Welcome to Movie DNA, a column that recognizes the direct and indirect cinematic roots of both new and classic movies. Learn some film history, become a more well-rounded viewer, and enjoy like-minded works of the past. This entry highlights what movies you need to watch if you like Matt Reeves’ The Batman.
Iconic characters come from many inspirations. Batman, for instance, has roots in the drawings of Leonardo Da Vinci, historical figures Robert the Bruce and Anthony Wayne, the novel The Scarlet Pimpernel, movies such as The Mark of Zorro, pop culture staples like Sherlock Holmes and The Shadow, and other superhero comic characters including Superman and The Phantom.
When it comes to Batman movies, the influences are often the same. But while The Batman follows relatively closely with its story and aesthetic to past cinematic tales of the Dark Knight, the new movie also has some distinct references of its own. And co-writer and director Matt Reeves is deliberately obvious with many of the inspirations for his take on the Caped Crusader. Also, he’s been quite vocal about the movies that led the way to his adaptation — besides the previous Bat-films, that is.
Below is a list of Reeves’ stated influences and other movies I think you need to see to properly appreciate where The Batman comes from, historically. I’ve also included a note about how and where to watch each recommendation if available.
The Bat Whispers (1930)
According to Batman creator Bob Kane, the character was heavily inspired by the villain from this early talkie. The Bat Whispers is actually a remake, from the same director, of the 1926 silent feature The Bat. Both are adapted from a 1920 mystery-comedy play. Another film version arrived 20 years after the creation of Batman, in 1959. The look of the masked and caped criminal character in this incarnation directly influenced the look of the main character of The Batman, but he also kind of looks like the new movie’s Riddler at one point, too. Plus, The Batman is the closest thing to a mystery film involving a killer, a la The Bat Whispers.
The Bat Whispers is streaming free on YouTube.
Murder, My Sweet (1944)
Matt Reeves has talked a lot in interviews about The Batman being inspired by neo-noir and detective and police and crime films of the 1970s, including The French Connection (1972) and Taxi Driver (1976). But those didn’t exist without the true films noir of the 1940s and 1950s that were made before them. When The Batman opens and we hear Robert Pattinson’s voiceover narration as Bruce Wayne, a.k.a. Batman, we should immediately think of Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity (1944) or Robert Montgomery in Lady in the Lake (1947), or Humphrey Bogart in the pre-noir 1941 remake of The Maltese Falcon.
But the most fitting is Murder, My Sweet. Based on the Raymond Chandler novel Farewell, My Lovely, which previously had inspired the plot of the detective-hero film sequel The Falcon Takes Over (1942), Murder, My Sweet follows iconic hard-boiled private eye Philip Marlowe in a convoluted investigation that starts out, similar to The Batman, with a missing nightclub employee –who also turns up dead. Marlowe is mostly associated on screen with The Big Sleep, as played by Humphrey Bogart in 1946 and Robert Mitchum in 1978, but this is his first real film appearance, portrayed by Dick Powell, with the signature voiceover.
Murder, My Sweet is available to rent or buy from your favorite VOD outlet.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
While not likely intentional, the climactic sequence in The Batman made me think of the original film adaptation of The Manchurian Candidate, by John Frankenheimer. You’ve got a large arena where a hidden sniper is positioned to assassinate a politician, so the visual reference is there, although I could have also selected either one of Alfred Hitchcock’s versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934/1956) for just that. Or a number of other earlier political assassination movies.
But The Batman‘s assassination attempt also made me think of the premise of The Manchurian Candidate in terms of how such a plot would no longer require hypnosis. We live in very different times than even that of Jonathan Demme’s 2004 Manchurian Candidate redo. These days, villains like Angela Lansbury’s Eleanor Shaw/Iselin here (or Meryl Streep’s in the remake) or The Batman‘s Riddler or the real world’s US Capitol attack organizers can just build up followers to do their bidding consciously. You could argue the Riddler army and Trump devotees are also brainwashed in a different way, but they’re not sleeper agents.
The Manchurian Candidate is streaming free on Kanopy and Pluto TV.
While The Manchurian Candidate eerily anticipated (and some say influenced… ) the slew of political assassinations of the 1960s, many of the movies of the following decade dealt with paranoia in response to all the real-world violence. Among them are the three features collectively known as Alan J. Pakula’s “paranoia trilogy.” The second one, The Parallax View (1974), is a political conspiracy thriller with a detective story and certainly fits in with discussions of both The Manchurian Candidate and The Batman.
Pakula’s earlier paranoia thriller, Klute, the first in the trilogy, has a more precise connection to The Batman, however. Jane Fonda stars in the movie, giving an Oscar-winning performance as Bree, a sex worker who was involved with a high-profile man who has disappeared and maybe been murdered. Donald Sutherland plays the titular detective investigating the case, including her part in it, and he winds up falling in love with Bree as well. Doesn’t that sound like the dynamic between Catwoman and Batman in the new movie? Well, as far back as two years ago, Reeves told the New York Times of his intent with The Batman:
“I don’t want to just make a ‘Batman’ film. I want to do something that has some emotional stakes. My ambition is for it to be incredibly personal using the metaphors of that world. It feels like this really odd throwback to the movies I came up on from the ’70s, like ‘Klute’ or ‘Chinatown.’ I’m not saying we’re achieving anything like that. Those are masterpieces. But that’s the ambition.”
More recently, in an interview for Den of Geek magazine, Reeves talked more about Klute and how it specifically influenced the relationship in his Batman movie:
“’Klute’ was super important. When I was writing, I watched a bunch of noirs… and there was something in that movie that spoke to me when I was writing about Batman and Selina Kyle. I think Jane Fonda’s performance in that movie is, to me, just incredible.”
“Klute’s such a straight arrow, and he seems so naïve. I think he judges her and he assumes because of the world she’s in that she is a certain kind of person. And yet he can’t help but be drawn to her and he can’t help but be affected by her. He’s putting himself above her only to discover that he’s deeply connected to her.”
And Robert Pattinson, who plays Batman this time around, had more to say in the same interview about the influence:
“One of the first conversations I had with Matt about the script [was how it] has so much ‘Klute’ in it. Their relationship is just so similar where he’s trying to neg her. And it becomes this weirdly sexy thing. There’s something about the rage that they both inspire in each other that is kind of what’s making them magnetized.”
Zoe Kravitz, who plays Catwoman, also chimed in on this film’s connection to The Batman, to MovieMaker magazine:
“That film kind of became a Bible for me in terms of tone and the relationship between the two of them, and that’s one of the most incredible performances I’ve ever seen—Jane Fonda just blows me away,”
I should also mention Pakula’s third entry in his trilogy: All the President’s Men (1976). If you’re a student of American history, you might have noticed that The Batman characters Mayor Don Mitchell Jr. (Rupert Penry-Jones) and District Attorney Gil Colson (Peter Sarsgaard) are named after President Nixon campaign manager John N. Mitchell and advisor Chuck Colson, both of whom were criminally part of the Watergate scandal. And as Reeves told MovieMaker:
“There had to be a very deep conspiracy going on. And so I watched ‘All the President’s Men,’ I re-read the book, and I just started saying, OK, so how do we start to describe just how high the corruption went? It’s very much like ‘All the President’s Men’ in that way.”
Klute is available to rent or buy from your favorite VOD outlet.