The Batman reinvented, with Robert Pattinson, Zoe Kravitz, and Colin Farrell as The Penguin

Director Matt Reeves on his lifelong preparation for the latest Batman film

Gotham City, the crime-ridden metropolis that Batman calls home, has always been a gloomy locale. For much of the last decade, it’s been a more sobering destination than ever.

Back in 2013, director Zack Snyder kicked off a planned DC extended cinematic universe with Man of Steel, a film that controversially transformed Superman into a murderer. A much-derided sequel – Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – irked fans by casting Ben Affleck as an older, cynical Batman and underperformed at the box office.

In 2016, Justice League, the first instalment of a planned trilogy, became, by any metric, a catastrophe. Snyder departed the project following the suicide of his daughter, Autumn, only to be replaced by Joss Whedon, director of The Avengers. Diehard fans were appalled by the appointment of a film-maker from the rival Marvel Studios imprint and lobbied for some five years for the release of Zach Synder’s Justice League, last year’s much-longer version of a film that only grossed $657 million worldwide against a breakeven point of $750 million.

Unbowed, Warner Brothers continued plans for another Batman film, set largely in Arkham Asylum, and written and directed by Ben Affleck.

Post-Justice League, however, the actor – who won a best picture Oscar as the producer and star of Argo and the Academy Award for best original screenplay for co-writing Good Will Hunting – had second thoughts about taking the reins.

“It was really Justice League that was the nadir for me,” Affleck told the Los Angeles Times last month. “That was a bad experience because of a confluence of things: my own life, my divorce, being away too much, the competing agendas and then Zack [Snyder]’s personal tragedy and the reshooting. It just was the worst experience. It was awful. It was everything that I didn’t like about this. That became the moment where I said: I’m not doing this anymore.”

Warner Brothers immediately called up such franchise reliables as Ridley Scott, Gavin O’Connor, George Miller, Denis Villeneuve, Fede Álvarez and Matt Reeves. The latter, a Batman aficionado, emerged as the early frontrunner, but apart from being “terrified” of such a daunting project, the timing was all wrong.

Reeves began making movies aged eight. By 13, he began collaborating with the similarly aged JJ Abrams

“I was in the middle of finishing War for the Planet of the Apes,” recalls Reeves. “I was deep in post-production when I started getting all of these phone calls saying that Warner Brothers wanted to meet me. That was December of 2016, and I’m in the middle of doing this crazy work on Apes, because with the Apes movies, you have to shoot the movie once, and then you make the movie again with the animators. And you have to make sure that the performances are the same, right? You want to make sure that what Andy Serkis and the other actors did, matches what those apes are doing, so you feel the same thing. It’s very intense. So I was like, I can’t have a meeting right now. But then my agent called me and said: Listen, this isn’t a general meeting; this is Batman. And I was like, Oh. I’m a lifelong Batman fan. I loved Batman from when I was a kid. So they sent me the script. And I read it. And I met with them. And I told them that I totally got that script and understood why they would want to do it. It was really cool. But I also said, that’s not the script that I would want to make. I would want to do my own script. And I can’t tell you what it would be because I’m in the middle of this huge Apes movie.”

The amiable Reeves began making movies aged eight. By 13, he began collaborating with the similarly-aged JJ Abrams. The pair’s short films were impressive enough to get aired on a local TV channel and to attract the attention of Steven Spielberg who hired the youngsters to transfer his Super-8 films to video. They subsequently co-created the hit TV series Felicity. Reeves graduated to Cloverfield and the Planet of the Apes sequels; JJ Abrams became, well, JJ Abrams. The Caped Crusader has been a constant presence for Reeves: indeed, he studied screenwriting under Batman comic book veteran Jeph Loeb at the University of Southern California.

