Unforgettable images—the coned, fiery blue flames of the Batmobile, bodies thrashing, enveloped in shadows, the brailed scars crawling across Robert Pattinson’s muscled back—converge in Matt Reeves’ three-hour, noir-infused epic “The Batman.” Ever since Bob Kane and Bill Finger created him in 1939, the philanthropist playboy by day, Caped Crusader by night, has signified isolation, grief, trauma — vengeance. Over the decades, television and cinematic incarnations, projected through the personalities of the actors who’ve portrayed him, have amplified those traits through both campy and brooding means. But Pattinson’s Dark Knight, more vicious, more forlorn, and less worldly, hampered by his privilege rather than aided, is not only different from every version before him. Inspired and enthralling, this detective story veers far away from the current homogenous superhero landscape.
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This superhero film isn’t reliant on the tired narrative repetitions of the genre. This superhero film moves with a cinematic spirit. The robust ensemble avoids hollow theatrics. It approaches these larger-than-life characters through every shade of melancholy. All ‘Batman’ movies take their identity from the state of Gotham; this new iteration overlooks a weary city of broken social contracts: income disparity, tattered safety nets, supposedly outsider politicians promising change and delivering nothing. This cynical city is tired of believing its best days are just around the corner. And those generational disappointments weigh heavy on each character in different and profound ways.
In Reeves’ rusty, carbon-colored Gotham, Bruce Wayne (Pattinson), the city’s proverbial once and future prince, lives reclusively in the bowels of Wayne tower as a moody, emo-ridden loner, cared for by his dutiful butler Alfred (a rugged Andy Serkis). In a voiceover, the audibly demoralized Bruce explains how it’s been twenty years since an unknown gunman assassinated his parents — for a change, their deaths are rendered offscreen — during his father’s mayoral run. And two years since he first donned the cowl and cape. He feels cursed.
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While the very visage of the bat signal in the sky strikes fear in every criminal, actionable change from his form of vigilante justice remains elusive: The dream of the Wayne Renewal Program, a project begun by his father, promising to help the lower and middle class, catches no one. An opioid crisis is sweeping across the city. Gangsters like the unflappable Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) and The Penguin (Colin Farrell) rule the streets. Perhaps these obstacles could be surmounted if James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) wasn’t the only trustworthy cop. Or if every public servant weren’t on the take. But it’s a new, brutal serial killer, The Riddler (Paul Dano), who, to the strains of “Ave Maria,” opens the film by spying on Mayor Don Mitchell (Rupert Penry-Jones) — savagely murdering him — which most concerns Batman.
Batman’s most appealing characteristic — his super sleuth brainpower, exercised here in his interactions with Gordon as they navigate The Riddler’s sprawling master plan — is wonderfully plotted and critiqued in Reeves and Peter Craig’s incisive writing. Current superhero films rarely leverage intellect as a dramatic crux. Problems are often solved through blunt motives and even blunter forces. But in “The Batman,” the harder this hero swings in the fowl underbelly, the further he’s positioned from the truth. The Riddler embarks on a killing spree, offing and unmasking Gotham’s most corrupt figures. With each body, he leaves Batman a ciphered riddle written in a greeting card (ala “The Zodiac,” one of the movie’s many David Fincher references, including “Se7en”). These brain puzzles and the dialogue surrounding them invite as much fascination as any punch thrown.
Nonetheless, the main draw, featured in the bulk of the film’s advertising, is the easy chemistry between Pattinson and Zoë Kravitz as Selina Kyle/Catwoman. Selina works as a waitress in an underworld club owned by Falcone, where city officials, cops, and bigwigs mix with sex workers and crime bosses. Her life is disrupted by the arrival of Batman, who’s searching for Selina’s roommate, a woman who might’ve been involved with the mayor. The roommate’s kidnapping teams Batman and Catwoman together in a search for her. Similar to Batman, owing to her shabby, thread-bare ski mask for a disguise, she isn’t altogether new to this life but isn’t totally formed either. Kravitz doesn’t play Catwoman with the same sultry spark as Eartha Kitt — who can? — she takes a different approach. She is cunning and perceptive—a slinking, brutally honest femme fatale who disarms Batman with her openness.
Reeves brings a sharp perspective to these characters. Particularly through the fight choreography. Heavy chiaroscuro lighting envelops every scene, styling the vast dilapidated urban landscape as grim yet alluringly beautiful. Michael Giacchino’s operatic score lives on the edge of unsettling. The blocking, or the differing spatial dynamics between Catwoman and Batman, defines the action with open fluidity and pure blunt force trauma (each of Batman’s punches sounds like a concussive blast). Reeves and DP Greig Fraser (“Dune: Part One”) love holding the majority of the action in full shots, as nearly pitch-black figures, in one scene, are flung across a train platform. But it’s the sensual scenes begat by the action that are most memorable: In one scene, Batman pulls Catwoman behind a wall to hide from a few baddies. She nestles within his body, and they seem to breathe, sumptuously, in unison, as if governed by the same heartbeat.
Ultimately, “The Batman” is an example of how a star can elevate an entire picture because Pattinson is the essential Batman. He and the unassuming Wright vamp well together (the patience Wright fashions the wryly Gordon with is a lesson in character creation). The pair’s interrogation scene of Penguin, following a fiery rumble of a car chase, is a surprisingly comedic two-hander. Underneath mountains of makeup and prosthetics, Farrell somehow gives an emotive performance. And around Pattinson, Serkis begins with open turns but soon narrows his focus to achieve a surprising groundedness. Pattinson doesn’t have many lines as the quiet Bruce Wayne, but his effect is evident: From the folded way he carries his body to the clench of his lower jaw and his pained patter. These are choices of an actor who’s worked with talented directors and done the work to bring those experiences together.
Through Pattinson’s Batman, this film has much to say: What does this character signify today? Sure, Bruce Wayne fights on behalf of the defenseless, but has he ever met a normal person? Sure, he uses his money for crime-fighting, but doesn’t his wealth come with blind spots? In an eat-the-rich world — Catwoman even jokes about offing CEOs and sharply quips to an acidic Batman that he sounds like a person who comes from money — his privilege can’t go unquestioned. It’s telling how he misses a key clue because of its workmanlike origins, a world totally different from his. This movie openly questions whether vengeance and the toxic savageness it inspires have their limits. How can Batman change Gotham if his punishing actions perpetuate a violent cycle? Who does he inspire, and to what ends?
Every character identifies with him: Especially Falcone (Turturro does a lot with a character who’s more like a vibe than a person) and The Riddler — Dano with his most unhinged white boy energy ever. There’s a temptation to have wished “The Batman” was shorter, more honed in on one character: Batman and Catwoman are one or two scenes short. The Penguin totters away underutilized. And The Riddler straight-up disappears for stretches. The noir elements aren’t wholly pulled through, often slipping due to the elongated runtime.
But the movie’s grandest set piece, a city on the brink of a tidal wave and an ensuing assassination attempt, is thrilling. The final hushed scene between Batman and Catwoman, a tender grace note, wherein you hope their motorcycles run off into the distance together, swoons. “The Batman” isn’t the bombastic blockbuster fans have come to expect. It’s a hypnotic piece of filmmaking. A vision exists. Chances are taken. Questions are asked. An effort is made to be different. Is this a turning point in the superhero genre? It’s too early to say. But Matt Reeves’ “The Batman” should tell audiences that other superhero movies are possible, and yet more, they can be had outside the formulaic tentpoles filling theaters today. [A-]