An angry young Batman hunts a serial killer who leaves behind tantalizing riddles in The Batman, a gritty and grounded DC comics adaptation that follows in the footsteps of Todd Phillips’ The Joker. Mesmerizingly dark and elegiac and different, only a comparatively conventional finale keeps this from becoming the best Batman to hit the big screen yet; that title is likely retained by Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
Robert Pattinson stars as Bruce Wayne, presented here as a vengeful spirit still searching for purpose in a Gotham City overrun by crime and corruption. Twenty years following the death of his parents by an unknown assailant, he now stalks the city in a cape and cowl, lashing out society’s worst not to preserve justice but enact blind vengeance.
Ben Affleck’s grizzled old man Bats from the Zack Snyder films (and especially last year’s director’s cut of Justice League) was an unexpectedly nuanced take on the character, and Pattinson’s version makes for a nice thematic comparison on the other side of the spectrum.
This Batman sulks alone in his cave deciphering cryptograms and listening to Nirvana (Something in the Way, which plays out twice over lengthy montages, makes for a great thematic inclusion), and even an especially helpful Alfred (Andy Serkis) can’t stir him. “You’re not my dad,” Bruce scowls, as tears of black shoe polish, meant to obscure the flesh around his eyes, drip down his cheeks.
The visual presentation evokes memories of The Crow, while the psychological portrait is only a hair away from Joaquin Phoenix in The Joker. The Batman’s murky cinematography (by Greig Fraser) and permanent-midnight production design match its lead character. Taking cues from both Nirvana and David Fincher’s Se7en, this Batman may well have been set in Seattle rather than Gotham City.
Inspired by classic DC comics storylines like The Long Halloween as well as Fincher’s true crime Zodiac, The Batman follows Bruce as he tracks a cryptic Riddler (Paul Dano, hidden under an outfit lifted from the real-life Zodiac Killer) during a high profile killing spree. None of the crooked cops on the case want the Batman around, but he’s earned the respect of lead detective James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright).
The clues lead to a criminal underground and Colin Farrell’s The Penguin, second-in-command to Gotham crime lord Carmine Falcone (John Turturro). Farrell, unrecognizable under mounds of makeup and an uncharacteristically boisterous persona, frequently steals the show but his character is ultimately irrelevant to the plot.
In the shadowy labyrinths of Gotham’s underground nightclubs, Batman also teams up with Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), out for her own brand of vengeance. The Batman’s version of Catwoman is also a young figure with a dark past, but she doesn’t share all of Bruce Wayne’s etiquette, which includes a strict no-kill policy but allows for repeated head-bashings.
For most of its running time, The Batman successfully balances its grounded real-world storyline that includes corrupt cops, mob bosses, drug dealers, and a serial killer with the inherent silliness of its comic book origins.
But things take a turn with The Batman’s climactic developments, as the story shifts from a dark mystery into familiar superhero ground. Dano’s Riddler loses his menacing edge once he’s unmasked, Batman’s developing relationship with Catwoman is nicely nuanced but out of sync with the rest of the movie, and a climactic setup featuring another famous villain is a Marvel-esque tease.
What doesn’t let up for the entire running time is a pulsating score by Michael Giacchino that wonderfully finds a balance between the moody beats of Hans Zimmer and earworm melodies of Danny Elfman in previous Batman big screen outings. Giacchino manages to create a memorable and frequently-used refrain (inspired by Schubert’s Ave Maria) while still hitting all the right atmospheric notes. Director Matt Reeves smartly incorporates the score everywhere he can to propel the movie forward; it picks up the slack even when story momentum lags.
The Batman may not reinvent the titular superhero, but the approach taken to both the narrative and the visual presentation here manages to make a familiar character and stale genre feel new and exciting. With explicit nods to ‘70s paranoia thrillers like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, crime fiction like William Friedkin’s The French Connection and To Live and Die in L.A., and modern detective noir like Se7en and Zodiac, this is one superhero movie that even Martin Scorsese might consider real cinema.