“I remember seeing that amazing trailer for the Tim Burton film and being so excited,” recalls Reeves. “I loved the Michael Keaton version. I’ve loved all the iterations. But for me, Batman began when I was five years old. I love the Adam West series. I love that movie, Batman 66. And it’s so funny because when you watch it later in life, you realise how tongue-in-cheek and mod and in-jokey and crazy it was. But as a kid, I didn’t see any of that. And recently I sat down with my son, who’s like me as a kid, very sensitive. And I couldn’t ever show him any of the darker versions of Batman. But we watched Lego Batman, which is pretty great. And I showed him Batman 66 and the series, and, again, he didn’t see anything funny about it. He just thought Batman was cool. I had bought him a Halloween costume of Batman and he never wanted it. But the moment that he finished watching Adam West, he went into his room immediately and he came back out five minutes later, and now he’s wearing the Batman costume.”

Warner Brothers finally agreed to delay the production of the newest Batman film in order to secure Reeves’s services. He began working on the screenplay in 2017. Drawing on Batman: Year One – a four-comic 1987 cycle in which Bruce Wayne negotiates his vigilantism – and such 1970s classics as All the President’s Men and Taxi Driver, Reeves’s The Batman wisely jettisons Aquaman, Cyborg and Wonder Woman in favour of a standalone narrative. There are, he says, other projects and spin-offs waiting in the wings, but they had no impact upon the script he wrote with Peter Craig (the writer behind Hunger Games: Mockingjay).

'I get bored and insecure doing the same thing. I want a dangerous career path'

“I didn’t want to have to service those other films,” says Reeves. “I didn’t want to service characters from the DCEU [DC Extended Universe]. I didn’t want to have any characters from any other world other than the Batman world. I wanted to do something that was a definitive Batman story. But I didn’t want to do an origins story because that’s been done. I had this idea that this should be a very personal story for Batman, something that rocks him to his core. And that we’re watching Batman trying to figure out how to be Batman. I wanted to put him in a detective story. At the point when the studio hired me, the entire universe was at a very transitional moment and the studio was happy for me to go in this different direction. So actually, there’s nothing left of the original script by Ben [Affleck]. It was a cool script, it was just a different kind of story to the one I wanted to tell.”

The cast of The Batman includes Zoe Kravitz as Catwoman, Jeffrey Wright as Commissioner-in-Waiting Gordon and Colin Farrell as The Penguin. While seeking a younger Batman in lieu of the departing Affleck, Reeves happened upon the Safdie Brothers’ manic thriller, Good Time, starring Robert Pattinson. Batman is not an obvious choice for the actor, who has parlayed his post-Twilight fame into an impressive arthouse career, one characterised by collaborations with David Cronenberg, James Gray, Clare Denis, David Michôd and Werner Herzog.

“I didn’t necessarily not want to do mainstream movies,” Pattinson said at a press event last year. “I think a lot of people thought that after a while. I had spent quite a few years doing arthouse stuff. And that backfired on me a little bit because people seemed to decide that was all I wanted to do. But I get bored and insecure doing the same thing. I want a dangerous career path.”

Joel Schumacher was the director who put nipples on the Batsuit worn by Val Kilmer in Batman Forever; Reeves is the director who put eyeliner on Gotham’s most famous resident. Pattinson’s Emo look is complemented by the use of Nirvana’s Something in the Way in the marketing campaign. The director has repeatedly noted Kurt Cobain’s influence in his writing of Bruce Wayne. Other real-world antecedents include the Zodiac Killer, who is an obvious reference point for Paul Dano’s The Riddler, Batman’s primary antagonist. Bruce Wayne’s relationship with faithful butler and caregiver Alfred (Andy Serkis) found inspiration closer to home.

“That was one of the most important themes for me because I’m a father and also because of my relationship with my father who since passed,” says Reeves. “I loved my father very much. But we had a lot of struggles as fathers and sons and family members often do. That’s part of the human experience. And I talked to Andy a lot about the burden that Alfred must have felt because he never intended to be a father, certainly not at that point in his life, and so suddenly. And now the boy he was caring for is a man and is on a dangerous path. And he’s partly responsible for that path because he didn’t really know how to talk to him about any of the things that maybe he should have. Andy has two sons and a daughter. He knows an awful lot about fatherhood. And that made it very personal for him. That’s what I encouraged and tried to draw from the actors. The movie had to be personal to me, but then it had to be personal to them too.”

The Batman opens March 3rd

Read More