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 pre-eminent 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’s 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.”
Another formative work that Abrams recalled was a 1992 student film that Reeves made at the University of Southern California called “Mr. Petrified Forrest.”
“It was about a guy who’s just afraid of everything,” said Abrams. “There’s an awareness that the forces working against us all are profound.”
When they worked together from 1998 to 2002 on their breakthrough WB college drama, “Felicity,” Abrams recalled a photo of himself and Reeves that hung in their offices, captioned with two Post-it notes.
“Mine was me saying, ‘Make it funnier’ — Matt’s was him saying, ‘Make it more emotional,’” Abrams said. “He always was that guy.”
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’s 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.”