It was less than three years ago that Todd Phillips’ mid-budget but mega-successful “Joker” threateningly pointed toward a future in which superhero movies of all sizes would become so endemic to modern cinema that they no longer had to be superhero movies at all. With Matt Reeves’ “The Batman” — a sprawling, 176-minute latex procedural that often appears to have more in common with serial killer sagas like “Se7en” and “Zodiac” than it does anything in the Snyderverse or the MCU — that future has arrived with shuddering force, for better or worse. Mostly better.
This isn’t “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” posturing as a 1970s conspiracy thriller or “Logan” half-committing to its Western heart, nor is it a simple throwback to Christopher Nolan’s Bush-era take on the Dark Knight, which grounded Bruce Wayne in a tactile Gotham while still broadly adhering to the storylines and spectacles expected of its genre. No, the better part of this Batman belongs to another genre altogether, as Reeves stubbornly eschews the usual razzmatazz in favor of a hard-boiled murder-mystery in which The World’s Greatest Detective just happens to be a (very) tortured billionaire with an unexplained hard-on for bats.
Which isn’t to suggest that people will confuse this mirthlessly dark Bat-noir for a Raymond Chandler adaptation, or even any of the David Fincher movies that lent “The Batman” its grim style or haunted air of fear — not with Colin Farrell playing Oswald Cobblepot under 50 pounds of Jake LaMotta cosplay, Paul Dano’s Riddler drawing foam question marks in his lattes, and a glowering Robert Pattinson karate-chopping street gangs while entombed inside a rubber Batsuit thicker than the tires of a monster truck. But it’s those brief (and very rare) dashes of action that best illustrate the film’s defiantly anti-blockbuster approach, as Reeves designs them with a much greater emphasis on close-up emotion than big screen excitement.
The combat is shot in silhouette, the sole Batmobile sequence is framed tighter than “Locke,” and the setpieces double down on Greig Fraser’s bonfire cinematography — his Stygian color palette extending Bruce’s personal hell across the whole of Gotham — to a degree that makes them seem like a scorched-earth rebuttal to the candied aesthetic of most other superhero movies (and a serious crisis for any corporate multiplex that doesn’t regularly change its projector bulbs). Even this film’s relatively familiar, broadly Nolan-esque Batman tries to save the city climax is discomforting for the way it stages all the usual POWs! and BAMs! against a recognizable backdrop of real-world horror.
And there is plenty to be afraid of in this Gotham, as “The Batman” makes clear by opening with a Halloween-night home invasion that unfolds like a chapter from the Book of Saw (a fitting prelude to a film whose Riddler is equal parts Joker and Jigsaw). The mayor is murdered by a serial killer just days before his potential re-election, leaving behind the first of several mangled bodies and taunting clues.
What it doesn’t leave behind is a power vacuum. If the mayor’s vacated office is certain to be awarded to the inspirational young Black woman who was challenging him for it (Jayme Lawson as the wonderfully named Bella Reál), that foregone conclusion allows Reeves to shift his attention towards the rat’s nest of festering white men who are ominously unconcerned with the outcome of the vote. Gotham has been controlled from inside Falcone’s nightclub for longer than Bella has been alive, and the rot has grown deep enough to keep things from changing.
That stagnation bleeds through the film’s retro-modern production design, as Koch-era taxi cabs and MS-DOS coexist alongside Trumpian identity politics and viral livestreams, all of them housed together in a Gotham that seamlessly blends parts of London, New York, and Chicago into a single mega-city buried under a mountain of violent grime (the film’s immaculate CGI is largely invisible and pointed towards world-building instead of than spectacle). The past is always coming back to haunt people in “The Batman,” though some are determined to prove that it never really went away.
Fittingly, and despite all of the ways “The Batman” pushes superhero movies forward, it still has one foot stuck in the familiar. For all of its bruising power, it still pulls a number of its punches. It’s possible Reeves’ epic had its wings clipped from the minute it was conceived with a PG-13 in mind. The film’s antiseptic bloodlessness often neutralizes the stench of a city rotting from the inside out, even if the MPA rating doesn’t stop Reeves from creating several of the scariest moments in superhero movie history. But the more significant issues lie under the surface.
Writ large, the biggest impediment to Reeves’ caped incursion on a foreign genre is that “The Batman” is so eager to blur the line between a superhero movie and a serial killer neo-noir that it isn’t particularly good at being either of those things. Its portrait of Bruce Wayne as a revenge-obsessed recluse is psychologically thin even by the standards of a Batman story (Pattinson’s sullen performance is 90 percent clenching), while Andy Serkis’ turn as Hot Alfred Pennyworth finds the iconic butler limited to cooking breakfast and delivering exposition on demand. Meanwhile, the Riddler’s game of cat-and-bat (and cat) is weighed down by Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig’s groan-worthy struggle to Gothamify the Zodiac Killer, though Dano’s demented embodiment of the villain adds a riveting new dimension to his character before it’s too late.
