Robert Pattinson’s Batman walks so gingerly, so quietly into most of his scenes in Matt Reeves’s The Batman that at times you wonder if he’s meant to be more ghost than superhero. It makes sense on a practical level: If a guy is going to lurk in the shadows and do everything to avoid being seen, he probably shouldn’t burst his way into every room. It also makes sense on a spiritual level. This saddest of heroes has a physical presence that matches his melancholy.
The Batman is dark, no doubt about it. Even darker than the already dark Christopher Nolan–directed Dark Knight trilogy, the success of which once set off several rounds of way-too-dark comic-book adaptations and action spectacles. You might have thought Batman couldn’t get any darker, but you’d be wrong: Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight sewed a telephone into a guy’s abdomen in 2008 so that Paul Dano’s Riddler could then feed another guy’s abdomen to a cage full of rats in 2022. This is a Batman movie reimagined as a grisly serial-killer film, only this time it’s not just the serial killer who looms in the shadows, watching his prey and waiting to pounce; the hero does, too. They could have called it Zodiac$.
And it really is a serial-killer movie. The film opens with the grisly murder of Gotham’s mayor by a mysterious, black-clad figure who seems to materialize out of nowhere. (You’d be forgiven for first thinking this was an early iteration of Batman himself — at least until the figure takes an unidentified, clawlike object and starts pummeling the mayor with it.) The Riddler sends cleverly concealed messages to Batman, along with elaborate (though, it turns out, not particularly hard to decode) cyphers, often incorporated in some way into his elaborate murder-and-torture devices, à la Seven or Saw. He targets corrupt figures among the city’s elite, and with each new victim, it becomes clear that he seeks to unravel and expose a far bigger, more complicated conspiracy.
That doesn’t make things any easier for Batman, a.k.a. Bruce Wayne, whose obsessive quest to find the killer and prevent the next murder seems to be leading to some personal revelations — though the precise nature of why the Riddler is targeting our hero eventually turns out to be a genuine surprise that I won’t reveal. Suffice it to say that much of the mystery involves a sordid history involving Gotham crime boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro, still impossibly charismatic) and his nightclub-manager partner the Penguin (a delightfully hammy Colin Farrell, working under an acre of prosthetic makeup that makes him look like Danny Aiello after an unfortunate run-in with a thresher). Also working at that nightclub Bruce finds the gorgeous Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), who moonlights as a cat burglar with a twisted sense of justice of her own. Bruce notices her immediately. Is it because she seems to be connected to this mystery? Is it because she’s gorgeous? Is it her awesome boots? (We get a lot of shots of boots in this movie.) There’s always been sexual tension between Batman and Catwoman, but The Batman, again, leans into this dynamic more fully than previous entries (yes, even more than Batman Returns). It’s a surprisingly horny superhero movie.
There’s little differentiation here between Bruce Wayne and Batman, no alter-ego shenanigans. Pattinson is a tall, handsome, strapping fellow, but he plays Bruce Wayne with such broken, mournful despair that his body is practically concave when it’s not in a batsuit. “Two years of nights have turned me into a nocturnal animal,” he whispers in a slightly on-the-nose voice-over/journal entry that feels straight out of Taxi Driver. It’s not just an issue of timing, but of the way he uses the darkness as an ally. “They think I’m hiding in the shadows. But I am the shadows,” he mutters. That’s true even when he’s not out there punching people. He’s become so consumed by his work that he spends all his downtime in his dark, cavernous lair doing research. His supposed butler Alfred (Andy Serkis, strapping in his own way) is similarly obsessed; at one point, he gestures dismissively toward a bowl of fresh berries for Bruce, and that’s about the extent of his butlering. Can we blame them? As Bruce himself notes, their efforts don’t appear to have made Gotham any safer. Crime is at an all-time high, and a masked vigilante running around at night appears to have only made things worse.
This film feels like a “through the looking glass” moment for Batman himself. The typical superhero movie’s subtext about the subtle similarities between the good guy and the bad guy here becomes overt text. Reeves shoots Batman’s pursuit of his targets with the same psychotic, heavy-breathing, point-of-view aesthetic with which he shoots the Riddler’s. Now, we have to try and figure out how the hero differs from the villain — and so too does Batman. That’s part of the film’s charm: watching a familiar, oft-filmed superhero try and discover just what it is that constitutes heroism — a question that finds its answer during a moving climax that has almost nothing to do with tracking down bad guys or pummeling people.
The Batman is certainly long, and it’s even slow at times, but it’s never boring; Reeves sustains the tense mood throughout, and the procedural elements are mostly absorbing. The action keeps with the austere, grim mood. One nighttime car chase, shot through the blur of heavy rainfall and the delirious dance of car lights reflected in windows, takes your breath away. The fights are often shot in long takes that emphasize both the impressive stunt work and the sheer difficulty of being Batman. And as with the Nolan films, the directorial sensibility matches the form. The Batman’s darkness never feels fashionable, or opportunistic, or cheap. No, the director of Let Me In and War for the Planet of the Apes has always had a bleak view of humanity and of where humanity is headed. Reeves loves these dead-end apocalyptic environments and delights in tales that toy with the moral calculus of typical hero narratives. He has given us a Batman that he himself can believe in, not to mention a Batman that feels right for our times.
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