The Batman director Matt Reeves talks Ben Affleck, Joker, and why Batmans actually really weird

Batman returns. Again. But this time, the Dark Knight’s different – more brooding, and with deeper emotional baggage. Director Matt Reeves has done an admiral job re-introducing the iconic character, now played by Robert Pattinson, back into the mainstream with The Batman.

Sitting down with Total Film a week before the movie’s cinema release, Reeves spoke about making a Batman movie that features so much more Batman than Bruce Wayne, how his vision was furthered when Ben Affleck (who played Bats in Justice League) left the project, and whether there was any discussion about crossing over with Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker. Here’s the Q&A, edited for clarity. 

TF: Batman in this film is… he’s weird. It’s the first time it’s clicked with me just how fundamentally strange this character is.

Reeves: The very notion of being Batman is weird. A very strange response to [his parents’ death]. What I love about the character is that it’s incredibly psychological. For so many superheroes, it’s about them doing the altruistic thing, right? They’re trying to do something to help other people. But really, Batman, he’s addicted, at least in this story, to being Batman. It’s about making sense of the world, of his life, of what happened to him when he was a kid. In a certain way, he’s stuck at being 10. He’s never getting over this experience. And so to go out night after night, looking for a fight, looking for crime, is a very particular choice. And it is, I would say, weird is definitely part of it.

TF: This is the first Batman film where we’ve seen so much more Batman than Bruce Wayne. What went into that decision?

Reeves: I knew that I didn’t want to do an origin tale and I didn’t want to do a story where you saw Bruce going through the trauma and then becoming Batman because that has been done brilliantly many times. But I still wanted to make sure that we had Batman at the center, whose story was the main story, so that it was his character arc, but he had not already mastered himself. And so you could see him evolve, and we could see him rise to the challenge. 

In doing that, I wanted to lean into the idea of making this a “World’s Greatest Detective” thriller. That meant putting Batman more than Bruce Wayne right at the center, because that’s the person who would be trying to solve this mystery. In a way, it was like a thriller and a horror story, a serial killer story. That meant that we would require the actor, Rob, to have subtleties of performance that you wouldn’t normally ask an actor to do with half of their face covered. It was certainly challenging, the idea that he is wearing that cowl. And yet, you’re not just getting that visceral Batman rage, you’re also getting him in an intuitive state, seeing the clues, piecing it together, trying to solve the mystery. 

There was a lot more dialogue as Batman than in any of the other Batman films. He has to have long conversations, he and Gordon, they’re like [reporters] Woodward and Bernstein and All The President’s Men trying to figure out just how high this conspiracy goes. That was a particular challenge.

TF: Rob’s performance is great, and it’s oddly funny when he invades people’s personal space. Yet, you started on this project with Ben Affleck attached as Batman, and that was a Batman who’s fought Superman. There’s a stark difference between that universe and the one you’ve created. Was it important to remove yourself from that and have a clean slate?

Reeves: Yeah, it was important to me. Originally, when it was going to be Ben, I wanted to make sure that, to do the first standalone Batman film after so many years, the pressure of trying to connect that to the rest of the grander universe, I just thought it was enough to try and pull off a Batman film, because Batman films, there have been great ones. People have a tremendous amount of expectation. We could focus just on Batman being the center of the story and giving him an arc. 

When Ben reevaluated and decided that it wasn’t where he wanted his life to go at that moment, it created the opportunity to take that even further and actually create a new iteration of the character entirely. The idea was to really delve into a Bat-verse. It was exciting to get into a Year Two Batman, and not do an origin tale. But we wouldn’t have done that with Ben, but to do that with a new character, a new Batman, where you weren’t seeing his origins, you’ve just coming right in and finding him in World’s Greatest Detective mode and seeing the rogues’ gallery around him in a way you’ve never seen. Because, while it wasn’t his origin tale, it was early days, and those rogues, they created themselves in response to this appearance of a masked vigilante known as the Batman. I thought, “Oh, gosh, it is their origin tales.” That aspect felt very fresh and different.

The Batman

(Image credit: Warner Bros)

TF: We’ve seen a very grounded Gotham quite recently in Joker. Was there ever a discussion about a crossover between the two?

Reeves: Not really. I was finishing the Planet of the Apes movies when I first came on board, which is 2017. It’s been five years in the making. When I was working on the script, and got deep into the script, Joker hadn’t come out yet. I didn’t know what Joker was or what it was going to be, and then I became aware of it once we were very deep into the film, and the fact that they were grounding things in a way that was reminiscent of things that we were doing, that wasn’t planned. Joker was always meant to be a very specific standalone that Joaquin [Phoenix], and Todd [Phillips] were doing. There was never really any discussion of crossover. But it was interesting to see that we were trying to ground our stories and that audiences were excited about the fact that you could take Gotham and make it feel so much like our world. That was something from the beginning that I had wanted to do.

TF: Thematically there are similarities between the two, for sure. It’s interesting that Batman has always been a hero who reflects our society. Here, we have police corruption, even a villainous Penguin who has arguably Trumpian inflections. Why do you think Batman has that ability to hold up a mirror to the real world?

Reeves: That’s the thing about Batman and Gotham, when you’re doing a Batman story, you get the opportunity through Gotham to put a lens on our world. That’s really unique, to have something this fantastical – this idea of a masked vigilante who goes out looking for crime. It’s an iconic, mythic, comic book story. Gotham, depending on the era that the films are made, always has the chance to comment on the era that it’s in. For me, the idea of making this movie look, it goes back to noir, right? It comes from the late ’30s and early ’40s. 

The one thing about Gotham is that crime and corruption are never eliminated, they never go out of style. There’s no era where you’re safe in Gotham, where you’re saying “corruption isn’t so much right now.” That’s human nature. And that’s what’s unique about this franchise, you get to look at human nature, you get to look at our failings, you get to look at the struggles in our world. That’s a very special asset for Batman and one of the reasons why so many people are drawn to it. It’s why I was drawn to it. 

There are ways in which this movie is almost a throwback to old Warner Brothers gangster movies – it has that aspect to the Penguin, he’s connected to that noir world. I wanted to make sure that Batman’s world was our real world. When I thought about the Riddler sending out his messages, I asked, “How would he do it?” He would do it through social media. And what are the effects of social media? The online mob bubbling under. 

Some of the things you reference, I was aware of them, but there are some things that, as we were making the film in 2017, events of the world weirdly resonated against what we were doing in ways that weren’t intended. I was never meant to be so direct, but it’s just one of those things. These times are what they are, they definitely are reflected within the film.

The Batman is in cinemas on March 4. For more from the cast behind the film, check out our interviews with Andy Serkis, Paul Dano, and Jeffrey Wright

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