The dude’s scary-looking. You have to give him that. And when he clomps out of the shadows of a subway station where a hate crime is in progress, the guy with the cape and the cowl cuts an incredibly intimidating figure. Why the gang members in garish, smeared face paint — they look like whacked-out Juggalos; just don’t call them jokers — choose to underestimate someone who’d dress up in Kevlar and sport a mask with bat ears in the wee small hours is, frankly, a mystery. But they roll up on the guy in the costume nonetheless, and are each rewarded with particularly brutal beatdowns. “Excessive force” is not a phrase this man understands to be negative; to him, it’s the only type of force there is.
Having wiped the floor with these clowns, the savior turns to the victim to make sure he’s OK. Please don’t hurt me, the scared man whimpers. It’s the most natural reaction in the world after what this poor guy’s just seen. The panting, glaring figure standing over him doesn’t exactly scream “hero.”
He does scream “tortured antihero,” however, and The Batman — director Matt Reeves’ addition to the ever-expanding, never-ending canon of an intellectual property, a pop icon, and a comic-book-cinema cash cow — aims to build off the character’s established legacy as the darkest of knights while connecting him to a long line of God’s lonely men. The filmmaker has been upfront about how the gritty movies of the Seventies (your French Connections, Taxi Drivers, Chinatowns) influenced what he wanted to do with the Caped Crusader. And while his approach stops short of the blatant Scorsese cosplay of something like Joker, you can feel Reeves and new-bat-on-the-block Robert Pattinson reaching back to those New Hollywood gumshoes, obsessed cops, and on-the-brink urban vigilantes for inspiration. (There are also a lot of elements being cribbed from a certain stylish Nineties thriller as well, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.)
Reeves has mentioned 1980s comics being touchstones as well, and while most Burton-and-beyond Batman films have leaned heavily into Frank Miller’s seminal The Dark Knight Returns — essentially the ur-text for all “Batman be crazy!” revisionism — he and fellow credited screenwriter Pete Craig (The Town) instead pivot toward the project Miller did as a follow-up: Year One, a Gotham noir take on the superhero that rewinds back to very early days of Commissioner Gordon joining the police force and Bruce Wayne deciding to play dress-up every night. Longtime bat-fans will see traces of the legendary Denny O’Neill-Neil Adams Seventies run here as well, when Batman flipped back from being a campy crusader to a twilight sleuth extraordinaire. But the gist is that The Batman is less interested in returning to the origin story of a 1930s creation so much as his dime-store-pulp roots. He’s giving off big Travis Bickle energy, sure, but he’s also got Philip Marlowe and the Continental Op in his DNA. They didn’t subtitle those comics “The World’s Greatest Detective” for nothing.
This Batman isn’t quite there, however — he’s not even the greatest detective on his block yet, much less the world. It’s his second year of fighting crime, or as Pattinson says in the gloriously over-baked voiceover, “two years of nights [that] have turned me into a nocturnal animal.” He’s already formed an alliance with Commissioner Gordon (Jeffrey Wright, solid as usual), enough that when a prominent mayoral candidate turns up bludgeoned to death in his den, he can shuffle into the crime scene at will. His reputation precedes him; none of the cops trust this guy at all, even if he is observant enough to spot clues they miss. Plus, there’s a card taped to the victim addressed directly to him, “the Bat man.” “What does a liar do when he’s dead?” it asks. He lies still. There will be more riddles to come. Other victims, too.
The connection is corruption, which runs bone-deep in Gotham City, and the more breadcrumb trails Batman follows, the more prominent politicians, district attorneys, police officers, and gangsters are implicated. The same goes for the city’s upper crust, which includes the Wayne family — not that Bruce associates with his fellow patricians. Forget the idea of young master Wayne as a socializing playboy, supermodels on each arm and a pressed tuxedo at the ready. This is a man still suffering from PTSD over the death of his parents, and Pattinson plays him as a walking, talking open wound. The only time he’s engaged at all is when he’s solving cryptic missives this mystery killer leaves him or pummeling his way through nightclubs and back alleys. Batman’s superpower has always been his pathology: He needs to put on the mask and dish out payback. Without giving too much of the plot away (although at a whopping three hours long, you could devote several paragraphs to story synopsis and maybe only get through one-third of the actual narrative), it says a lot that the arc of this particular Batman story is that it’s not just enough to protect society; you have to engage with it as well. The knight is always darkest, it seems, before the dawn.
