In Matt Reeves’ The Batman, the goth of Gotham City becomes mightily injected into its titular character. His eyes covered in black makeup, this version of the DC crime fighter zips around town on a motorcycle listening to Nirvana’s “Something In The Way.” He walks into his various scenes so quietly and melancholically, that he almost feels like more ghost than superhero. He also narrates the film in hushed voiceover in very on-the-nose, comic book-y fashion: “They think I’m hiding in the shadows,” he whispers. “But I am the shadows.” The caped crusader, in a way, has always been a limiting role for any actor. How much emoting can one really do with just your chin? Keaton, Bale, Affleck — they all had the secret identity aspect to play with at least. In The Batman, though, we barely see Bruce Wayne with the cape and cowl off. When we do, he’s very similarly gloomy and quiet. Robert Pattinson, returning to blockbuster duty after a decade, squashes the essential duality of the character, erasing any real difference between Wayne and his alter ego. And in doing so, he sort of gets at an essential insight about the ageless adolescent appeal of Batman — namely, that he’s something of an ageless adolescent himself, a guy so stunted by childhood loss that he exists in a permanent state of teenage angst.
The movie around him exists in that state, too. This may be the broodiest of all cinematic takes on the Dark Knight, which helps provides a certain intimacy to it. It also may come closer to the experience of reading a Batman comic than any Batman movie before it. Reeves paces his epic almost like a limited series — you can practically identify the moments where one issue is breaking into the next — and he complements his sometimes episodic storytelling with a striking visual language. Reeves and co-writer, Peter Craig, draw heavy inspiration from a particular Batman story, The Long Halloween, setting their movie during roughly the second year of Wayne’s vigilante tenure, before most of the town’s goons have gone full rogue. As in that acclaimed story arc, there’s a serial killer on the loose — in this case, a version of The Riddler who’s knocking off prominent members of the city’s social and political elite. We’re a long way from the question-mark theatricality of Jim Carrey or Frank Gorshin, though: As played by Paul Dano, under a goggled military green anarchist getup, this deranged puzzle enthusiast has more in common with Jigsaw of the Saw films or the diabolical John Doe of Seven. And of course he fancies himself a kindred spirit to Batman, a notion that intriguingly forces Wayne to start and question himself.
There’s very much a method to The Riddler’s madness. His murder spree is designed to publicly expose a web of secrets and lies, connecting the mob boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) to dirty lawmakers and lawmen, as well as Wayne’s late industrialist father. That makes The Batman the rare Detective Comics (D.C.) adaptation to take on actual detective work, with Reeves devoting as much time to crime scenes and clues as he does to well-orchestrated scenes of Batman beating the snot out of people. The mystery could use a knottier, more intricate architecture, though. Isn’t every Batman movie ultimately about the corrupt heart of Gotham? The revelations here might be less shocking than Reeves imagines, even for those who haven’t read the celebrated source material on which he’s loosely riffing. The Batman does have some of the rain-slicked dreariness of a David Fincher procedural, though. But right alongside that is the fact that it’s still set in an outsized comic-book world of good guys and bad guys. It’d be difficult to call any of these iterations of the characters definitive, even as most of them are played by first-rate actors giving first-rate performances. Zoë Kravitz brings an uncommon emotional realism to Catwoman, reimagined here as a nightclub waitress with a vendetta against the mob. The campiness of the character is notably gone, which isn’t a problem, but the fact that the the script both draws her too broadly and jettisons this classic anti-heroine’s usual moral ambiguities definitely is. She’s nearly as on-the-level as a pre-promotion Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) — and a little less interesting for it. And then there’s Colin Farrell as The Penguin, still a low-flying bird in Gotham’s criminal world. Unrecognizable under tons of stunning prosthetics work and a big accent, Farrell is a hammy hoot, even if his screen-time is limited.
As a multiplex aesthetic object, it’s pretty undeniable that Reeves’ film can be breathtaking. He clearly understands the graphic power of this graphic-novel material; he and cinematographer Greig Fraser show an illustrator’s eye for bold images, as they use a very shallow depth-of-field to add a mysteriously murky quality to the film visually. They flex that particular aspect during a chaotic car chase that ends with an upside-down POV shot of Pattinson’s hero emerging triumphantly and terrifyingly from an inferno. And Reeves opens his film through a rather enthralling montage that establishes the fear of Batman that hovers over the city, as we keep cutting to criminals glancing nervously into pockets of darkness, until the towering hero finally steps slowly and ominously out of one of them. And the film sounds even better, thanks to stunning sound design and a remarkable Michael Giacchino score that alternates minimalistic guitar strums and whooping orchestral marches.
As The Batman creeps deeper into its nearly three-hour runtime, it becomes clear that, for all its doomy grandeur, the movie has a retread-y quality to it, and feels like it’s possibly missing something crucial; the gravitational pull of infamy — a more magnetic villain. Its Riddler gets a great introduction, scouting his first victim with binoculars in an early creepily voyeuristic scene. But the more we see of him, the less scary he becomes; Dano, while still strong when viewed in a scene-by-scene basis, is left in a weird spot by the script, as he’s forced to enliven something familiar. Still, the film as a whole sustains its seductive atmosphere even as the narrative fizzles a bit. The Batman is as much a plot machine as the Christopher Nolan movies, but it moves a lot differently, crawling and slinking over its extended runtime instead of racing through it like a bat out of hell. And if we didn’t exactly need another Batman movie, there’s a charm to seeing one relatively steeped in the language of the original medium… a language at least partially suitable only for tortured costumed orphans or goth kids of all ages. Even as it retreads familiar grounds, The Batman sustains its fizzling narrative with an elegant grunginess; a moody, methodical noir nature that’s beautiful in how oppressively murky its images are.
The Batman will play in Theaters nationwide on March 4