There’s this kid named Bruce Wayne. Rich. His parents were murdered. He lives with his butler in Gotham City. Likes gadgets, and cars, and absolutely abhors criminals. He’s got a thing for bats, too. Maybe you’ve heard of him? But this Bruce Wayne, the one at the center of Matt Reeves’ “The Batman,” isn’t like other Bruce Waynes – and that’s a good thing.
We’ve had plenty of Batmen, from the suave (Michael Keaton) to the campy (George Clooney), the goofy (Adam West) to the gritty (Christian Bale), from the glam (Val Kilmer) to the grouchy (Ben Affleck). But this Batman, played by Robert Pattinson, is our goth Bruce Wayne, more disaffected youth than playboy billionaire, and that allows Reeves, as a director, to play with all kinds of grimy imagery, and as a writer, to grapple with the real function of Batman. It’s a necessary questioning that offers a revealing spin on this familiar character.
On paper, “The Batman” is a standard Batman story: he’s fighting crime in Gotham, facing off with the Riddler and Penguin and tangling with Catwoman. In practice, it’s Batman by way of “The Godfather” and “Zodiac,” a serial killer mystery mashed up with a mobster movie. The genre-play is a welcome refresher, while the detective work is an evolution from merely banging up the clownish petty criminals of Gotham.
While chasing the Riddler (Paul Dano), a Jigsaw-like serial murderer leaving the bodies of Gotham’s leaders in his wake, Batman stumbles into the deep-rooted corruption of the city, and organized crime’s grip on local politics and law enforcement, touching even his own storied family history, hitting uncomfortably close to home.
The criminal underbelly of Gotham is populated with crooked cops and menacing gangsters, specifically a transformed Colin Farrell (recognizable only by the resonance of his voice) as the Penguin. In the alluring and street-smart cocktail waitress Selina, aka Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz), Batman finds a guide into this world, and eventually, an ally, perhaps more, though she’s way too cool for him, or anyone, frankly.
Working with cinematographer Greig Fraser (Oscar-nominated for “Dune”), Reeves brings a unique sense of style to “The Batman,” which is rendered almost entirely in shades of red and black, pops of neon gleaming through the rain that drenches Gotham and covers it in ethereal mist. It’s a completely unique look for a comic book movie, indeed dark and dour, but thrillingly composed and lit, the style working with the story, rather than against it.
Michael Giacchino’s score throbs insistently throughout, and Reeves makes brilliant use of a couple of songs as thematic touch points, a modern choice and a classical piece alternating to signify specific character and story moments. The film is so melodramatically operatic and over the top that it somehow wraps around to become campy again, especially because throughout all the heavy, portentous story, Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig sprinkle sly flashes of humor and self-reflection about Batman lore. But the self-reflection goes much deeper for Bruce as a character, and that’s what makes this Batman reboot necessary.
This brooding Bruce isn’t content to merely fund orphanages by day and beat up petty thieves at night. As he comes closer and closer to the Riddler, a terrifyingly methodical villain, Bruce learns that they’re not so different after all: both are just two weird guys in masks trying to fight crime in Gotham. That confrontation forces him to reckon with the purpose of being Batman, with what function he can serve as a crime-fighting superhero.
It’s a reckoning that’s been long overdue for the man in the bat suit and one that’s beautifully crafted with care by the artisans behind “The Batman.” In its uncompromising vision, it may not be for everyone, but it’s definitely the movie that Batman needed.