The Batman is less a reinvention than a renewal, a fine-tuned take on the character that skirts trends and should satisfy regardless. Studios and audiences have always been most comfortable experimenting with their comic book movies when it comes to Batman. The Dark Knight and his rogue’s gallery can make for provocative material begging to escape the constraints of the tentpole superhero flick/happy-meal toy commercial. Director Matt Reeves has taken advantage of his freedom at DC and Warner Bros., who’ve allowed the new film to stand outside the DCEU, to create an elevated murder-mystery potboiler befitting the “world’s greatest detective”.
This latest addition into the Batman-canon skips the origin story, as we join the caped crusader (Robert Pattinson) after one year on the job, bashing delinquents and striking fear into the hearts of graffiti artists and small-time crooks who look up to see the Bat-signal illuminating the gloomy night sky. He’s needed elsewhere; a leading mayoral candidate has been brutally murdered, and the killer (Paul Dano) has left behind a note addressed to ‘the Batman’, along with a puzzle for good measure. The Riddler, a Fincher-esque amalgam of Zodiac-killer and conspiracy-nut (never mind that in Gotham the conspiracy is of course, completely justified) makes it clear through his notes, victims and public messages that his target is the insurmountable web of corruption at the heart of the city, and the “liars” who position themselves as antidotes, saviors and instruments of justice.
The Riddler’s provocations lead Batman, along with a charismatic Jeffrey Wright as Commissioner Gordon, down a rabbit hole in an attempt to prevent his next killing, and in so doing the team uncover more than they bargained for and find themselves having to play into the killer’s hands.
The best Batman villains pose the question of what exactly separates two costumed freaks from each other, especially so in this film, where the Riddler is enacting his own brand of justice, motivated by precisely what drives Bruce Wayne to his vicious night raids: vengeance. Wayne and the Riddler have both been dealt bad cards, acting out compulsions set in motion by childhood trauma. What do we do with the cruelties dealt to us? What does a figure like Batman really mean to the city that he protects?
Rounding out the superlative supporting cast are the underutilized Andy Serkis as the butler-cum-father figure Alfred, an unrecognizable Colin Farrell as the penguin, reimagined as an avaricious lieutenant mob boss who provides some of the film’s best accents of humor, the de facto don John Turturro who knocks it out of the park as always, and a revelatory Zoë Kravitz as a slick, kick-ass and intriguing Catwoman exacting her own ideas for punitive justice, partnering up with or causing Batman trouble when it suits her. Her chemistry with Pattinson is unmistakable (though Kravitz would probably have chemistry with sheet metal carved into a Batman silhouette were it required).
The extensive network of characters, twists and revelations to be uncovered goes some ways to explaining the film’s weighty 3-hour runtime, but audiences need not worry; this take on Batman may stray from the fantastical, but it certainly prioritizes thrills. The plot of the film concerns a thoroughly involving mystery, and of all the Batman movies, this is the entry which feels the most like a grim comic story come to life, in no small part because it understands and interrogates the mythos of this vigilante.
Another key element prioritized by Reeves to bring this often-visited world to new life is the fantastic sense of place generated by the production. Rather than the atmospheric but obviously fabricated backlots of earlier Batman films, or the nebulous Chicago-proxy of the Nolan-era, this Gotham maintains the absolute worst of New York’s underpasses, seedy clubs and rundown dwellings, nearly all of which are subject to torrential downpour, resorting to Chicago mostly in longshots for scope, offset by stately towers and gothic architecture to suggest the city’s historical gap between the haves and have nots, and to imply a past where those shaping the city foresaw prosperity.
Despite all the grime, cinematographer Greig Fraser of Dune doesn’t neglect to make The Batman a stunning visual experience. When we see an upside-down view through a broken window of a car-wreck-fireball-backlit Batman approaching in his steady pace, or a fight sequence illuminated only by spatters of gunfire, the filmmakers are clearly showing off and we’re lucky to be along for the ride. Thinking of the digital-cling-wrap-sheen of most effects-heavy blockbusters, it’s hard not to conclude that this is really what $200 million should look like.
It’s top-of-the-line comic book fare, but there are some missteps. Attention spans may not be tested by 3-hour runtime thanks to its outstanding pacing, but the film does outstay it’s welcome. The final 30 or so minutes jump the shark for a flashy climax that feels largely detached from the main plot, which by that point in the story has pretty thoroughly resolved itself. It smacks of a tacked on “big finish” to satisfy those audience members who’ve had trouble feeling engaged in a superhero story that hasn’t involved mass-scale property damage.
Otherwise, the film’s villain has left plenty of viewers petrified, but some in the audience may find that Dano, who is doubtless a phenomenal actor, doesn’t quite manage to make the Riddler a threatening presence, though an opening scene depicting the first of his serial killings is set to traumatize those kids, who’ve snuck into the theater to see the new Batman, for the rest of their lives. Dano is seriously menacing in this opening, and in other scenes like it, because he hasn’t had a chance to speak, but once we start seeing his video-calls with a purposefully affected “crazy voice” complete with Joker-esque laughter, the villain may seem overacted for the film around him. The movie wisely keeps the character a mystery as much as is possible.
Quibbles aside, the most important test for any Batman reboot gets a resounding pass: Pattinson more than lives up to the role, making for an imposing Batman, whose brooding scowl and heavy boots help telegraph his unremitting march forwards, and instill the same dread as Michael Giacchino’s theme. The character refers to himself as “vengeance” but touches like these make it clear another term would have sufficed; “Inevitability”. On the flip side, Pattinson makes for a delightfully weird Bruce Wayne, a depressed recluse near incapable of making eye-contact, and clearly strained by executing crime-fighting all night, every night. While some A-list stars who’ve donned the pointy ears and utility belt have stuck largely to the reserved playboy persona, this Bruce Wayne, who plays back the night’s beatings on repeat whilst listening to Nirvana, neglecting to wash off his eyeblack and sweat, is unmistakably a Pattinson character.
Most superhero-movie fans are already convinced, but for those who’ve grown a little tired of the ultra-similar multiverses and quippy franchises, who need a little assurance to believe it won’t be more of the same; The Batman is a big, satisfying, and stylish blockbuster, untethered from innumerable crossovers and (for the time being) sequels.