It should be noted as well that Pattinson is an inspired choice to bring this haunted, emo-beast-mode version of the character to the screen, and while you can see him hitting certain beats that are now expected for the Caped Crusader — gotta growl them lines, gotta grimace a whole lot — there’s an undercurrent of pathos and vulnerability that he brings this moody-blues interpretation of Bruce/Batman. Even when he was the handsome face of a franchise juggernaut like Twilight, the British actor specialized in portraying misfit souls. The entire staple of weirdos, screw-ups, and broken men he’s run towards since that series concluded weren’t just a reaction to an extremely blinding spotlight or merely a career reinvention. That’s his true wheelhouse. And while you don’t indulge in Euro-auteur infatuations and art-house bona fides by playing one of the single most globally recognized superheroes ever, you can locate the superhero’s inner outcast and glom onto that. His Batman is definitely a mood. He’s also a more moody, enraged, and volatile iteration of the DC Comics’ heavy hitter than previous incarnations, which — given that your competition includes Christian Bale and Ben Affleck — is no small feat.
So yes, Pattinson is still enough of a matinee-idol leading man that he can make heavily mascaraed goo-goo eyes at Zoë Kravitz’s Selina Kyle, whose Catwoman functions as an all-purpose ally, enemy, romantic interest, and feline badass depending on the situation. He can come off as noble compared to John Tuturro’s slimeball mobster Carmine Falcone and Colin Farrell’s eyes-on-the-kingpin-prize Oswald “Penguin” Cobblepot (though why the actor gravitated to playing this villain, under layers of prosthetics and with a dem-dese-dose accent, is one of the bigger mysteries here; he doesn’t add much to the supervillain nor detract from the movie… he’s just sort of briefly there and gone). He radiates a keen intelligence that sells the highly deductive detective aspect, even when the answers to these riddles start to point to the Wayne legacy. (Behind every fortune is a crime, etc. etc.) And he can seem boyishly petulant when Andy Serkis’ patient, concerned Alfred Pennyworth keeps insisting that all these late-night jaunts looking for trouble aren’t healthy.
But the star’s inherently twitchy, edgy, two-beats-off vibe also works well when you’re supposed to believe that, compared to the citizens he guards over, this gent is possibly nuts. And when the film finally does get around to suggesting that the sociopath behind all of these dead bodies is merely one side of the same scarred coin, Pattinson gives you just enough of a psychologically fraught warrior that you can see why a psycho might feel a kinship. That’s traditionally been a subtext regarding the Caped Crusader and the Clown Prince of Crime. This time, we get Paul Dano’s goggled, righteous Riddler, all Zodiac cypher-letters and breathy live-streamed kills, as the bad-guy counterpart, and what’s possibly the most radical reworking of an old-school character here. This is not a man who dresses in a question-mark-festooned leotard and incessantly giggles. This man is a fucking homicidal lunatic by way of There Will Be Blood‘s Eli Sunday. (Apologies, Daniel Plainview, but this guy is the true third revelation!) The serial-killer-with-a-master-plan mojo is strong with this one, though he may also bring to mind another reclusive fellow who once scribbled in journals and led detectives on wild goose chases in a perpetually rainy city, making sure that his increasingly baroque crimes point to a method behind the madness. To put it bluntly: The Batman may not be a full-on Seven remake. But it’s not for a lack of trying.
Which points to one of problems that plagues this intriguing back-to-basics reset, or alt-canon detour, or off-world prequel — whatever you want to call this tangential Dark Knight adventure. A reliable genre director who’s done wonders with giant monsters (Cloverfield), simian revolutionaries (the recent Planet of the Apes reboots), and underage vampires (Let Me In), Reeves provides a backbone to hang this Batman story on. Except he’s also thrown in a lot of other borrowed elements in addition to those aforementioned 1970s fixations and 1980s comics and old-school crime fiction and decades of previous on-page and onscreen Batmania, and there are moments (especially in the third act) where you feel like you’re watching the sum of the film’s spare parts rather than a cohesive whole. At its best, The Batman is a helluva tough-guy yarn — an entertaining pulp-fiction epic under the guise of sure-thing blockbuster. At its worst, it’s the cinematic equivalent of a mixtape.
It seems discourteous to point to recognizable bits and pieces of other works when so many superhero films have become nothing but extended trailers for upcoming cross-universe installments and excuses for fanboy pandering. Save for one notable and eye-rollingly gratuitous exception, The Batman is blissfully free of that. But it does feel like you’re watching one man’s epic, personal act of self-fan service — what if Raymond Chandler’s graphic novel of Chinatown, but Batman? — without necessarily getting the sense that there’s interest in exploring any new territory. The movie reclaims a sometimes forgotten bit of Batman’s building-block past as a solver of whodunnits. It seems less interested in the why-do-it-at-all part past collecting disparate notions of creepysexycool under one Bat-roof.