A pummeled purple-and-yellow bruise of a popcorn picture, The Batman is entertainment as blunt-force trauma. Matt Reeves’ insistently dour take is majestic melancholy, a lavishly produced and sometimes thrillingly directed iteration that leans hard into the billionaire bachelor-orphan’s secret identity as a sad-Emoji superhero. No rich playboy here, just an intensely quiet pale citizen with tousled jet-black hair, a cavernous hi-tech tinkerer’s garage, and a thirst for well-bankrolled vigilantism.
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Appearing for the first time as the eighth silver-screen Batman since 1966, Robert Pattinson embraces the Caped Crusader’s gumshoe origins, with sleuthing powers that harken back to his pre-war Detective Comics origin. And the best way to tease out those talents is to enlist the cryptic queries of a gimp-masked, bespectacled Riddler (Paul Dano), last seen onscreen as a prancing, redheaded Jim Carrey gleefully chewing scenery in 1995’s Batman Forever.
Riddle me this: how dark is too dark for the Dark Knight? Dark enough for bit players to make a “Warning: Disturbing Images” announcement. Twice. We’re far from Frank Gorshin territory, bat-fans. We’ve also got bloat, since the film clocks in at nearly three hours. So much for family-friendly—or at least bladder-friendly. “This isn’t over,” says Batman at the 130-minute mark. Tell me about it. Dude literally goes through filing cabinets and we get to watch. Feast your eyes on him journaling in meticulously mournful diaries. He puts in the grunt work whether we want to see it or not.
THE BATMAN ★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Directed by: Matt Reeves
Written by: Matt Reeves, Peter Craig
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano, Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro, Peter Sarsgaard, Andy Serkis, Colin Farrell
Running time: 176 mins
Still, the premise is solidly seedy. Imagine a sleuthing mash-up of Seven and Silence of the Lambs transposed to Gotham City, with the Riddler as an ersatz Zodiac Killer doling out secret psychotic clues to a Kurt-Cobain-inspired Batman while also posting viral torture-porn videos for the rest of the world. It’s a heady mix. What do you call a USB data stick dangling from a severed finger? “Thumb…drive,” says Batman. Dry-heave zing!
Because superhero movies need a plethora of brand-name comic characters, there’s also mischievously menacing Oswald Cobblepot, aka Penguin (Colin Farrell under astonishing prosthetics). Plus a heroin-chic Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz), sporting an androgynous pixie hairdo and BDSM bodysuits. She and Pattinson obligingly smooch, but sparks definitely do not fly. They both look too glum and emaciated for physical pleasure anyway.
Expect a steady stream of wordplay puzzles and kooky cyphers from DC’s favorite amateur enigmatologist, predictably sending Batman and Commissioner Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) on a wild goose chase around endless pockets of rained-out urban blight. Wright and Pattinson, by the way, talk in such gravelly clips that when they team up it’s like a rasp-off.
Spoiler alert: Gotham City is corrupt! A cesspool! And it’s not just one person. “It’s so much bigger than you can imagine,” says a terrified stooge. “It’s the whole system!” Let’s just say there’s a spiraling out from the film’s nifty serial-killer machinations and criminal kingpin underworld to a tear-down-the-system overreach. The climax, an impressive but exhausting spectacle, involves exploded seawalls and a squadron of cosplay-Riddler irregulars who met on incel chatrooms. Like and Subscribe, fellas.
Matt Reeves has embraced the shadows before in films such as Let Me In and his Planet of the Apes reboots, but The Batman has given him the mega-budget studio platform for a truly grandiose vision of despair. Are there mainstream limits to creepy, jaundiced worldviews? Is there an appetite for sequels? Batman always inspires memorable, at times even rousingly operatic, theme songs. Reeves’ preference: a four-note dirge. There’s literally no sunlight in this movie, just perpetual overnight showers and slate-grey overcast skies. Let’s see if audiences can stomach the taste of such a bleak blockbuster.
Thankfully, he’s also a visceral director, enthralled with tight angles and shallow-focus murkiness. And his instinct for action scenes really shines during a few white-knuckled set pieces—the best of them being a 100-mph highway chase through heavy traffic and a driving downpour. Best surprise: Batman turning his cape into an ad-hoc flying-squirrel wingsuit and BASE jumping from a high-rise. Reeves’ GoPro aesthetic makes for strapped-in rollercoaster adrenaline rushes. His utility belt still delivers some reliable thrills, too. As does a micro-camera contact lens that captures sepia-toned fish-eyed recordings of his adventures. Those nifty gizmos preserve what little fun is left in the reclusive inhabitant of pallbearing-décor Wayne Manor. Here’s hoping that chestnut gadgetry lifts the mood in Reeves’ inevitable—and presumably sour—sequels.