Riddle me this: What’s brooding and black and soars above the congested superhero pack? The Batman, Warner Bros’ fourth cinematic reboot of the famed DC character, which fumes with more grim, gritty rage than all of its predecessors combined. While it may not achieve the peaks of Christopher Nolan’s 2008 franchise high-water mark The Dark Knight, Matt Reeves’ comic book epic is a vigorous beast in its own right, a three-hour saga of torment and vengeance whose spirit is at once indebted to ’90s-style doom and gloom, and intensely attuned to our contemporary mood of misery, fear and ferocity.
The Batman (March 4) is a Caped Crusader saga fit for our furious age, and that begins with its version of Bruce Wayne, here envisioned by Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig, and embodied by Robert Pattinson, as a guyliner-sporting twentysomething billionaire with an anger problem a Gotham mile wide. With a sallow complexion that accentuates his sunken eyes and a pursed-lips grimace that is his sole expression, Pattinson’s Wayne cares little for the day-to-day duties demanded of him by his birthright. Rather, he’s most at home on the streets of his native metropolis, a rain-soaked inferno of crime, drugs and depravity that, at story’s outset, he’s been roaming for two years, looking for lowlifes upon whom he can take out his wrath as a cowled vigilante.
Between the recurring sound of Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” and Michael Giacchino’s pounding-horn soundtrack theme, The Batman is cloaked in a figurative funeral shroud, thus making Wayne’s eventual appearance at an actual funeral feel almost too on-the-nose. That solemn occasion is for Gotham’s former mayor, who in an introductory sequence is surveilled, and then felled, by the Riddler (Paul Dano), a psycho in a green coat and matching Pulp Fiction-esque gimp mask (replete with nerd glasses) who assassinates Gotham’s leader and then leaves behind a bunch of clues for his caped adversary and his lone friend on the police force, Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright). Between that and later crime scenes at which Batman finds greeting cards decorated with clues and ciphers, Dano’s Riddler comes across as the hate-child of the Zodiac killer, Saw’s Jigsaw, and Seven’s John Doe—the last of those films also channeled through the sight of Black Gordon and white Batman sleuthing in dark, rainy abodes that are only illuminated by their flashlights. Squealing and growling with malevolent delight, Dano’s villain is a hybrid creation with his own distinctive lunacy, and he proves a worthy rival to Pattinson’s demented Dark Knight.
David Fincher is an obvious spiritual forefather to The Batman, and so too is Nolan, his influence felt in the film’s grand despair, its interest in timely ideas about revenge, honor and hope, and the dynamic shared by Batman and Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), aka Catwoman, who works at a nightclub owned by crime boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) and his right-hand man Penguin (Colin Farrell). Catwoman’s personal motivations serve as a foil for Batman’s warring good/evil instincts, yet Kravitz—stalking the frame like a woman on fire—makes her more than just a plot device, imbuing her with formidable feline viciousness. The sparks that fly between the two are borne from their shared understanding that they’re barely better than the prey they hunt, and while their relationship is somewhat sidelined by a plethora of narrative concerns, it remains a highlight of this latest Batman outing.
Mercifully, The Batman avoids rehashing the murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne, and though it still can’t fully escape the shadow cast by Burton, Nolan and Snyder’s forerunners, Reeves nonetheless puts his own unique stamp on the material. The War for the Planet of the Apes auteur’s aesthetics are bleak to the point of oppressiveness, and his set pieces are similarly severe; both the Riddler and Batman, two sides of the same irrational coin, favor bludgeoning hand-to-hand and weaponized violence, and the latter’s Batmobile is now an exposed-engine muscle car that roars like a you-know-what out of hell. Reeves reconfigures his pop myth in film noir, horror movie, and detective fiction terms, and if that marriage occasionally weighs the proceedings down—as does a distended runtime that boasts enough story for two separate features—it also allows it to embrace the ugliest aspects of its beloved protagonist, as well as to mire him in an urban nightmare of death and decay.
The Batman’s showstoppers include a soaring flight from a police station and a car chase between Batman and Penguin, both of which are bolstered by striking, immersive POV imagery that contributes to the action’s scuzzy, adrenalized verve. This Batman is a ’roid-raging madman with no social skills and even less interest in endearing himself to the public, and Pattinson’s agonized emo-grunge performance is the rusted-nail axis around which the coiled film revolves. Moreover, far from simply relying on Pattinson’s charismatic harshness, Reeves gives his hero a collection of colorful comrades and enemies with which to contend. Doing his best Robert De Niro-circa-The Untouchables routine, Farrell sneers and snarls beneath mounds of prosthetics and makeup, and Kravitz slinks and struts with requisite cat-like grace. Even Andy Serkis, asked to be merely compassionate and noble as Batman’s loyal butler Alfred, fares well, bringing a measure of gravity to a largely perfunctory part.
Desolation courses throughout The Batman, whose tale is revealed to be an intricate mystery related to systemic corruption spreading from the subway platform to the police station to City Hall. Its dour portrait of modern civilization as a decrepit corpse overrun by rats (of the rodent and human variety) also feels, in a crisis-wracked 2022, all too relevant, this despite its revelations’ roots in comic book lore. In its every nook and cranny, Reeves’ film radiates desperation and terror over a world that’s gone to seed, and which props itself up via comforting nightly news lies about renewal and rebirth that allow its citizens to avoid facing the stark, fetid truth. That won’t make it the feel-good hit of this or any other season, nor will it help it sell toys, games and fast food meals. What it does, however, is render The Batman a blistering and beautifully brutal reflection of its era, driven by explosive anger and wrenching dismay that’s only alleviated by the faint hope that a new dawn might afford an opportunity to climb out of the muck and into the light.