Matt Reeves’ The Batman is a sweeping, three-hour elegy on just how miserable it is to be Batman. For much of the film, Robert Pattinson’s Dark Knight looks on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Black eye makeup streaks his dour face; strands of unkempt hair drape downward in all directions, as if Bruce Wayne just got fired from an emo band. He growls and scowls in the deepest shadows of Gotham, all while composer Michael Giacchino’s piano octaves toll like ominous church bells. In fact, I can now safely say that owning a black cape, a bulletproof sports car, and a badass utility belt couldn’t possibly seem like less fun.
In spite of this unrelenting aesthetic of grimy grimness, The Batman ends up being a pretty good take on the character. For this reboot, Reeves follows the lead of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, showing us a young Bruce Wayne, very early in his career of handing out late-night ass-whoopins. Alfred Pennyworth (Andy Serkis), who acts as Bruce’s butler, assistant detective, and surrogate father, is already weary of his charge’s debilitating obsession. As the film begins, Gotham’s pig-dog mayor (Rupert Penry-Jones) gets brutally murdered. The killer stages the scene like something out of Se7en, and leaves a tantalizing riddle that seems directed solely at Batman. Soon, more elites turn up dead, and the Riddler (Paul Dano) unveils an ugly, complex conspiracy that could very well shred the fabric of the city.
If that sounds like an intriguing plot, you’re in luck! Reeves actually cooks up enough story for several more movies: As Batman goes into Law and Order mode, he wades neck-deep into the Gotham underworld and meets Carmine Falcone (John Turturro, who reminds me just a smidge of Abe Vigoda in The Godfather). Falcone is the city’s preeminent mafioso, with influence in its legal and political machinery. Just below him is Oswald Cobblepot (an unrecognizable Collin Farrell), a burly, mid-level hood with higher aspirations. Turns out, these scumbags also play a part in the Riddler’s nefarious plot.
Wait, there’s more! Batman also crosses paths with Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), a resourceful thief who pulls jobs in a slinky catsuit. Kyle also has mysterious connections to Batman’s investigations, plus a powerful vendetta against Falcone himself. Batman gains a steadfast partner in Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), one of the few clean cops left on Gotham’s police force. Finally, we learn new revelations about Bruce’s parents, and follow the deadly race to be city’s next mayor.
Needless to say, Reeves and his collaborators cram as much as they can into this Batman experience. On top of the cinematic sprawl mentioned above, we also get several unsubtle attempts to build a mythology that will extend beyond this film. Plans are already underway for sequels, spin-offs, and an HBO series featuring Farrell’s Penguin. Even if you balk at Reeves’ oversized entrée, it’s hard not to respect the casual confidence with which he unfurls such brawny ambition.
That’s especially impressive when so many of The Batman‘s gambles pay off. It may have put the internet’s collective panties in a twist, but Pattinson’s casting turns out to be truly inspired: As Bats, he’s lean, mean, and hungrier than anybody else who’s had the role. Pattinson also effectively plays the brainier side of Bruce–think of an Yves Saint Laurent model with Holmesian detective skills. This version may lack the panache of Burton’s or Nolan’s visions, but Pattinson’s threadbare humanity infuses this rendition with raw, emotional power.
The supporting cast is just as rock-solid. Kravitz plays Selina Kyle’s sultry surliness as a thin layer of chain mail. Deep down, she’s a wounded woman who still cares greatly about the right people. Even when it seems she’s only looking out for number one, we never doubt the real humanity within her. Likewise, Wright makes Gordon the perfect cop-crusader–the last good man atop an Alamo wall of corruption. Serkis is a fine choice for Alfred, even if the filmmakers don’t quite know how to shape the tragic bond he shares with Bruce. Maybe this dynamic will get ironed a little more in future installments, but it just doesn’t land properly here.
I suspect the film’s spin on Riddler will also polarize audiences. As with Ledger’s Joker, Dano renders his character into a meticulous, menacing serial killer. He speaks in a horrifying, distorted baritone, taunting Gotham with cryptic clues and butchering people on viral videos. It’s off-putting, to say the least, and your tolerance for it will greatly color your opinion of the film as a whole.
In fact, I’ll say that Dano’s Riddler perfectly embodies the best and worst thing about The Batman: It does a brilliant job of crafting a neo-noir nightmare–a dour, sour little world filled with people who either aren’t worth saving or won’t accept help. No Batman movie has ever been so effectively bleak. (The only comfort at the end is that things are a little less bleak.) At some point, somebody needed to paint a little more light into all this darkness. At just under three hours, The Batman grows spiritually wearying, especially when it arrives at a bummer of a thesis: Heavy is the head that wears the cowl.
175 min. PG-13. In theaters only.