In the ever-broadening, cutthroat and competitive atmosphere that is the comic book movie, DC Comics has remained on rather sluggish ground trying to best Marvel’s universe when warranted. In 2022, the ecosystem has proved any, and all comic franchises can romp with a near-harmonious ring, and occasionally with a stylistic flourish earning many a dropped jaw. Director Matt Reeves (War for the Planet of the Apes) has now thrown his hat in that growing ring making brooding philanthropist Bruce Wayne less of a violent vigilante, and more of the independent private eye so many have assumed him to be. In The Batman, we find a deeper side of the famed black-caped character long-buried by simple heroics or wild action-laden stunts. Other incarnations may have determined his personality, and/or shed light on his troubled past, and mistakes weighing down an already weary present. Reeves goes the extra mile to put his mindfulness and mental fortitude to practical application. In its wake, the film’s sense of epicness dives the experience down into a chilling, intense, very inky void. Very fitting, and highly welcoming by the end.
At the start is a mystery, which Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig (The Unforgivable) are quick to layer multiple dots to connect. Often dots upon dots, with three of Gotham’s top public servants the targets of murder. Wayne (Robert Pattinson) sees this growing web as a very big break after two years of subcontracted work with fearful intimidation his most effective tactic. Joined by lead Gotham PD detective Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), the pair navigate their city’s corrupt underbelly to search for an equally shadowy, mentally unsound figure known as the Riddler (Paul Dano). Not a clear path, as Wayne deciphers the complex puzzle pieces of this baddie’s personality, encountering the likes of the Penguin (Colin Farrell), night club maven Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), and the flighty Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz), perceived as a rival to Wayne’s direction. Their conflict in crimefighting techniques does make for a fascinating back and forth camaraderie, a lone aspect present to ripple that light-free cover.
Otherwise, Reeves is all too keen on keeping his audience in the doldrums. In iterations past, Batman skated the surface of moody street justice, the stench of villainy often appearing cartoonish and mockable. We go nowhere near animated here, and that’s plenty fine. Refreshing, moreover, with a veil of common tropes ripped off the ceiling. Bruce is boiled down to his prime traits, a still-youthful American still believing in good while unable to escape the dreary shadow of his torn family legacy. Reeves is unafraid to be cerebral with Pattinson’s candid, empathic hero role. The same goes for his villains, giving Dano’s Riddler the floor to trade camp for intelligent, if not also angry and ill-determined rhetoric. A well affirmed evolution for the character actor, once more reaching peaks not seen since Love and Mercy.
Their performances contribute to a tapestry whose visual strengths appear both grand and gritty, surprisingly. All prior Bats on screen carry with them a vivid version of Gotham, even when realism equals loose morals. This is the kind of Batman who could coexist with Se7en, Dog Day Afternoon, or Mean Streets. And then pose a battle of minds based on restoring order. Even the incumbent mayor trying to stay elected versus a more grounded political newcomer is ill-minded, with his constituents’ best interests the furthest away from his focus.
This is very much a Batman movie where the star is ready to peer into his soul, and that of his home to clean up its wretchedness. Where sexism and classism can be cut through like a katana, frequently at the mercy of Kravitz’s growing persistence. And where legendary antagonists needn’t rely on theatricality to invoke fright and disdain. Cinematographer Greig Fraser (Dune), costumer Jacqueline Durran (Spencer), and prod designer James Chinlund (The Lion King) do more than was needed to fully engulf the viewer into a version of Gotham nearly devoid of sunshine. And one not fully action intensive, although its fight staging makes for a worthy choreography candidate, as well as a test for Pattinson, one of a valuable handful.
The only challenge he and Reeves could not fully accomplish was how to maintain momentum across three very full hours where you feel every moment of dramatic tension, with few opportunities to catch one’s breath. The pacing doesn’t quite take a hit, and yet a 30-minute reduction would’ve done wonders for less impactful characters and their story placement. Very little time is spent on Falcone or the Penguin, rendering both Turturro and a calmly acerbic Farrell (in highly transformative makeup) slightly lost on their footing. We do not risk total derailment, however. Andy Serkis’s Alfred is nothing less than an understated delight on screen, bringing a crisp decorum to the staunch butler type. Kravitz’s pun-intended cattiness keeps the matter at hand lively, as do the atmospherics. And a nerve-wracking Michael Giacchino (Spider-Man: No Way Home) score makes quick work to undercut the adventure, allow it a rhythmic pulse.
It is difficult not to gain complete investment in this comic book film following a great deal of buildup. Despite its time commitment, that evolved DC cache is determined to win over the heart, then exhaust the mind once all is still after many a conclusion. Reeves and company have succeeded in giving their dark knight a befitting neo-noir overhaul hopeful to shine a very bright spotlight on this shadow-heavy hero. I could not fully recognize The Batman as THE pivotal piece of media to incorporate the character. It probably isn’t the best overall feature, but it’s the most capable to achieve a true sense of the character’s anguish and conviction. The two often share the same space in his mind, while seeking a healthy outlet for his derring-do provocation. It’s a slow, arduous journey to reach that point, but a worthwhile one from start to finish. Leave the youngest ones at home, this trip straddles the line between PG-13 and R. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up!)
The Batman opens in theaters on March 4, with a warning to stay through the credits; rated PG-13 for strong violent and disturbing content, drug content, strong language, and some suggestive material; 175 minutes.