Batman has been making live-action appearances on the big screen since his racist as hell 1943 serial, but the bulk of the films fall into three mini franchises. The first kicked off with Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), the second with Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005), and the third with the utter misfire that is Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). Snyder’s film was the first in a series of clumsily handled features that suggest Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment were floundering with a character previously proven to be a sure thing. Now they’re back with round four. The Batman brings the Caped Crusader back to Earth for a coming-of-age procedural delivering real thrills, a terrifically creepy villain, and a fresh start for a classic hero.
Gotham is a city overrun with criminals, and while pockets of light exist within the population, it’s the Dark Knight who is fighting back the fiercest. Batman (Robert Pattinson) is in year two of his “Gotham Project,” a methodical quest for justice on the city’s streets as he detects wrongdoing, tracks criminals, and doles out vengeance. “Fear is a tool,” he says, and it’s one he’s learning to use against the villains, but his efforts face a new challenge with the arrival of The Riddler (Paul Dano). This puzzle-master is targeting politicians and public figures for assassination, and as Batman investigates the killings, he discovers unexpected connections to his own father. And that just makes him angry all over again.
The Batman is directed and co-written by Matt Reeves, who creates the most grounded feature we’ve seen with Batman since, well, the serials of the ’40s. It’s wholly disconnected from the ongoing DC Extended Universe — there’s no Superman or Wonder Woman, no super-villains or aliens — and is instead the story of a young man trying to make the world a better place by beating down bad guys at every opportunity. It’s also a procedural, though, one that draws inspiration from Batman’s many incarnations as a “detective” grinding through investigations before reaching the criminal element behind it all.
That element works fairly well here, but the script (co-written by Peter Craig, whose involvement dates back to the initial attachment of Ben Affleck to direct The Batman) does get a bit too talky at times as excessive exposition takes hold. Most of it comes in the form of characters reading cards, screens, and more aloud for a dramatic effect that’s muted somewhat by viewers seeing and reading the same words first. It’s a minor thing, but it happens again and again and works to undercut the actual dramatic tension of the scenes. The investigation itself suffers a similar fate at times as answers that feel obvious to viewers are drawn out as Batman and friends crunch the numbers and compare notes.
Luckily, at an epic 175-minutes, The Batman has plenty more to offer beyond those missteps, starting with the film’s look, feel, and overall atmosphere. The various threads result in a Return of the King-style abundance of endings, but there’s no drag or dullness here. Cinematographer Greig Fraser has taken a cue from the movies of David Fincher to deliver a world of rainy nights and overcast days where shadows and smoke coil through the city’s alleyways and streets. Michael Giacchino‘s score sets the mood with a variety of tracks ranging from the haunting and playful to the propulsive and triumphant.
Pattinson’s performance will likely divide viewers, but his Batman is an angry, simmering character perfectly suited to the story being told. There’s a choice made, though, for his Bruce Wayne to act and feel no different than his Batman. It’s as written, and his screen time as Bruce is kept to a minimum, but the dichotomy viewers are used to is absent here. Bruce is every bit as dour and unpleasant as his costumed persona with Pattinson’s performance being indistinguishable between the two halves. Still, that choice fits this world and this character, as he is only two years into his role as a vigilante — he’s still learning, and the hope is the journey will allow him to let go of some of the anger and realize that his strength is in helping the innocent rather than hurting the guilty.
The Batman sees him joined in that fight by a strong supporting roster starting with Jeffrey Wright as Jim Gordon. The two partner up early and even share one of the film’s few laughs when Batman admonishes Gordon for drawing his gun and the cop replies, “Yeah man, that’s your thing.”
Zoë Kravitz claws her way into the film as Selina Kyle, a.k.a. Catwoman, and the flamboyance of past appearances by the character is ignored in favor of a slightly more realistic rendering as a crafty cat burglar with some fighting chops. She becomes the suggestion of a love interest, but the plot prevents much in the way of steaminess amid all the seriousness and instead allows her to feel more independent of that relationship.
The mob represents the main villain pool here with the delightfully unhinged John Turturro as boss-man Carmine Falcone and Colin Farrell — beneath pounds of latex — as Oswald Cobblepot, a.k.a. The Penguin. While we should expect more from him in future installments, here we’re left wondering why it’s Farrell instead of an actual plus-size actor with a waddle.
The highlight on the supporting character front, though, is Dano’s Riddler, who manages to be far creepier and more unsettling than comic book movie villains typically manage. He communicates with the public through social media videos that feel raw and dangerous as he whispers and screams in and around the camera, and it has a chilling effect reminiscent of the recordings from that arsonist from the ’80s (I can’t be the only one who remembers this creepy-ass psycho). He’ll inevitably be compared to Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight (2008), but this is a different kind of madness that Dano nails — it’s less outward-facing and maniacal and more terrifying in its intensity.
The Batman may be the longest entry in the franchise, but it’s also the most straightforward. There’s no flash or comic book jazz to distract here, and instead, it’s an aggressive, muscular ride — speaking of which, be prepared to have a new favorite Batmobile — that pulls you into its darkly stylish world. The obligatory sequel setup is here, a far from unexpected one, and it’s good to be excited again about the future of Batman. If Reeves’ work on the Planet of the Apes franchise is any indication, we’re in store for a fantastic and fascinating escalation.