It’s Halloween night, and all hell is breaking loose in Gotham.
From petty grocery store holdups to elaborate plots to kill the mayor, it’s a seething cesspool of violence, and only The Batman, prowling at night on a motorcycle, is there to get in its way.
“Who are you?” whines one violent creep as he’s stopped cold by the Bat. “I am vengeance,” comes the answer.
You want it darker? With The Batman, DC continues its descent into the underworld with a relentlessly noir version of Gotham’s crimefighter.
Those who thought the Twilight guy would never be able to pull off the mask and Kevlar look will have to think again.
From the opening sequence, you can tell this won’t be anywhere near Joel Schumacher’s pop-toned Gotham City. With Joker, framed around a disturbing performance from Joaquin Phoenix, the DC series edged towards a more shadowy perch, one that sees the city as a hellish landscape, making memories of Jim Carrey’s Riddler and even Tim Burton’s outings seem, well, cartoonish at best.
Next to The Batman, even Christopher Nolan’s trilogy was a compromise, maybe because it took in such wide swaths of Gotham that the man at the center of the Bruce Wayne saga sometimes got lost in the final movie. And, well, what can we say of the Baffleck years?
Here, director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) gets right down to the psychology of the masked man, in an approach that’s more noir detective than tech-suited superhero. Robert Pattinson fits easily behind the new mask: a sleek, sharp-angled, minimalist look that displays a glowering intensity and intelligence.
The “I am vengeance” battle cry against criminals works: they’re terrorized. But there’s something fishy in Gotham, as there always is.
A new masked killer is dropping viral videos exposing corrupt politicians and killing them, starting with the mayor, then branching out to a wider conspiracy. Under the guise of exposing the truth (“No More Lies” is the message scrawled onto their duct-taped mouths), the killer with a question mark symbol and a manic, whispery delivery (that would be Paul “Dial-A-Weirdo” Dano as the Riddler) is ready to infect whatever’s left of Gotham’s civic sinew and tear it all down.
Amid this, Bruce Wayne is trying to put the messages together — in this, he’s more Sherlock Holmes (helped by Jeffrey Wright’s Commissioner Gordon as his trusty Watson) than DC superhero. Of course, “The Batman” started as a sleuth story in the early Detective Comics series (his debut was in issue #27, 1939). The Batman signals a return to that tone, and after all the gadgetry and hyper-powered villains we’ve encountered, it’s a welcome sight. The noir angle makes this a more stately and stylish outing than we’ve seen in years.
Back to basics, Pattinson’s Batman is less a showcase for the latest in Kevlar suit technology (though that does come into play a lot), or the latest cold, underground Batcave warehouse (as favored by Christian Bale in Nolan’s trilogy), and not even much attention is lavished on the Batmobile, which had become a delirious focal point of Bat Nerds and luxury car spotters. Here, The Batman’s car just revs up from the shadows; he can’t even get it going the first few turns of the key.
Indeed, Bruce Wayne dwells in a magulo hovel with only a few cheap screens analyzing data (it’s mirrored by the Riddler’s shabby pad), plus servant Alfred (Andy Serkis) on hand to offer the occasional piece of advice or beverage now and again. It’s low-rent, low-tech, and perfectly fitting for this Batman.
Instead of the dashing billionaire Wayne, Pattinson’s man behind the mask is a shut-in, practically a hermit who avoids the glitz and ritz and simply patrols at night behind his cape and Kevlar. (When he does appear at a public event, he’s practically a monosyllabic sociopath with cold eyes and anime-floppy hair. It works for him.)
Again, it’s back to basic principles. And those principles are useful as Wayne works with Gordon, trying to piece together encrypted messages in greeting cards (scrawled “To The Batman”) left behind at crime scenes. Batman encounters a sleek Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz) at one of the crime scenes and employs her to spy on a club run by Oswald (The Penguin, played by an unrecognizable Colin Farrell) and crime boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro).
The main trouble with The Batman is its imposing length. The third hour sags at times, retreading the same ground, until finally unmasking the Riddler’s plans. There is a message here about modern conspiracy theories and online virality, and how creepy and infectious such information can be. There’s also an attempt to grapple with The Batman’s self-appointed role as “vengeance” in a city that’s known to spawn a lot of copycats and people with bad ideas in their heads.
Much can be mentioned of how good Pattinson and Kravitz are onscreen together: not just chemistry, but something beyond it, as Catwoman struts her stuff and The Batman tries to keep himself tamped down behind that bat mask. (Kravitz just keeps getting better and better, from TV’s High Fidelity to Soderbergh’s recent Kimi.)
Praise must be given to Reeves for not giving in to the auteur’s instinct: he plays this as a straight procedural, preferring the subdued hues and tones of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, and some well-chosen gloom jams on the soundtrack (Nirvana’s Something in the Way makes a couple appearances).
It’s clear that DC believes it can distinguish at least some of its cast of superhero characters by setting them in a more adult world. The overly violent Suicide Squad and Snyder Cut started down that path, and Todd Phillips’ dark Joker was — to me — almost squirmingly uncomfortable to watch, though of course it was a huge hit. It seems setting yourself apart from the snarky, perky fan club of Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy is an aesthetically bold move that does pay off in hardcore fan gratification.
Because there’s no shortage of crazies out there, amiright?