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The Cost of Heroism: Matt Reeves on The Batman

Matt Reeves is up to the challenge. While the caped crusader has defeated directors in the past, Reeves has experience taking a beloved franchise and making it his own, as he did brilliantly in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “War for the Planet of the Apes,” two of the best blockbusters of the 2010s. The co-writer/director brings his vision to “The Batman” this week and delivers the best work of his career, finding a gritty intensity in this story that hasn’t really been seen on the screen before. Robert Pattinson plays the legendary hero, co-starring with Zoe Kravitz, Paul Dano, Colin Farrell, John Turturro, and Jeffrey Wright. It’s an intense, riveting piece of big-budget filmmaking, directed in a way that echoes everything from “Seven” to “Chinatown,” but also feels blindingly new. Reeves checked in with us earlier this month to talk about his process, what attracted him to the project, his leading man, and the future of this new franchise.

The best comic books and comic book movies take place in an alternate universe but often reflect the world in which they are seen as well. What does “The Batman” say about where we are in 2022?

For me, that was the intention. I agree with you that the best part of doing a genre film is to use the metaphors of that genre to explore the human condition. The idea of the world that you’re exploring reflecting our world in some way that feels like it is current. I started working on the movie in 2015. In weird, unexpected ways, I would say that I absolutely wanted the Gotham of our story to be a microcosm of our world: The idea of the sort of viral, frightening nature of the online mob and social media and this idea of corruption. There’s a bit of “All the President’s Men” aspect in a “How high does the corruption go?” It sort of very much seemed to apply to our times. Strangely, in certain ways, as we were shooting, it was almost as if our world was becoming even more like the Gotham of the movie we were making. That was unexpected.

But it was certainly the intention—that’s one of the reasons to do a Batman movie, right? The Gotham of whatever period the movie’s being made in needs to reflect in some way the world that we all understand. It’s the opportunity that you have to comment on that and to put Batman at the center of this. One of the things that I wanted to do was I wanted it to be like “Chinatown” in a certain sense—a description of a corrupt place and to get at the seeds of how far that corruption went and why crime is so intractable and why it’s so messed up. In that way, of course it’s an opportunity to look at the real world while still looking at something that’s iconic and mythic.

One of the ways you do that is that the film has a very tactile quality. There’s water and dirt and grime, which give it a more grounded reality. One of my issues with modern comic book movies is that when the buildings fall down it never feels like there’s anyone in them. It feels like there are people behind the doors in these buildings. How important is it to have that grounded, realistic world?

That was the whole thing. Whenever I do any project, my way in has to be personal. I have to feel it very deeply. I have to become attuned in a way. I become the compass for the project. That way I know where to put the camera, what to tell the actors—and when everybody’s contributing their ideas, I’m able to draw from really brilliant collaborators because I’m the compass. I can say, “Wait, that idea doesn’t work but this one does.” You have to internalize.

The thing that I love about movies—what draws me to watch movies that I love—is this idea of this kind of empathic experience, where you can be in the shoes of characters who you are not, and who do things that you like to think you would never do. By living through those experiences, in this point of view way, it starts to implicate you. You start to question the decisions being made and you start to think “What would I do in that circumstance? How different or how much the same would I be?” You start to understand where the source of darkness may come from, or, in this case, how reaching for something that might be seen as heroic is actually quite personal. He’s trying to find a way to make meaning out of something that otherwise has no meaning.

All of that means that it has to feel real. To me, grounding it so, as you say, you feel the impact of every blow. I knew that I wanted him to not only sort of deal out violence from a place that was very personal. He was basically facing, night after night, the ghosts of what happened to him as a child. And so it’s coming from this place of personal vengeance. I wanted him to have to take those blows as well. You’re putting people through an experience where you can feel the cost of that experience. Those kinds of tones and textures are what draws me into a movie. I don’t want it to be too clean, too remote, or an object you can admire. I want you thrust in it.

To quote our namesake, Roger Ebert called movies an “empathy machine.” I think that’s really what you’re getting at.

Yeah. That’s absolutely right.

I’m not sure everyone would say that about superhero movies. So what were the mistakes of other films in this genre that you wanted to avoid?

I don’t know that I was trying to react to what I thought were the mistakes of other superhero movies as much as I was trying to find the way to take a superhero myth, an enduring myth, and find a way to make it relevant to me. And to the times we’re in. And to make it feel very human. I think a lot of times what blockbusters do is present something in a spectacle that you can step back from and observe from a safe distance. I wanted to eliminate all that safety. [I wanted you] thrust into something and you feel the consequences and you feel the suspense in a way where you’re on the edge of your seat because you get emotionally connected to the jeopardy of what’s happening and you question even the morality of what’s happening. This idea of the movement of our character in this story from vengeance to realizing that maybe that message that he’s projecting into the world might not be what he’s hoping it’s achieving, and that that would shake him to his core. I wanted to go on a journey with that character. So it was less about reacting to what others had done and figuring out how can I take something that maybe isn’t traditionally explored in this way and make it work.

