“When that light hits the sky, it’s not just a call. It’s a warning.”
(This review is mostly spoiler-free, but as always, if you want to go in completely blind, do not read this).
Even in the darkest moments of Batman films, the Dark Knight has never quite descended into a full-on thriller protagonist, one who seems more like a mythical bringer of vengeance than a man trying to keep his humanity in an impossible job. Ben Affleck’s Batman came close in Batman v. Superman, but we didn’t spend enough time with him (and will never get to, unfortunately). This honor falls to Robert Pattinson’s brooding Caped Crusader, and for almost three hours, Pattinson and writer-director Matt Reeves leave an indelible stamp upon the Batman mythos with their sprawling and brazen slice of pulpy comic-book goodness disguised as a gritty chunk of hard-boiled crime noir. And yet…this take on the World’s Greatest Detective is surprisingly hopeful and moving, more so than any other Batman film preceding it. The Batman is a rain-soaked, moody, and darkly thrilling journey through Gotham City and the Batman mythos like no other Batman film – or comic book film – has ever come close to even attempting.
Let’s be clear: The Batman is not an origin story for the man in the mask, even if much of his rogues gallery is starting on the path to becoming outright antagonists. This Batman is two years deep into his crusade to rid Gotham City of its criminal element, and his efforts, although noteworthy, have ultimately been futile when it comes to rehabilitating the city he loves so much. His supporting cast has been stripped down to faithful butler Alfred (an underused Andy Serkis) and steadfast police lieutenant Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), with nary a Robin or Batgirl in sight. As the film begins, Batman lurks the streets, waiting for lawbreakers to rear their heads, but when the mayor becomes the first in a string of high-profile murders by someone calling himself The Riddler (an excellent Paul Dano), the Dark Knight uncovers a deep conspiracy that threatens to destabilize the socio-economic foundations of Gotham itself.
The Batman falls apart if its lead doesn’t deliver, and Pattinson, the latest to step into the shoes of the legendary vigilante, imbues his Bruce and Batman with a wholly unique energy different from anything we’ve seen before. Pattinson, who’s worked hard to shed his Twilight typecasting with dramatic roles in films like The Lighthouse, Good Time, and Tenet, brings his A game here as a damaged soul who falls more in line with a tragic Shakespearean prince than the suave playboy we’ve seen so frequently. Gone is the smooth demeanor and wardrobe of a witty and charming Bruce Wayne (this is the first Batman film to not have Bruce wear a tuxedo at any point!), replaced instead by a angry misfit who skulks in his Batcave and needs constant reminders to take care of his multi-billion dollar company. Pattinson’s Bruce is unable to hide his emotions in or out of the mask, making for a side of the broken soul that we rarely get to see in Batman media. But enough about his Bruce, as we only see him for the better part of four or five scenes. Indeed, Pattinson spends at about 95% of his screen time in the Batsuit, and his Batman is much of the same, delivering his dialogue in short, sharp bursts while Pattinson dolefully glares from behind the cowl (not having the classic white eyes has never worked so well). Finally, this Batman does something we’ve almost never heard before: he does voiceovers (in the form of a diary)! Although these diary entries are few and far between, they nevertheless add that extra comic-book punch to a film that already feels like it was ripped out of The Long Halloween or Year One.
Complementing Pattinson’s untested vigilante is Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), the thief who will one day become Catwoman, but isn’t quite there yet (the five cats in her apartment probably have something to do with her eventual choice of theme). We’ve seen no less than six live-action Catwomen, but she’s never been presented as an outright ally and sole love interest for the Bat, which changes with The Batman. Kravitz sells all aspects of the famed cat burglar well, able to instantly switch between the sultry thief that Batman becomes enamored with and the more vulnerable and vengeance-driven warrior that gives us a version of Catwoman that’s so often been missing from other iterations. These takes on the Bat and Cat roar past all others (except perhaps Michelle Pfeiffer’s), with both actors’ chemistry lending a kind of authenticity to an iconic relationship that many Batman films shy away from showing.
We’ve seen Jim Carrey’s infamously energetic Riddler, but it’s Paul Dano’s grim update to the murderous wordsmith that firmly cements the Riddler as a worthy Batman foe rather than a silly gimmick villain. Taking cues from the Zodiac killer, Dano’s Riddler is a giggling and freakishly obsessive maniac, capable of pushing his heroic counterpart’s mind to the brink just as much as his famously stringent moral code. In a world that’s still only 13 years removed from Heath Ledger’s terrifying magnum opus, any kind of comic book villainy is bound to feel like some kind of a pale imitation of Ledger’s performance as the Joker, but Dano does his best to distance this modern interpretation of an inherently goofy character from that.
