For the past two years, Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) has been fighting crime in Gotham, but with the city so riven with corruption at all levels, the battle seems pointless and never-ending. When a masked serial killer (Paul Dano) begins targeting city officials for execution and with riddles addressed to 'the Batman', it points the way to a wider conspiracy involving decades-long lies and deceit involving the Wayne family, Gotham, and the criminal underworld...
Batman, as an entity on our screens, is surprisingly malleable. Each instance has been decidedly different from the last, and this law has helped maintain its longevity and its relevance since the first serials in 1943. Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale's Batman was preoccupied with the implications of terrorism. 'The Dark Knight' featured city-wide warrantless surveillance in order to track the Joker, an unhinged antagonist who appeared to have no clear motive beyond complete destruction. Michael Keaton and Tim Burton's Batman, on the other hand, had decidedly different motivations involving psychosexual powerplays between Catwoman and the Caped Crusader. Ben Affleck, bless him, never got the chance to spread his (bat)wings and was relegated to second fiddle before Henry Cavill's Superman.
For 'The Batman', Matt Reeves and Robert Pattinson are interested in placing him inside a world that's not all that different from our own. There is corruption everywhere, and faith in public institutions is all but spent. Consequences for those in power who abuse it seems to be nullified by intertwined fates. Bruce Wayne, in the middle of this, opens the movie by questioning if he's actually doing any good at all. Right from the opening salvo, Gotham is presented as a place that may not really be worth saving in the first place. This is quite similar to how Matt Reeves presented the world in the wake of 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' and 'War for the Planet of the Apes' - a fallen world, and one that might just deserve its sentence.
It's not that 'The Batman' is dragged down and grim, but rather it's got a feel of old-school noir about it, not unlike 'Chinatown' or 'LA Confidential'. The city is marked by constant rain and shadows, and nobody is clean and dry because of it. Compared to previous iterations of Batman, this one feels quite realistic in how it portrays all of its characters. Jim Gordon, played with quiet confidence by Jeffrey Wright, looks exhausted and ashen-faced. Bruce Wayne, when he does appear out of his body armour, is pale and stand-offish like he's been permanently traumatised - as anyone would be if their way of dealing with it is cosplay and violence. When Batman does square up to fight, he gets hit frequently but he lashes back with a ferocity that makes it more frightening. Colin Farrell's scarred-up mobster looks like he walked off the set of 'The Sopranos'. Zoë Kravitz, meanwhile, is able to hold her own and retain her own sensibility. Paul Dano as the deranged Riddler is every bit as crazed and frightening as you'd expect from him, more so when you realise that the script by Peter Craig and Reeves plays with his motivations in such a unique way, for this kind of movie.
Reeves' ability to create atmosphere and tension is married with a more intimate scale of action and spectacle. The set pieces have a more tactile nature than anything from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the intensity gives it more impact as well. Cinematographer Greig Fraser, who previously worked with Reeves on the excellent but sorely underseen 'Let Me In', allows for rough edges around the screen and is more concerned with authenticity than keeping things clean and sterile. It's refreshing for the characters, as both directors who have stewardship over the character have never allowed for this kind of raw energy.
If there's a complaint about 'The Batman', it's that it does get bogged down in its own storytelling. With a running length of three hours, 'The Batman' takes its time setting things up and is more than happy to sit in a scene and let the atmosphere wash around the screen than move things along. It's far more considered than you might expect from such a well-trodden character, being that it's full-on borrowing from David Fincher's 'Se7en' and Alan J. Pakula's 'Klute'. If there is a comparison to make with previous iterations, 'The Batman' feels more along the lines of the gothic / art deco-tinged animated series of the '90s. Given how comic-book movies are so often accused of being cut-and-paste, 'The Batman' can't be tarred with this as it's so ardently trying to set itself apart by forcing itself to slow down and give space to performance and mood.
Arguably the moodiest and most intense the character has ever been portrayed in live-action, 'The Batman' is a strong debut for Robert Pattinson in the cowl and more than lives up to the legacy of the character. The strong supporting cast, the bold vision, Michael Giacchino's operatic score, the style and the themes at work, all of it brings vitality to a character that has nearly eight decades of history on screen.