The disillusioned hero. The femme fatale. The corrupt officials and the ruthless gang leaders who circle each other in a never-ending game of give and take. The city, with its grimy alleys and dark shadows where anything or anybody could be hiding just around the corner. These are all hallmarks of the not-so-easily defined film noir genre, and they’ve been a large part of the legacy of Batman, a character created in 1939 just a few years before the beginning—and the hey-day—of the noir film. Both those elements have perhaps never been more effectively used in a live-action Batman movie than they are in “The Batman,” writer (along with Peter Craig) and director Matt Reeves’ nearly three-hour portrait of the Gotham City vigilante’s second year fighting crime.
When we first meet Batman, aka Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson), he’s losing that fight. His weary voiceover narration at the start of the movie sets the scene. After an intense opening in which serial killer the Riddler (Paul Dano) claims his first victim (the way Reeves stages this sequence, first looking in on the victim-to-be from a distance through a window, and later revealing the killer’s startling presence to the audience before the victim is aware of him, is effectively horrifying), we see a montage of Gotham on Halloween night. As masked innocents crowd the streets to trick-or-treat, more sinister masked individuals rob shops, vandalize government buildings, and attack bystanders on the train. It’s during the latter scene that we meet Batman in the flesh, emerging from the shadows in a way that, if you weren’t familiar with the character in the slightest, neither indicates whether we should welcome him or fear him.
Gotham is on the brink of a mayoral race, with candidate Bella Reál promising real change for the city, which is facing sky-rocketing crime rates, economic disparities, and corruption. The Riddler, meanwhile, attacks corruption in a very different matter, exposing and murdering prominent figures in Gotham’s political sphere as well as the GCPD in extravagant displays that involve him taping their mouths shut, the words “No Lies Detected” scrawled across their bindings. Commissioner Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), brings Batman on the case, to the objection of his colleagues. This is not a Batman origin story—as previously mentioned, this is Batman’s second year on the beat, and the easy respect and camaraderie he already has with Gordon is evident in their first scene together—but this is early enough in his crime-fighting career that he isn’t totally unstoppable, and is still figuring out his approach to doing this. If “The Batman” has a glaring story flaw, it’s that the thing that’s driving Batman, the primary arc of his character at this point in time isn’t entirely clear. In that subway confrontation that first introduces him in this film, a thug poses the question, “Who do you think you are?” to which Batman responds, in typical Batman fashion, “I’m vengeance.” But what is he avenging? Out of the context of this movie, we know that the murder of his parents when he was a child ultimately drove him to becoming the caped crusader. Within this movie, the pain that lingers in Bruce from that traumatic event is still apparent, and Reeves nicely weaves that backstory into the case that Batman is currently solving (Reeves abstains from depicting the actual murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne on screen, which has occurred so frequently the tragic event has almost become a joke at this point). Even when he isn’t being Batman, Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne has a very different vibe, going more for mopey recluse than ostentatious playboy. By the end of the film, Bruce has learned things about his family he didn’t previously know, and states that vengeance is no longer what he’s seeking, but it feels like there is a component missing that would have better connected his journey from the start of the film to where he is at the finale.
Batman’s pursuit of the Riddler leads to encounters with a plethora of other characters, all at least tangentially connected to the overarching conflict. Evidence left behind by Riddler takes Batman to the Iceberg Lounge, a gang hideout operated by Oswald Cobblepot, aka the Penguin (Colin Farrell), at this point in time a mid-level mobster yet to become the notorious crime boss and one of Batman’s greatest foes. The big boss, rather, is Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), a crime lord who has many of Gotham’s important officials secretly working for him. In this den of villainy where criminals and Gotham’s elite intersect, Batman meets and enlists the aid of Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), who works as a waitress at the Iceberg Lounge while moonlighting as the agile burglar Catwoman. Selina’s friend (implied girlfriend, though Selina never explicitly details the nature of their relationship) and coworker, a young woman named Annika who was spotted on the mayor’s arm, has disappeared, and could be the key to finding the Riddler’s next targets.
“The Batman” doesn’t fully justify its long runtime, and perhaps could have benefited from a tighter script. The plot is always interesting and well-paced although it meanders somewhat, at times even abandoning the Riddler—its primary antagonist—for long stretches to explore other characters and conflicts. But despite an occasional lack of focus, “The Batman” is fascinating to look at as a snapshot of a specific point in time in Gotham City, entering as it is on the cusp of potential change and leaving as those changes have taken effect in ways no one anticipated. Many recent superhero movies are so hyper-focused on the interactions between the heroes and villains that they fail to build a world around them. Looking at the DC cinematic universe specifically, a movie like “Batman v. Superman” had a sprawling global conflict, but it never cared about how that affected the world outside of the main characters. Compare that to something like Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” which amazingly put the outcome of the climax not in the hands of Batman or the Joker, but in the hands of normal citizens whose names we never even learn. While Reeves’ “The Batman” very much follows its titular hero (he’s in just about every scene of the movie in some capacity), he also crafts a world that feels real and lived in. The citizens are weary. As enthusiastic as Bella Reál is in her campaign promises, there’s a sense that no one really buys into her ability to accomplish them. Thomas Wayne tried, and then he was killed, and then no one cared anymore. And while they may not be the focal point of the narrative, “The Batman” frequently brings up the issues those ordinary citizens are facing, issues that, as much as he may genuinely care about taking down the city’s criminals, the wealthy Bruce Wayne will never be able to fully identify with, living in his place of privilege, overlooking the city perched high in Wayne Tower (at one point, Selina, not knowing his true identity, amusingly tells Batman that he talks like he “comes from money”). I can’t recall any other film adaptations of Batman that have reckoned with the character’s place in society in quite this manner.