Rounding out the cast are the aforementioned Jeffrey Wright as police lieutenant Jim Gordon and Andy Serkis’ Alfred, along with proto-Penguin Oswald Cobblepot (an unrecognizable Colin Farrell) and a dapper John Turturro as mob boss Carmine Falcone, all of whom shine in their respective roles. Wright and Farrell provide some much-needed moments of levity, with the dynamic between Gordon and Batman as wholesome as it’s ever been (they’re more like friends than co-workers, contrary to how their partnership was portrayed in the Dark Knight trilogy). Although Alfred is used sparingly, Serkis nonetheless impresses in his few scenes, as does Turturro in a rare dramatic role.
The Batman places a heavy emphasis on fear and vengeance, with Batman growling “I’m vengeance” enough times to warrant being addressed as such by criminals and police officers alike. The Dark Knight may use fear as a tool to control and intimidate the criminal element, but writer-director Reeves takes that to heart, impressing upon us from the opening scene that this is not like any Batman film you’ve seen before. This is an unflinchingly grounded foray into a city and character that’s been approached with everything from Tim Burton’s gothic camp to the melodramatic opulence of Christopher Nolan to…whatever was going on in Joel Schumacher’s movies. The Batman hews much closer to thrillers like David Fincher’s Zodiac, Se7en, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo rather than mimicking (unintentionally or intentionally) previous films with Batman, much like how 2019’s Joker was a completely detached story from anything that came before. But unlike Joker, which really just used the supervillain’s name to help sell tickets, The Batman is a Batman movie through and through, being heavily inspired by The Long Halloween and Year One.
Everything about The Batman‘s action begs the question of why no other Batman film has action on this level. From Batman’s numerous fights with criminals throughout the film to the single greatest Batmobile scene in history, The Batman features some of the slickest and most jaw-dropping action sequences in any comic-book film. Where Christian Bale and Michael Keaton’s Batmen clumsily stumbled around and couldn’t turn their heads, Pattinson’s Batman is fluid and crisp, ducking in and out of the shadows and striking from above. Batman, while definitely not the near-flawless fighting machine that Ben Affleck’s Batman was, hits harder and acts scarier than any other iteration so far, always emerging from the shadows and fighting incredibly brutally, akin to the Arkham games. It’s this sharp action that keeps the film humming along throughout its 175-minute long runtime, and while you do start to feel the weight of everything that Reeves is trying to accomplish towards the end of the second act, it never disrupts the pace.
Gotham City is just as much of a character as any of its inhabitants, and Reeves, along with DP Greig Fraser, ensure beyond any doubt that it finally gets that recognition. Where Nolan’s Gotham was just a bizarre hybrid of New York City/Manhattan and Chicago, Reeves and Fraser bathe the city in an rainy, inky saturation of black and red, allowing blinking streetlights and the fading neon of storefront signs to serve as illumination in a city consumed by darkness both figuratively and literally. When it’s sunrise or sunset, we get gorgeous golden backdrops for Batman to stand against (this film may very well have the most “Batmanesque” shots ever), with costume designer Jacqueline Durran getting to show off the unfairly perfect silhouette that her Batsuit boasts. It’s not hyperbole to say that The Batman is one of, if not the best-looking comic book film ever made, with nothing else in either DC or Marvel’s collection that comes close (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the only competition, and it has a leg up from being animated).
Michael Giacchino’s score is also appropriately sweeping and dramatic, with the Oscar-winning composer more than matching up to the iconic pieces by Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer. His main Batman theme is surprisingly hopeful and uplifting, and although I won’t spoil the film, is perfectly in line with the journey that Bruce and Batman undergo throughout the film. While The Batman is the darkest and most brutal Batman film yet, it never loses sight of what Batman represents for the citizens of Gotham, and is never just dark and brutal for the sake of being dark and brutal. Where Superman is the light that everyone in Metropolis looks up to and strives to be, Batman is the candle that leads Gotham out of darkness, and while Nolan used this idea to frame Batman for Harvey Dent’s death (so Gotham could have their white knight), Reeves executes it perfectly by the end of the film.
With The Batman being the first standalone Batman film since 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, you might expect writer-director Matt Reeves to go back to what’s worked before, with another simple origin story for a character that almost everyone in the world knows and maybe a new villain or two. That’s not the case here, as Reeves, along with star Robert Pattinson, crafts an utterly unique interpretation on the Dark Knight that both remains faithful to the source material and carves a new path along the lines of film noir and psychological thrillers. The Batman is a sprawling and operatic experience that is so incredibly like one of the titular character’s comic books, while also being a shadowy, grimly thrilling, and intense ride through a reimagined Gotham City that serves as an appropriate backdrop for one of the greatest comic-book films ever put on celluloid.
Let me know what you thought of the film in the comments below!
Disclaimer: I do not own any of these stills or promotional art. Warner Brothers, DC Comics, and AT&T own all of these images!