It doesn’t help that the film’s parallel genres are crudely forced together by a half-baked corruption plot that trickles down from the same tradition of “Chinatown” and “L.A. Confidential,” but lacks the layered intrigue of those inspirations. That plot is further diluted by John Turturro’s sniveling comic take on crime boss Carmine Falcone, as the most dangerous figure in this grimdark mosaic also becomes the only character who isn’t nearly serious enough. And yet that same part of the story is also what gives us Zoë Kravitz’s fierce and focused Selina Kyle, a family-minded nightclub waitress born into a city where cyclical violence continues to hide behind empty promises of renewal a full year after an anonymous vigilante first began terrorizing petty criminals from the shadows.
In the burnt orange underworld of Gotham — as in “The Batman” itself — good and bad are as inextricable from each other as the different genres that define their terms, and the film’s hard-earned flares of light are only so capable of pointing the way forward because of how vividly they’re painted against the darkness that surrounds them. Forged from the embers of previous Batman movies despite never indulging in the kind of meta-commentary that has defined so many recent mega-sequels, Reeves’ effort may be too overstuffed and underwritten to succeed on its merits as either a Bruce Wayne story or a blockbuster noir, but there’s something ineffably beautiful to how “The Batman” smelts its many separate components into a new kind of superhero movie. It’s not just another multiplex extravaganza about masked saviors fighting to rescue a few glimmers of genuine hope from a cultural legacy of fear and greed, but one that’s also thrillingly unafraid to put its money where its mouth is.
Maintaining the courage of his convictions is not a problem for this Bruce Wayne. In fact, conviction is pretty much the only thing he’s got left by the time the movie starts — that and the billion-dollar fortune he’s willing to squander in order to scare Gotham straight for killing his parents when he was a kid (Reeves mercifully declines to revisit the murders themselves, though he finds a clever way of depicting the effect they might have on a young boy with a penchant for dress-up). Pattinson’s Bruce isn’t a playboy philanthropist or a recovering fuck-up trained by Ra’s al Ghul or whatever else this character has been in the past. He doesn’t have a social life or a sense of humor. All he has is the big house his parents owned, the slowed-down version of Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” that follows him like a bad smell, and the mission that gives meaning to his life. Batman is simply the scar that’s grown over Bruce Wayne, and the wound it covers is wider than it is deep.
If this angle is true to the history of the character, doubling — or quadrupling — down on the Caped Crusader’s intrinsic darkness still feels like a bold choice in the wake of Ben Affleck’s dour stint behind the cowl and the hilarious LEGO Batman movie that roasted it alive. Pattinson’s Bruce is so broken inside that you half expect him to microwave a whole lobster for dinner and laugh at the ending of “Jerry Maguire” for dessert, and the fact that he always looks like he’s just come back from a 2006 My Chemical Romance concert doesn’t help (it only makes his penchant for journaling feel more emo than it does “First Reformed”).
That it doesn’t come off as a parody of a parody is a testament to both the holistic nature of Reeves’ vision and the eagerness with which Pattinson buys into it. Bruce is pure id (“I am vengeance” is a common refrain), but the actor behind the eyeliner is earnest enough to balance out his anger, and “The Batman” survives its eventual transition into more familiar superhero movie territory because of the slow-thawing self-awareness that Pattinson brings to the title role — his realizations galvanized by a career-best Michael Giacchino score that pounds into your head as if Batman were sitting at the piano and playing it himself. If Bruce already knows that fear is an effective weapon, he’s about to learn that you can’t build anything with it.
The truth comes to light slowly — ploddingly — as Batman and lieutenant James Gordon follow Riddler’s clues deeper into Gotham’s web of corruption (Gordon is played by a thankless Jeffrey Wright, the actor defaulting to his “Westworld” mode in a movie where no one is cast against type). Their goofy investigation unfolds in tandem with the one that Batman launches with Selina, though both are regularly interrupted and brought closer together by Riddler’s explosive games. Kravitz’s electric screen presence is enough to make Selina’s origin story feel less basic than it is, and she and Pattinson are both so beautiful that you might be able to stifle your laughter when Catwoman moves in to kiss Batman’s motionless face (new type of superhero movie, same type of sexual dysfunction). This is a case where cinematic heft excuses all manner of silliness; it’s more exciting to watch a close-up tracking shot of Bruce walking down the corridors of Falcone’s nightclub than it is to see other superheroes save the world.
By far the most nuanced relationship here is that between Batman and Riddler. The one proper scene they share together at the end of their long flirtation is fascinating for its aired grievances and curious misapprehensions, as “The Batman” finally merges its procedural body to its superhero soul just in time for a wild fight over Gotham’s future — the film reconciling a split identity to a degree that some of its characters never can. While Reeves unfortunately retreats to the safety of franchise-building mode with the penultimate scene, “The Batman” succeeds in transforming the Bat-Signal into a beacon of hope rather than something to fear. Not just for the citizens of Gotham, but also for the multiplex audiences who will inevitably have to visit the city a few more times before Hollywood gives us somewhere else to go. Compared to the superhero movies that came before it, “The Batman” is already halfway there.
Warner Bros. will release “The Batman” in theaters on Friday, March 4.