There’s also a deeply flawed hero aspect to your version.

Totally. He’s not some kind of immovable, perfect object. In fact, he’s driven by something that is his brokenness. For me, I started making movies when I was a kid. I made 8MM movies. I realized that it was one of the few places where I could make sense of things. I could have a little bit of control. I realized that the movie-going experience for me, much like you said with Roger Ebert—it’s the way we make sense of the world around us. The world is totally chaotic—[we’re] looking for meaning and creating meaning in a world that is not always presented to us in a way that seems to provide meaning. You have to find it. You have to search for it. It’s forged. That is actually what this Batman character is doing in a very imperfect way. Taking the law in your own hands so you can intimidate a criminal element—it’s a very dangerous idea. And yet it comes from a very broken, tortured psychological wound. This guy basically can’t make sense of what happened to him. It’s the only way he knows how to cope—he’s going to go out night after night and revisit this primal event again and again. There’s something in that compulsion I related to. For me, it’s a compulsion for filmmaking and film-going. Bruce Wayne and Batman had that compulsion I related to.

It’s more of a character study than most superhero movies.

I hope so.

In that sense, it doesn’t work without someone as committed to your common vision as Robert. What does he bring that other people couldn’t? How did the film change when he got involved?

He’s an extraordinary actor. Here’s someone who came to prominence through a beloved franchise. He became kind of like a pop icon. And his choice after that was to turn away from blockbuster filmmaking for a period of time just to explore and become, as he was already, so much more deeply an artist. Working with really interesting filmmakers—Claire Denis, David Cronenberg, James Gray. Trying to find interesting ways into characters. He looks like he’s on a search. For me, what I try to do when I’m making a movie is to get people together to go on a search. We’re looking for some kind of ineffable truth—something that conveys something that we’re after that you can’t articulate until after you’ve found it and made it, or you wouldn’t have to make the movie. I think that he was a wonderful partner like that for me. He’s always wanted to go on a search and look for the off-center way into something, and to find a personal way in, an unexpected way in, and a way that would never rely on this idea of somebody being this invincible character. He loved the idea of his flaws the way I did, and was willing to show all of those flaws, and show that side of himself.

I saw that you referenced “Good Time” as a reason you hired him and yet that performance is so external. He kind of takes that same energy in the other direction this time. It’s there but coiled up inside a lot.

Exactly. It’s funny because what I saw in that movie was an incredible obsessive drive. That drive and that propulsiveness related to an aspect of Batman. To do this and be driven to go out night after night to exorcise these demons that can’t be exorcised. That’s a crazy compulsion, and I saw Rob expressing that in a way that was so vivid. More than that, what I saw in the quiet way of that movie was a vulnerability in his eyes—a humanity. Under all that craziness—you’re right that he’s extroverted in that movie, but you can see the fragility. And that sort of beautiful vulnerability. That was critical for me too. While this character ends up being a lot more internal, a lot more repressed, all of that I knew could come through because I could see the way Rob expressed himself. I saw a spiritual connection although it was not a direct connection. It told me that Rob had that all inside of him.

How much have you considered other stories you want to tell in this universe?

I would say that I have thought about it, but, to me what was most important was that we not do a “chapter one.” You have to set out to make a definitive version of the character that makes its own case. If you can do that and people connect to it, I can tell you that there’s more that I want to do. But who knows if we’ll get to do it? I just want to make this statement and for us all to come together to make this statement. You hope that that means you’ll get to do more, but I guess we’ll see.

Before I let you go, I have to say that I love the “Apes” movies for similar reasons—their tactile nature. I think of forests and snow there; water here.

Thank you so much. That’s so cool. Totally. Those kind of visceral, elemental qualities—I definitely saw the connection. The two worlds were very connected to me. Caesar and Batman—two imperfect characters moving in a very imperfect, dangerous world. Look, I never saw myself, when I was beginning so many years ago, as being a genre filmmaker. But I then learned the ability to find within them the personal mode of expression which the best genre filmmakers do. I always loved genre movies and I feel so fortunate that the two genre projects that came my way in this world where genre is dominating the big screen happen to be the two that I couldn’t be luckier to have been given the chance to do. They give me the opportunity to do something personal.

See “The Batman” on March 3rd, only in theaters.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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