Producers: Dylan Clark and Matt Reeves Director: Matt Reeves Screenplay: Peter Craig and Matt Reeves Cast: Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano, Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro, Peter Sarsgaard, Andy Serkis, Colin Farrell, Jayme Lawson, Barry Keoghan, Alex Ferns, Rupert Penry-Jones, Archie Barnes, Hana Hrzic and Luke Roberts Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
If you’re looking for a light-footed, good-natured superhero movie to while away an evening with, you’d best check to see if there’s a theatre in your vicinity still showing “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” Matt Reeves’s reboot of the Batman character will not fill the bill: it’s a grim, gloomy, lugubrious, violent tale of vigilantism in a dystopian city mired in corruption and cynicism. If Christopher Nolan’s 2005-2012 trilogy portrayed Batman as the Dark Knight, this iteration presents him as the Darkest Knight.
Forget the old “millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne.” He’s nowhere to be found here. As embodied by Robert Pattinson, the young fellow is a brooding, morose recluse, still tormented by the deaths of his parents (Luke Roberts and Stella Stocker), who emerges at night in the guise of his fledgling alter-ego. Holding even his butler Alfred (Andy Serkis) at arm’s length, he trusts only in James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), a police detective who recognizes his talent, as a confederate in his costumed detective work; and Gordon, of course, doesn’t know his real identity. (He does, oddly enough however, already have the bat-signal at the ready.)
A crisis occurs in Gotham as a mayoral election looms between incumbent Don Mitchell (Rupert Penry-Jones), the establishment candidate, and populist maverick Bella Reál (Jayme Lawson). Mitchell is savagely murdered by a masked man calling himself, in social media posts, The Riddler (Paul Dano), whose cause is to reveal the truth about the pervasive corruption in the metropolis. The killer taunts Batman with a greeting-card message he leaves behind for him on the mayor’s corpse, promising further deaths and revelations. Wayne is especially moved by the sight of Mitchell’s young son (Archie Barnes), whose sorrow reminds him of his own grief at losing his father.
Riddler proves as good—or bad—as his word. He will take out Gotham’s district attorney (Peter Sarsgaard) and police commissioner (Alex Ferns) before setting his sights on a final target—one who, it will be disclosed—must atone for the sins of his father.
The search for the Riddler draws Wayne/Batman into dealings with a variety of other character. One is Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), Gotham’s crime lord. Another is Falcone’s underling, Oswald Cobblepot (Colin Farrell, in a mass of makeup rivalling that of Jared Leto in “House of Gucci”), also known as Penguin, who has aspirations to higher status in the mob. In the course of dealing with them and their crews, Wayne will learn things about his own family background that cause him further emotional pain.
But ultimately more important than either criminal is Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), a waitress at the nightclub Penguin runs who moonlights as a cat burglar. She’s engaged in a search of her own, for the killer of Annika (Hana Hrzic), her roommate, who was also Mitchell’s mistress. Like Wayne, Kyle has serious daddy issues that she needs to resolve, and they lead to an on-and-off rivalry and alliance with Batman.
As constructed by Reeves and Peter Craig, “The Batman” unfolds as an old-fashioned detective story, with the tortured hero, assisted by Gordon and Selina, assiduously assembling clues that lead to the identity of the Riddler and the reason behind his reign of terror. There are interconnections within interconnections that eventually paint an overall picture as comfortably snug as a well-manufactured jigsaw puzzle.
And yet while there’s complexity to the result, whatever depth it possesses comes from the Riddler’s purpose, which, as he emphasizes over and over, consists simply of “No More Lies.” It turns out that his motive has a lot in common with that of the masked terrorist of “V for Vendetta,” though on a local rather than national level, and he aims to achieve it by creating a degree of chaos similar to what Heath Ledger’s Joker hoped to unleash.
The upshot is that by the close—which involves a failure to avert a catastrophe on Batman’s part (he’s just a beginner, after all)—Wayne/Batman, while serving as a literal beacon of hope for those threatened by disaster, acknowledges that there is something to be said for the complaints raised by the Riddler and his followers, and that he must not just fight crime but help alleviate the social problems that feed it. In a way “The Batman” becomes a message movie delivering bromides about how we all have to change our attitudes and confront economic inequity and socio-political elitism, though the continued mania of the Riddler and the cackling of the like-minded inmate he meets at Arkham Asylum (guess who?) indicate that there’s plenty of mayhem still in store for Gotham. Sequels, anyone?
Whether or not you find the movie’s gloom and doom, or its inordinate three-hour running-time, to your liking, you have to admire the conviction with which Reeves follows through on his vision, even if the result is less entertaining than stolidly impressive. Aided enormously by a remarkable crafts team—production designer James Chinlund, cinematographer Greig Fraser, costume designer Jacqueline Durran (whose Batsuit avoids any hint of camp), editors William Hoy and Tyler Nelson, and sound designers Chris Terhune, Lee Gilmore and Craig Henighan (whose accentuation of the ominous tread of Batman as he enters any scene)—Reeves’s direction is absolutely true to his take on the character and the mood of desolation he wants to project (it’s always raining in Gotham, it seems). He and his choreographic aides also confect some spectacular action sequences—motorcycle races through the city’s streets and a spectacular Batmobile chase over slick freeways, as well as fights and car crashes (Dan Lemmon supervised the effects), while Michael Giacchino has written a score that, in its variety, avoids most of the clichés endemic to superhero-movie music.
Among the cast, Turturro and Wright handle their roles with the expected suavity, and though Sarsgaard and Serkis have relatively little to do, both have their moments, with the latter making the most of a hospital-bed confessional. Farrell registers strongly as Penguin, even working through all that makeup. But Dano’s whacked-out Riddler is so extreme that even the actor’s most fervent admirers may judge he might have toned it down a bit.
The big question marks, of course, are Kravitz and Pattinson, and in both cases Reeves has hit paydirt. Her petite stature makes the embryonic Catwoman’s physical prowess all the more engaging, and she has real chemistry with Pattinson. To be sure, the emotional range of this Wayne-Batman combination is not terribly wide—the character is a consistently dour, tormented young man in either persona—but the actor captures one’s attention from the first frame and holds it throughout. He also manages to express the crime fighter’s uncertainty at the start of his career. He takes lumps credibly, and even—in perhaps the most memorable moment—shows a sudden spasm of fear as he prepares to escape a posse of pursuing policemen by leaping off a tall building in a single bound. (He has Batwings, but they don’t appear to have been perfected yet.) And physically he has what is absolutely essential for the character—a strong chin.
There are plenty of praiseworthy elements in “The Batman,” but as a whole it comes across as extremely depressing and self-indulgently labored. Perhaps the movie accurately reflects the character as he currently appears on the printed page, but as visually striking as it is, it’s not much fun.