films were shown at local festivals, earning him acclaim and news media attention for his precociousness: “I eventually want to get into stories with a purpose, with a message like ‘Ordinary People,’” the 15-year-old Reeves told the Los Angeles Times in 1982.

J.J. Abrams, the “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” director, befriended Reeves when both were teenagers, bonding over a shared love of moviemaking and the overlapping subjects in their earliest projects. “We were both telling a story of the loser in high school who can’t get the girl, who’s being bullied by someone,” Abrams said. “Mine was simpler and more comedic — his was darker and ultimately tragic.”

As Reeves went on to direct films like the 2008 apocalyptic found-footage thriller “Cloverfield” and “Let Me In,” his 2010 remake of the Swedish vampire drama “Let the Right One In,” he looked for ways to express his own points of view while facing the challenges of increased scale and audience expectations.

“I started realizing that there was a way to do something personal that still had the genre aspect to it,” Reeves said. His films could be a place to work through his own anxieties, whether global or quotidian. “Moviemaking lets you go into the fear, but when you’re in control of it, you start to exorcise it,” he said.

That philosophy would seem to have reached a pinnacle with “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” (2014) and “War for the Planet of the Apes” (2017), Reeves’ hit entries in that rebooted science-fiction franchise, which grossed a combined $1.2 billion worldwide.

Andy Serkis, who played the chimpanzee leader Caesar in the series, said that he and Reeves occasionally spent their time talking about weighty matters that the movies brought up, like the breakdown of society or the desire for revenge. Other times, Serkis said, the work prompted more personal reflection: “We’re both fathers, so we talked a lot about father-son relationships and the difficulties and the failures of that.”

Reeves was deep into postproduction on “War” when Warner Bros. approached him about directing Affleck’s Batman movie. After reviewing that script, Reeves called it “a totally valid and cool take” on the character, “an action set-piece adventure” that he likened to a James Bond movie for the studio’s extended universe of DC superheroes.

“I just didn’t know how I would direct that,” Reeves said. Despite the studio’s interest, he said, “I don’t think you’re going to want me because I wouldn’t do this. And then they asked me what I would do.”

This wasn’t a question Reeves was immediately prepared to answer. “I said, I’m in the middle of making this ‘Apes’ movie so I can’t really tell you,” he recalled with a laugh.

REEVES HAD SPENT A LIFETIME reflecting on Batman, a character defined for him less by 80 years of comic-book lore or recent cinematic incarnations than by Adam West’s straight-faced portrayal in the arch 1960s TV series. “I didn’t see any irony in any of that,” Reeves said. “There was just something cool about that Batman, and that was my way in.”

Given the many films that had depicted young Bruce Wayne’s tragic loss of his parents and his awakening as a crime-fighter, Reeves said, “we couldn’t do an origin story.” As his concept came together, Reeves said he wanted to “make sure that Batman is the character who has the emotional arc — you see him go through tremendous trauma and then marshal the will to find a way through.”

Warner Bros. waited for Reeves to finish his last “Apes” movie so it could hear his Batman pitch, and with the studio’s go-ahead, he began working on a script in early 2017. Some time later Affleck left the project entirely. Reeves said in our interview, “I think Ben was just evaluating what he wanted to do and it wasn’t what I think he had fallen in love with, in terms of playing that character in the first place.” (Affleck was unavailable for comment, a press representative said.)

It was a significant change that allowed Reeves to take the character on an altogether different journey. Had Affleck remained, Reeves said, “that story would have been about grappling with disillusionment.” The film he now envisioned “was more about someone who hadn’t quite figured out why they were doing the thing they were doing.”

This reframing also allowed Reeves to cast a new actor to play a younger Bruce Wayne in his 30s, already a year or two into his Batman experiment. After a search in which Nicholas Hoult was also said to be a close contender, Reeves landed on Robert Pattinson, the “Twilight” star he’d seen branch out into adult dramas like “The Lost City of Z” and “Good Time.”

“I could just feel his desperation, his intensity and his vulnerability,” Reeves said of those performances. At that juncture in his career, Pattinson said, “I’d been doing really fun, interesting movies — to me, anyway. It didn’t seem like the obvious progression is to go and play Batman afterwards.”

But as Reeves unfurled his plans to the actor, Pattinson found himself drawn to this particular conception of the character. “He’d been thinking about this slightly scuzzy, crazed version of Batman,” Pattinson said. “Which is exactly the way I wanted it.”

Pattinson described the director as someone who recognizes that “fear is very real, rather than something you can bluff your way through.”

That understanding proved crucial to how he approached Bruce Wayne in the film, Pattinson said.

“When he puts on the Batsuit, it’s not like he’s putting on this golden suit of majestic armor and doing this righteous thing,” he said. “He’s succumbing to his darkness. Once he’s put on that suit, he doesn’t really know who he is anymore.”

So much work still lay ahead. Reeves spent a couple of additional months with his co-writer, Peter Craig (“The Town”), mapping out the interwoven crime drama, corruption scandals and city history in the movie’s middle section. He populated his sprawling Gotham with fresh versions of allies like Alfred (Serkis) and Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), adversaries like the Penguin (Colin Farrell) and the Riddler (Paul Dano), and the hero’s cat-burgling love interest, Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz).

All the while, Reeves said, he was pushing himself to find new ground that hadn’t been covered in the Batman films that still dominate the pop-cultural consciousness, particularly Burton’s and Nolan’s movies.

Then in March 2020, two months into production and with about 25% of the movie completed, the pandemic struck. Andrew Jack, the film’s dialect coach, died from COVID and other crew members became sick. Reeves was preparing to travel from London to Liverpool for a sequence involving 600 extras when production was shut down.

“It was a weird moment — everyone was like, what’s going on? And nobody knew the weight of it,” Reeves recalled. When filming resumed that fall, he said, “we had to be nimble.” Though Reeves said that no parts of the movie had been substantially reconceived for pandemic-era production, digital effects did help fill some gaps: “There are places where we absolutely have CG crowds.”

NOW THE DIRECTOR HAS HIS FILM, one that he realizes may appear to be more in tune with current events than he intended. The story, written several years ago, seems to anticipate real-world developments that happened during shooting; its depiction of a metropolis overwhelmed by tragedies yet determined to forge ahead feels alarmingly on the nose.

“Gotham has always been a metaphor for our world — Gotham is the dark side,” Reeves said. “There were moments where, as events were unfolding, we were watching from London, going, ‘Oh my God, is our world worse than Gotham?’”

Even before its release, “The Batman” has raised eyebrows for its nearly three-hour running time, but Reeves shrugged off such concerns. “Once you see the movie, I think that ceases to be an issue,” he said. “It’s immersive, it takes you along and it keeps you engrossed.” He has tested it with preview audiences and, he added, “by the way, it was once longer.”

He is on board with plans that Warner Bros. has made to use the movie as the engine for a whole new franchise, including live-action HBO Max shows about the Penguin and the Gotham police department, as well as a Batman animated series.

Having laid some breadcrumbs in his own movie about what might come next for Batman, Reeves sounds like he is almost surely planning a sequel. But the director didn’t make it easy to quiz him on these plans.

I started to ask, are you tangibly — “Tangibly exhausted?” he interrupted.

Sure, but are you completely — “Completely spent?” he interjected again.

Eventually, yes, Reeves admitted that he could see the Bat-Signal lighting up again someday: “The events of the film would create the first glimmer of hope that the city has had in 20 years, but also smash the power vacuum apart.”

“Where the story goes, for sure, I’ve had a lot of thoughts about that,” he said. “But as I said, I need a nap.”

©2019 New York Times News Service

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