Review: The Batman

Shrouded in inky tones and bleak themes, Matt Reeves’ The Batman is the big screen’s darkest-yet take on the Dark Knight – in both visuals and ideas. This crimson-tinged neo-noir is more like a crime thriller than a traditional family-friendly superhero movie, sharing greater amounts of DNA with David Fincher’s Seven than Zack Snyder’s Justice League (to say nothing of the sweetly goofy Shazam). However, comic-book fans shouldn’t be dismayed; while The Batman is grounded more deeply in reality than most of its peers or predecessors, it hasn’t lost sight of its pulpy roots or the hallmarks of the character. You’ll still get your Batcave, Batsuit, Batmobile, and even the Batarang. And just because it’s grim doesn’t mean it’s a drag: this is exhilarating filmmaking on every level. 

The Batman isn’t Year One, but it does follow the Caped Crusader just two years into his masked efforts to save Gotham from itself. Appropriately, Robert Pattinson is the youngest actor to don the cowl on the big screen (and in a personal milestone, the first one I’m older than). His brooding Bruce Wayne is more emo than previous approaches to the character — with his Pete Wentz-esque long dark hair and eye black that looks like smudged liner — but Bruce’s angst isn’t just for show. Michael Giacchino’s instantly iconic theme for him bears more in common sonically with “The Imperial March” than it does with more traditional themes of superheroes, underlining the moral murkiness of this vengeance-seeking vigilante. His brokenness fuels his desire to keep Gotham safe from the Riddler (Paul Dano), a serial killer targeting the city’s most powerful people who aren’t what they seem. 

There’s something truly disturbed about Dano’s version of The Riddler. He feels genuinely dangerous here, less like the comic book villain played by Jim Carrey and Frank Gorshin, and more like Seven’s John Doe, a sick mastermind with elaborately staged kills that are soaked in as much meaning as they are in blood. Beyond Dano’s deranged villain, The Batman also (re)introduces familiar characters with new faces, offering a deep bench of talented actors in these roles. Zoe Kravitz slinks into Selina Kyle’s catsuit, bringing a new type of feral energy to Catwoman and her sparring/flirting with Batman. Colin Farrell is nearly unrecognizable as The Penguin, thanks to an Oscar-worthy makeup job and a performance that owes a lot to Robert DeNiro. He revels in the small role, with more fun and screen time to come in his own TV series for HBO Max. Andy Serkis isn’t given a ton to do as Alfred Pennyworth, but for an actor known for the physicality of mo-cap roles in the Lord of the Rings and Planet of the Apes franchises, it’s interesting to see him doing less as Bruce’s surrogate father.

Those hoping that The Batman wouldn’t focus on Thomas and Martha Wayne like its predecessors might be disappointed, but at least this take written by Reeves and Peter Craig approaches the originating tragedy from a different angle than previous adaptations. We also don’t have to actually witness their murders for the millionth time. The script and performances bring a freshness to the cinematic versions of all of these characters (and their stories) that we feel like we know from seeing them in iteration after iteration. What’s different this time around is generally based in the comics (so calm down, purists), but there will be surprises for those who only know Batman lore from watching the character in TV and movies.  

Beyond the screenplay, the sense of novelty comes from Reeves’ filmmaking, which is so markedly different from his predecessors. The director made two solid horror films in Cloverfield and Let Me In over a decade ago, and The Batman is of a piece with those genre films at times, inducing dread and something close to panic. The film seems to just skirt the R rating that some fans were hoping for, featuring violence that feels more brutal and bruising than it often does in the genre. Victims die in grisly fashion, and Batman isn’t a perfect superhero unfazed by the blows of his enemies (or his own miscalculations). A sense of futility remains, as though despite all of Batman’s best efforts, Gotham will still be a city full of rot and corruption.

Though it’s steeped in darkness, The Batman doesn’t lack wit or fun. Jeffrey Wright’s James Gordon adds weary, wry humor, and it’s difficult to overstate the joyful experience of watching the set pieces here. Reeves also directed two great action films in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and War for the Planet of the Apes, and he brings similar thrills to the fight sequences and car chases. He doesn’t make the choices you expect, offering focus or angles that let his actors shine in these moments as much as special effects. Director of photography Greig Fraser’s gorgeous use of chiaroscuro underscores Batman’s shadowy existence in the rain-soaked city where it always seems to be nighttime. The contrast of punctuating shades of red offers a different palette than most superhero films, which often wallow in shades of mud.

But for all its strengths, The Batman’s nearly three-hour running time is almost as punishing as its hero’s fists. It speeds along for the first two hours or so, but the final third begins to show its age, with ending after ending à la The Return of the King. There’s simply too much here for a single movie. The Batman isn’t the first film featuring the iconic character to load up on multiple villains, but it is the longest (outside of the Snyder Cut). I want more from this version of this universe, but I didn’t want it all in one serving. 

Apart from (minor) complaints about too much of a good thing, The Batman reinforces Reeves’ position as one of the best directors making big studio movies. He consistently turns in films with equal parts brain and brawn, as likely to please critics as audiences with their smart takes on established IP and genre. He has the rare ability to sate long-term fans while also bringing something new that might also draw first-timers to the fold. 


“The Batman” is in theaters Friday.

Kimber Myers is a freelance film and TV critic for 'The Los Angeles Times' and other outlets. Her day job is at a tech company in their content studio, and she has also worked at several entertainment-focused startups, building media partnerships, developing content marketing strategies, and arguing for consistent use of the serial comma in push notification copy.

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