The Batman, directed by Matt Reeves, takes a maximalist approach right down to the title: This three-hour epic is a comic-book adaptation with all the trimmings, down to the plushy definite article padding out the name of the Caped Crusader. The Batman catches the main character just two years into his crimefighting career, making it more of a coming-of-age narrative than an origin storey. Bruce Wayne, as played by the smouldering English actor Robert Pattinson, is both younger and more vulnerable than the bat-dudes we’re used to seeing. He appears to wear his pointy-eared face mask as a form of protection from the outside world, and is seldom seen uncovered, even at home, where his sole confidante at the gloomy Wayne family house is his butler Alfred (motion-capture master Andy Serkis, doing what at times appears to be a Michael Caine vocal impression).
When a prominent Gotham City politician is assassinated in his house by an unknown assailant, Bruce teams up with police detective Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) to decipher the encrypted message the perpetrator has left behind. The Riddler, a crazy genius obsessed with uncovering corruption in Gotham City administration, is performed with entertaining scenery-chomping craziness by Paul Dano. The Riddler’s fixation extends to showing that Bruce’s adored father, Thomas Wayne, was involved in a shady cover-up operation, an accusation that leads Bruce to relive the agony of his parents’ murder.
The Batman, in keeping with its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink style, is likewise crammed with villains. In addition to Dano’s Riddler, Gotham’s complex web of crime and corruption includes menacing mob figures like John Turturro’s Carmine Falcone, cowardly city-government middlemen like Peter Sarsgaard’s compromised district attorney, and a truly unrecognisable Colin Farrell as the Penguin, a portly, insecure crime-boss-in-the-making. To break up the sausage party, Zo Kravitz’s Selina Kyle appears, a lady with a terrible background who works as a bottle-service girl at the Penguin’s nightclub when she isn’t prowling Gotham’s alleyways as Catwoman. Kravitz’s interpretation of the feline antiheroine is less sleek predator (cf. Michelle Pfeiffer in the Burton series) and more disgruntled survivor of a traumatic upbringing, making her a compelling match for Pattinson’s extra-goth Gothamite. (They also have a penchant for black leather, which is always a plus.)
Though Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy lends some images to The Batman’s view of Gotham as a run-down, amoral dystopia, Reeves adds his own visual flare to the subject. The rain-glazed streetscapes and neon-lit cafes, particularly in a few puzzling early episodes, evoke the lonely cosmos of an Edward Hopper picture. The simple but effective soundtrack is heavily reliant on two recurring musical themes: Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” which composer Michael Giacchino frequently transforms into a minor-key dirge, and Nirvana’s plaintive ballad “Something in the Way,” which serves as a kind of leitmotif for Pattinson’s Kurt Cobain-esque hero. If all of this seems too angsty to bear, The Batman is not without moments of deliberate and frequently effective comedy, mainly reserved for the villains: In one otherwise tense meeting, Farrell’s Penguin offers a non-sequitur jab on Batman’s command of foreign-language grammar that had the crowd on their feet.
The Batman is a film in which atmosphere and tone take precedence over topic and content. Reeves is in it for the silhouetted images of Batman against a darkening night sky, not for the contemporary political allegories that piqued Nolan’s attention or the steroidal action of Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman and Justice League. One pursuit scenario focuses on flaming wrecks (and an estimated body count) without offering much in the way of beautifully planned or coordinated action. And, while the 176-minute duration might feel interminable at times, a more fair characterization could be “end-full.” On the way out, two coworkers and I disputed which of four unique alternative endings, including a pointlessly protracted set piece featuring the flooding of “Gotham Square Garden” during an election-night rally, should have served as the real climax. My vote went to the scene, around twenty minutes before the end credits, when [redacted rising star] appeared as [redacted prospective villain] at the eleventh hour.
Nonetheless, Reeves and Pattinson’s portrayal of Batman as a Hamlet-like heir unable to move past the primordial shock of his parents’ deaths has a certain emotional weight. Bruce Wayne may be a forbiddingly invulnerable character with his black carapace, endless money, and impossible-to-defeat technology. However, as envisaged here, he is a still-unformed, almost emo young guy looking for his mature identity—a Spider-Man-like character in a harsh Gotham environment. Pattinson, who rose to prominence as the Twilight series’ lovelorn vampire and has since found a niche as the muse of art-film directors ranging from David Cronenberg (Cosmopolis) to Claire Denis (High Life) to the Safdie brothers (Good Time), brings real pathos to the role of Bruce Wayne, who is also (while plenty buff) a bit wirier and more physically fragile than your average wall-of-muscle superhero. When the Catwoman comes to his aid in a late scene, you can’t help but think he’s in need of her whip-wielding assistance.
This is the 12th live-action film to feature Batman since Michael Keaton’s portrayal of the character in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. Since then, we’ve seen George Clooney as a Bat-credit-card-carrying comic superhero in Joel Schumacher’s infamous flop Batman and Robin, Christian Bale as a vocally filtered edgelord in Christopher Nolan’s grim Dark Knight trilogy, and Ben Affleck as a stoic brooder in Snyder’s multi-superhero vehicles for DC. Following the trajectory of onscreen Batmen over the past 30 years is to chronicle the character’s metamorphosis from self-aware comedy icon to emotionally broken recluse—perhaps a barometer of America’s ever-changing needs for pop-culture heroes. I left the Batman humming that Nirvana tune and wondered what this messed-up new Bruce Wayne, cape trailing moodily behind him as he drove away on his bat-motorcycle, would get up to next.