The Bat-pendulum always swings back.
After a few movies where Batman was the hulking Accountant running around shooting huge guns at aliens, it is finally time for Warner Bros. to reverse their approach to the size and scope of the Caped Crusader and his big screen adventures. Like the Christopher Nolan trilogy offered as antidote to Joel Schumacher’s campy, neon nausea, Matt Reeves’s The Batman is ostensibly the grimy, cerebral alternative to the heavily-armed, huge-armed CrossFit hero Zach Snyder insisted upon.
To not be Snyder’s over-textured take on the character would be plenty for most Batmen, but Reeves’s movie about the guy in the black armor isn’t just an obligatory, reactionary treatment of the Batman IP. Reeves brings the character back to gritty realism by populating Gotham City with unusual, interesting actors, and, satisfyingly, goes the extra step in finally delivering on decades of unfulfilled promise: the ostensible World’s Greatest Detective actually does quite a bit of detective shit. This long-overdue interpretation to The Batman is a refreshing tonic that hews closer to celebrated noir comics like Batman: Year One—thanks in no small part to a smaller-name director less interested in putting his own auteur stamp on character than in just making a Batman movie.
Said Batman movie starts two years into the hero’s so-called “Gotham Project” (enough time to already have a Bat-Signal without so much as a Tom Wilkinson crucifixion), with billionaire heir Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) now aiming his covert vigilantism experiment at solving a string of high-profile murders. After the most recent death of the mayor, The Batman himself is called out by the serial killer—The Riddler, a masked weirdo with a penchant for Paul Dano-esque histrionics (aptly played by Paul Dano). True to his name, the killer likes leaving little riddles to be solved by Batman and Gotham City Police Lieutenant James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), who has by now grown fond enough of his crime-fighting buddy to often address Batman with an abbreviated, familiar “man.”
While Batman solves these puzzles of varying difficulty with varying aplomb, the bodies continue to pile up, so our mascara-slathered (applied onscreen for once!) lead hops on his ever-present motorcycle to look into Gotham’s underworld and how it connects to the murders. His investigation leads to a spate of source material name-checks when Batman confronts Oswald “Penguin” Cobblepot (Colin Farrell), associate to crime boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), at his club the Iceberg Lounge—where he also meets waitress, love interest, and Natalie-Portman-in-Closer wig aficionado, Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz).
Kyle’s proximity to the case (Her roommate was involved with the mayor) leads Batman to enlist her help in solving the mystery behind Riddler’s slayings—especially once he finds out how she likes to punch and kick and sneak around in the dark with a little black-eared costume as much as he does. Riddler keeps boasting of his murders on the Internet, so the small-mammal-based heroes must suss out how the mob, Batman, the three rogues on The Batman one-sheet, and the city’s officials are all connected. After all, one does not hire Peter Sarsgaard to play a district attorney in one’s movie if said character is completely inconsequential.
Compared to recent efforts in the genre, both by competitors and in its own ongoing franchise proper, The Batman is about as grounded as a superhero thing can get. (In terms of comic book fare, it skews closest to one of the Defenders-adjacent programs, minus the superpowers and season-filling bloat.) There isn’t as much goofy tech as Nolan’s pictures, and the film’s lack of spelling out the dead-relative-creates-superhero origin is a lesson well-learned by Spider-Man: Homecoming. Instead, the emphasis here is on murky, street-level brutality and the creepy murder-mystery at hand; critics’ oft-repeated comparisons to something like SE7EN is adequately earned. What it lacks in depth of narrative innovation it makes up for an attempt at mood and style not seen since the Tim Burton days.
This unfortunately means the title character is about as distant and unknowable to the viewer as he is to those around him. While Christian Bale’s take on the character seemed to delight in putting on his beaming Bruce Wayne song-and-dance for the public, Pattinson’s version bristles and scowls when butler Alfred Pennyworth (Andy Serkis, doing a Sean Pertwee-in-Gotham impersonation) dares to suggest he make a daytime appearance as the billionaire scion. Pattinson’s narration offers stabs at profundity, and his thoughtful, far-less-growly Batman is a fascinating take, but his performative Bruce persona just doesn’t exist. Which is sort of the point: his Batman’s drive is understated and all-consuming without the movie needing to keep dashing his mother’s pearls around Crime Alley.
In fact, almost everyone besides Dano seems to be playing this one downbeat—as is fitting for the morose, ponderous tone and pacing of this nearly-three-hour-long comic book epic and its lead. In a different movie, Turturro would make a meal out of his mobster role. Yet his gentlemanly, almost-kindly Carmine Falcone recalls a shade of his similarly sunglasses-adorned Joey Knish in Rounders. And after The Batman and Kimi in the past month, Kravitz has more than proven herself worthy of her ascendance from X-Men: First Class‘s most forgotten character to genre lead; her Catwoman has the quiet intensity so sorely lacking when she played the part first in The Lego Batman Movie. Elsewhere, hamming it up in too-few scenes as a cartoonish gangster stereotype is Farrell, who must be conserving his energy and time in the makeup chair for the Penguin’s HBO Max show.
Even if some of these characters aren’t more than unsmiling sketches, they nicely fit the vibe of what Reeves is trying to accomplish: a dreary crime thriller that just so happens to feature some superheroes. The rest of this red-and-black-colored world—the most unpleasant Gotham City yet—is realized by rain-soaked production design, an atmospheric score, and a few slick horror-movie-caliber camera moves.
Still, The Batman can’t avoid getting lost in a few trappings of recent comic book movies. It’s completely beholden to third-act audience expectations of bombastic action set pieces and sequel teases. Also, as much as the detective angle is pronounced, Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig would’ve been better off spending more time on the ingenuity of the central murder-corruption mystery and less on providing an overtly-politicized commentary on the nature of vigilantism.
After the DCEU floundered with Batman for years, it makes sense that the vision for the unmistakably-new take on the character would come from a director with less of the cumulative frat-boy machismo of guys like Affleck and Snyder. But Matt Reeves, the filmmaker behind The Pallbearer, Cloverfield, and at least one of the monkey war movies seems far more concerned with servicing the universe and characters than issuing another stamp of directorial identity.
If nothing else, this good start warrants a followup and the chance to attract more actors of Pattinson’s captivating ilk to the world of playing DC Comics characters. Call up his old Twilight costar and see how she feels about toxic shrubbery.
Director: Matt Reeves
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Runtime: 176 minutes
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano, Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro, Peter Sarsgaard, Barry Keoghan, Andy Serkis, Colin Farrell