Review: “Fear,” Bruce Wayne tells us in a gloomy voiceover early in The Batman, “is a tool.” He’s talking about how the presence of the Batman can be used to intimidate bad guys, but it’s also possible writer/director Matt Reeves took this to heart for his approach to rebooting the famous superhero. This is the scariest Batman yet. Right from the violent opening scene, the message is clear: this is not your mother’s Caped Crusader. This is a creeping, angry, white-knuckle-inducing psychological thriller with a heavy dose of crime noir – and believe it or not, Reeves absolutely pulls it off, achieving a grimly beautiful masterpiece.
The Batman stands on its own, but it’s still dripping with cinematic references. Among the movies I thought about while watching: Zodiac, Se7en, Chinatown, and Saw! You know what I didn’t think too much about? Most of the previous live-action Batman movies. Its gritty realism is most similar to Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, but this is a refreshingly bold new cinematic take on the Dark Knight.
If anything, its grounded nature is a lot like 2019’s Joker. But the difference here is that the Joaquin Phoenix thriller didn’t really need the A-list DC villain’s name to tell its story of an impoverished man forgotten by society. The Batman, on the other hand, is still very much a Batman tale in a surprisingly loyal way. It pulls from and remixes various storylines from the comics in daring yet respectful fashion, all while being very different from what we’ve seen on the big screen up to this point.
For one thing, it’s not a Batman origin story. Reeves knows we know Thomas and Martha Wayne are dead, and he correctly assumes we don’t need to see them get gunned down yet again. Instead, we’re dropped right into Batman and Jim Gordon’s vigilante/detective partnership. It takes place late enough in Bruce Wayne’s story to not retread scenes we’ve already seen a million times, but early enough that he’s still got a lot of growing to do before he’s the nigh-flawless superhero. We don’t see the beginning, but we do see plenty of development, as well as some clever callouts and additions to the histories of several Gotham families.
On that note, Robert Pattinson is playing a much more vulnerable, human version of the orphaned billionaire than we’ve seen before. With a role so iconic, it would’ve been easy to crib – even accidentally – from the many actors who came before him, but Pattinson makes Bruce his own entirely. Gone is the convincing illusion of a charismatic playboy we’ve seen in past iterations. Here, we get a sad weirdo who’s both crippled and compelled by his unresolved trauma in a way that’s gripping to watch. This Bruce is a broken man, unable to hide his emotions even under the cowl. Pattinson’s performance, in turn, is crushingly painful, whether he’s in or out of the Batsuit.
But, believe it or not, Pattinson’s performance isn’t even the second most memorable of The Batman. Those honors go to Zoe Kravitz and Paul Dano as Selina Kyle/Catwoman and The Riddler, respectively. The former struck me as inspired (dare I say, purrrrfect?) casting from the get-go, but Kravitz’s layered portrayal of the catburglar clawed past even my high expectations. She’s got all the slinkiness and slyness you could hope for, but, like Pattinson’s Bruce, she’s also incredibly vulnerable, while selling an insatiable need for revenge. Pattinson may be the one screaming “I am vengeance!,” but it’s Kravitz who simmers with a need for payback. Plus, the two actors’ chemistry is undeniable. Whether they’re trading fists or information, it’s all very hot.
As for Dano, his Riddler is easily the best live-action Batman villain since Heath Ledger’s Joker. This is a far, far, far cry from the previous most famous Riddler performance by Jim Carrey, with Reeves putting a modern, murderous spin on the wordsmith that’s heavily influenced by the real-world Zodiac Killer. Dano sinks into this unhinged yet genius killer with terrifying realism. Seriously, Dano managed to give me chills with a single eye movement in one scene. The best Batman villains are the ones who challenge at least two of the three of his mind, morals, and body, and this Riddler puts the first two to the test. Whenever Pattinson and Dano face off, it’s impossible to look away.
Colin Farrell and Jeffrey Wright, too, are formidable as The Penguin and Jim Gordon, respectively, with both responsible for a few very welcome moments of levity. Farrell is deeply unrecognizable (seriously, if I didn’t already know it was him, I would’ve never guessed) as the mobster, and seems to be having fun under all those prosthetics. Wright, meanwhile, has a nice buddy-cop dynamic with Pattinson, lending to some of the best campy (in a good way) detective noir moments. Andy Serkis’ Alfred Pennyworth has a different relationship with Pattinson: a paternal one that connects him to the Wayne family roots and packs an emotional punch when needed.
If that seems like a lot to stuff into one movie, well, The Batman does clock in at a hefty three hours, so it has the time! It mostly earns that bladder-testing runtime, although there are moments in the middle when I didn’t feel completely glued to the political mystery at its center. But when the story – and the action – revved up again, it felt like one of the Bat’s grappling hooks pierced me and yanked me back so hard that I didn’t even have time to complain.
The last hour makes all that build-up worth it with a few big, beautiful, brilliantly choreographed action sequences. This movie’s grounded take ups the stakes in the fight scenes, and when Batman throws or takes a hit, it hurts. Plus, the cityscape in which it all takes place is darkly gorgeous. If you’ve seen pretty much any of The Batman’s posters you should know the look you’re in for, which constantly bathes Gotham in a palette of black and red. Cinematographer Greig Fraser’s smart contrast of saturation and darkness keeps it from being monotonous, instead keeping us gripped in a Gotham that mirrors other major U.S. cities in many ways, but is still entirely its own. Michael Giacchino’s sweeping, dramatic score brings it all together, creating a few epic moments worthy of one of comic books’ most famous characters.
The Batman, again, is a standalone tale and works well as one, but make no mistake: it definitely leaves the door open for a sequel. Maybe that’s underselling it; it leaves a Batmobile-sized hole for a sequel. Luckily, it’s a dark, grimy, politically seedy world that I certainly wouldn’t mind getting swept up in again.
The Batman is a gripping, gorgeous, and, at times, genuinely scary psychological crime thriller that gives Bruce Wayne the grounded detective story he deserves. Robert Pattinson is great as a very broken Batman, but it’s Zoe Kravitz and Paul Dano who steal the show, with a movingly layered Selina Kyle/Catwoman and a terrifyingly unhinged Riddler. Writer/director Matt Reeves managed to make a Batman movie that’s entirely different from the others in the live-action canon, yet surprisingly loyal to Gotham lore as a whole. Ultimately, it’s one that thoroughly earns its place in this iconic character’s legacy.
Batman is released and out in theaters now. To book your tickets visit https://bit.ly/3pucRgt