Part of the joy of superhero films lies in the mutable foundation of their source material, which allows for endless reinterpretation. As much as reboots are generally hated for pandering to nostalgia, they make a lot of sense for superheroes. Before the filmic reboots, and before this “golden” age of superhero films, DC and Marvel were constantly remixing comic books under different visual styles and levels of violence. This spirit of change is exactly what “The Batman” needed, as director Matt Reeves has successfully created the most goth superhero since “Ghost Rider” with Nicholas Cage (or maybe “The Crow” with Brandon Lee?). Robert Pattinson is absolutely brooding, yes, and his blurred black eye shadow reeks of Hot Topic, but the film’s tortured ethos bleeds into every aspect of the production, turning the interior of Wayne Manor architecturally Gothic with a capital G. The cinematography, while fantastic and legible when on a big screen, is properly dark and dim the whole way through, to the point where it might even be necessary to squint. Thumbs get cut off and heads bashed in with blunt objects, and although a PG-13 rating holds it back from being totally explicit, the glimpses of blood and gore we do see are sometimes more than enough. I’d be surprised if a decade ago this film still got a PG-13 rating, because it feels rated R.
The feeling that “The Batman” is “adult” comes from a realistic Gotham City, and therefore realistic villains. The city’s economy and politics are discussed as they would be in any mob drama, surpassing even Christopher Nolan’s trilogy in that regard. The Dark Knight trilogy set a standard for superheroes not as fantasy, but as a kind of magical realism wherein the laws of real life are relatively stable, interrupted by the occasional improbable feat. It is a pain to play the game of comparison with Marvel and other DC movies, seeing as their intended effects are worlds apart, but… truly, how can they compare? Even when half of the universe’s living beings are mercilessly killed, such as in “Avengers: Endgame,” it often feels like nothing happened. Here, the city and its people palpably feel pain. Batman himself is immature, imperfect and barely qualifies as a businessman, much less a superhero, even when we ignore the fact that he has always been just a sporty rich boy dressed in Kevlar. The city is disgusting, a cesspool of crime and corruption, where the only good cop really is Commissioner Gordon, played perfectly by Jeffrey Wright in an underappreciated performance. And even through his anonymizing mask, Paul Dano as the Riddler steals scene after scene, interpreting the role as a blend between Bane and a chronically online, scrawny incel. Everything operates, in terms of tone, much more like Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” or “V for Vendetta” in that the plot happens realistically, but with a poetic license that allows for it to play out in an enchanted and unusually interconnected manner.
Many have cited this as the first example of Batman as a detective. While that may be true, it doesn’t mean he’s necessarily good at it. In fact, one of the most shocking scenes (light spoilers ahead) features the Penguin mocking Batman and Gordon for their poor knowledge of Spanish. It’s difficult to describe, because the entire genre depends on super-human, super-perfect beings, but in “The Batman,” Bruce Wayne makes mistakes simply because people make mistakes, not because the plot calls for it. In other words, the story’s coincidences are uncontrived. As someone who firmly believes the ideal length for a film is an hour and a half at most—and less is more—I was dreading this one’s nearly three-hour runtime. The film’s pacing, however, makes this time melt away, the plot revealing itself in delicious slow-motion, mimicking the slow burn expected of detective films. Anything faster and you might miss the details littered throughout, many of which are hidden in the shadows along with Batman himself.
Aside from a few narrative inconsistencies too minor to name and a score that awkwardly bumps against the occasional scene, it all works. Pattinson exceeds expectations, probably because this is a Batman more suited to his forte, which is some combination of a physical presence that suggests a wired, wary psychological state and his scowl. Christian Bale’s (or even Michael Keaton’s) Batman are powerful men who like to wear suits and drink whiskey in their big leather armchairs in an immaculate lair… Pattinson’s Batman sits on a stool in his dilapidated Batcave drinking Monster Energy.
Zoë Kravitz is more immediately and obviously suited to be Catgirl than Pattinson is to be Batman—I will only say she is perfect for the role—but was not as memorable as he was because her narrative arc is a little too conventional—and again, perfect otherwise. The tension between the two is really powerful, more so than any other Batman-Catgirl relationship we’ve seen so far, perhaps due to the painful lack of chemistry between Michelle Pfeiffer and Keaton in “Batman Returns” and, to a lesser extent, between Bale and Anne Hathaway in “The Dark Knight Rises.” In a word, they smolder when put together.
Three years ago, Reeves announced Pattinson being cast in the lead role by tweeting a gif of Pattinson in a different role: the Safdie Brother’s 2017 “Good Time”. The connection between his role in that movie and his role in “The Batman” seemed disparate, but now, it’s easy to see how the filthy underground world of “Good Time” inspired Pattinson’s Batman. In both of them, you can feel him suppressing so much rage, a well of pain we can only imagine through the droplets of anger he lets out.