Reeves is drawing from several different comic book sources for “The Batman,” most noticeably Frank Miller’s seminal Year One and Jeph Loeb’s The Long Halloween, from which a lot of Falcone’s history with the Wayne’s seen in this movie is clearly drawn from. But these are not more than influences in an otherwise original story, and the same can be said for the production design, which stitches together many different elements to craft a landscape for Gotham City that feels more distinct and real than any other rendering of the place that’s come before. Familiar NYC and Chicago locations are given slight facelifts and mixed together in a way that feels grimy and nightmarish and so unique. The interior of Wayne Manor is replete with gothic architecture that reflects the inhabitant’s haunted past. Batman’s famous gadgets and vehicles are more streamlined, but still given their moment. The Batmobile may just get one scene, but it is portrayed more as a character than a car, and when its engine revs, if you’re sitting in a big and loud enough theater, you’ll feel it in your chest (although the subsequent chase is over-edited and framed rather tightly). The film’s soundscape overall is exceptional, particularly in the fight scenes, where every blow lands with a tangible wallop. “The Batman” is not, like most superhero movies, an action-driven film, with Reeves having the character utilize his cerebral talents more in gathering clues to puzzle together the pieces of the case, but there’s still no shortage of thrilling action setpieces. The choreography really concentrates on the actors’ physicality, from Batman’s imposing figure to Catwoman’s quick, high kicks. Reeves is aware of how the characters’ move around the bad guys and each other, and every one of the pair’s interactions is weighted with their attraction, whether they are operating in close physical proximity or merely locking eyes. Cinematographer Greig Fraser (a current awards season fixture thanks to his work on Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune”) explores a myriad of beautiful images that give the film that noir-ish environment that goes hand-in-hand with the story. There’s an aerial shot of Batman escorting civilians to safety by only the crimson light of a flare. In a fight scene, the power has gone out, and the only illumination comes from the staccato fire of a crook’s machine gun. In a quieter moment, the Bat and the Cat meet on a rooftop, the fiery orange sunset silhouetting their encounter. It’s a refreshing change from the cold, washed-out environments seen in so many Hollywood blockbusters nowadays, and it’s all accompanied by Michael Giacchino’s unsettling score, which uses a lot of strings and draws some from church choirs.
Pattinson’s portrayal of Batman will go down as one of the definitive versions of the character. The strong-jawed actor cuts a clean figure in the batsuit, but he also brings all the pressure the character feels he is under to the forefront of his performance. We get a sense that his Batman really cares about people which, beyond all the conversations about justice and vengeance, is the quality that makes a great Batman. He has solid chemistry with everyone, particularly Kravitz, whose Selina is playful and sultry but, like Bruce, haunted by a past she can’t escape. The pair are mirrors of each other, with Catwoman serving as Batman’s more morally ambiguous counterpart, and it’s impossible not to root for their partnership to continue after the movie ends (also unlike most contemporary superhero movies, “The Batman” embraces the romantic angle to their relationship wholeheartedly). Wright’s grounded performance, marked by an occasional sense of humor, makes for a great Gordon, who’s about the only uncorrupt official left in Gotham. Andy Serkis plays Bruce’s longtime butler and surrogate father Alfred, and while he isn’t in the film a lot, his grizzled interpretation of the character has an impact, as we see how deeply he cares for Bruce and the Wayne family. Dano gets to have his big unhinged villain moment as the Riddler with a characterization inspired by the Zodiac killer, Turturro gives Falcone a texture that makes the character more than just a Godfather rip-off, and an unrecognizable Farrell is kind of great and kind of funny as the Penguin, even if his role isn’t all that large, and even if the presence of the typically handsome leading man buried under prosthetics and a fat suit begs the question: couldn’t they have gotten some kind of quirky character actor for this role instead?
There’s a lot to unpack with “The Batman” that I’m likely missing; a film this long and dense merits multiple viewings to really uncover all it has to offer. But even when it doesn’t fully work, “The Batman” is an enthralling reminder of the kind of superhero movie we can get when directors are allowed to realize their vision, and aren’t beholden to a connected cinematic universe. That doesn’t mean that “The Batman” doesn’t leave the audience with a little teaser of what a potential sequel could hold—it does, with an especially exasperating scene that made me roll my eyes a bit. But with its rich world-building, themes, and characters, this is universe that I’d love to return to.
“The Batman” will be playing in theaters everywhere March 4. Runtime: 175 minutes. Rated PG-13.