Nothing confers seriousness in a superhero movie more effectively than a protracted running time. (Just ask Zack Snyder, whose DC comics adaptations have each run longer than the previous one.)
At 176 minutes, “The Batman” admittedly falls short of Snyder’s kitchen-sink cut of “Justice League” by more than an hour, a half-dozen needle-drops, and too many slow-motion shots to count. Nevertheless, Matt Reeves’ franchise kickstarter feels like the ultimate extension of this borderline self-parodying (if admittedly very successful) impulse to take characters in silly costumes and treat them with po-faced, almost oppressive solemnity.
What’s more impressive than what Reeves has done — which, even at its most superficial, is essentially (and very effectively) to remake “Seven” with Robert Pattinson as the jaded William Somerset to Jeffrey Wright’s increasingly disillusioned David Mills — is the fact that he grafts the Fincher film’s unimaginable atrocities onto a Caped Crusader adventure for a purpose thankfully more meaningful than taking funny-book characters “seriously” for a fast buck.
In “The Batman,” Reeves shepherds his vigilante hero closer to the edge of annihilation than moviegoers have ever seen before so that Batman, as a character and a franchise, can start anew as a beacon of justice without forever being overshadowed by the clichéd bleakness of its overplayed origin story. That said, at almost three hours, it takes a while to get to that glimmer of hope. But with Pattinson glowering beneath his cowl, Reeves creates a Batman whose psychology is at least as interesting as his crime-fighting activities, for the first time in a long time.
At the start of the film, Bruce Wayne has been dressing up as Batman for two years, cultivating an atmosphere of dread among Gotham City’s ne’er-do-wells — even in his absence — as much as he’s actually been fighting crime. Except for Lieutenant James Gordon (Wright), with whom he regularly collaborates on cases, Batman’s relationship with the GCPD is chilly at best. When the vigilante uncovers key information about a string of grisly murders by a seemingly politically-motivated serial killer who calls himself Riddler (Paul Dano), Gordon’s superiors reluctantly give him a wide berth to investigate the case.
The disappearance of a young woman spotted with Riddler’s latest victim leads Batman to a nightclub owned by mid-level mobster Oswald Cobblepot (Colin Farrell) that fronts as a hangout for Gotham’s movers and shakers — both bad and good — where he meets Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), a cat burglar with mysterious ties to local crime lord Carmine Falcone (John Turturro).
As Riddler continues to target the city’s politicians and supposed moral leaders, Batman and Gordon soon discover that each of his victims are connected to a famous indictment in Gotham’s history that was meant to eradicate crime, but didn’t. Even worse, it has ties to Bruce’s late father’s mayoral campaign. Racing to apprehend Riddler before he kills again, Batman plunges deeper and deeper into the investigation, only to uncover some shocking details about the Wayne family history. This unearthing of the past leads him in a decision of whether it’s worth it to maintain the secrecy of his heroic alter ego if it means covering up the connections between him, his parents and the corruption that has metastasized in Gotham City’s streets.
Calling “The Batman” a remake of “Seven” isn’t entirely accurate; it’s more like Reeves created two different versions of John Doe, one pursuing the other, with Gordon in the middle trying to make sense of not one but two obsessive maniacs. Thankfully, the director of the last two extraordinary “Planet of the Apes” sequels is, like his heroes, intrigued by the moral lines that people draw to shape their behavior and the grey areas that surround those lines between justification and rationalization.
Batman describes himself only as “vengeance,” and after two years he’s even spooked himself; disavowed of a genuine belief that things will actually improve, or that even a law-abiding crusader like mayoral candidate Bella Reál (Jayme Lawson) can make a real difference, he settles for a status quo where he’s the most menacing figure in a landscape overrun by them.
At the same time, Bruce Wayne has become so self-destructive that he’s eager to believe the most horrible information about his family, no matter from what source it comes. Pattinson conveys a fascinating fragility behind the façade of his impenetrable armor that leads Bruce Wayne into even unhappier places than the ones he started in, and that journey marks a shift that’s pointedly different from previous incarnations of the character, if only because it actually gives him somewhere to go when they inevitably make a couple of sequels.
For all of his psychological trappings, Batman ultimately has been a pretty one-dimensional gloomy-Gus on screen, and I don’t mean to damn the film with faint praise by celebrating the fact that here, he actually gets a character arc, one that makes you root for him as a person and not just as a hero.
The movie showcases that vulnerability in a number of different ways: Some are physical (after triumphantly escaping from a precinct full of angry cops with a dive off of the roof, he crash-lands violently when his parachute get caught beneath an overpass), while others are more subtly verbal (in an act of super-contrition, he actually apologizes).
But that emotional dimensionality gets drawn out more vividly in Bruce/Batman’s relationships with others, starting of course with James Gordon and with Alfred (Andy Serkis), his lovingly hectoring butler-slash-father figure, but especially with Selina, who Kravitz bring to the screen with a resourcefulness and pragmatism that gently underscores how silly all of his gadget-driven theatricality is.
The sexual chemistry that the two characters share is the most palpable between Batman and Catwoman since Michael Keaton and Michelle Pfeiffer, the latter of whom Kravitz offers a skillful nod to with her ubiquitous patent-leather boots. Selina’s take on heroism is predicated on necessity rather than privilege, and that contrast shines a harsh light upon the motivations of the silver-spooned avenger that again nudges the character’s mythology into a more contemporary and, consequently, more relatable context.
One wonders if some of the day-one viewers of the film, the comic-book fans who swarm and try to destroy dissenting opinions about their favorite properties, will notice how brutally it indicts their self-righteous armchair-bully perspective via Riddler’s plot to exact justice on the people he perceives have slighted him (even existentially). But then again, it’s also an indictment of Batman’s extrajudicial heroism that thankfully does not try to exonerate him except through Bruce Wayne’s emotional journey, nor does it settle upon bland advocacy for police institutions as the most viable alternative.
Reeves wrings out every available ounce of philosophical nuance from this story and its characters, while also managing to deliver some absolutely fantastic action sequences. The best of these is undoubtedly the Batmobile’s pursuit of Cobblepot through a torrential downpour that actually ups the ante on Christopher Nolan’s use of 18-wheelers in “The Dark Knight.”
Cinematographer Greig Fraser (2021’s “Dune”) may actually be the collaborator who deserves the lion’s share of the credit for these sequences, bathing the film in an inky blackness like a latter-day Gordon Willis in a way that obviously suits the material’s bleakness but also makes for some astonishingly beautiful imagery when it’s punctured by light. His ability to both obscure the thudding brutality of Batman’s attacks and to dapple the frame with flashes of white or red to keep viewers oriented is genuinely a remarkable achievement.
Meanwhile, though the music owes at least a subconscious debt to the unsettling ambience of Howard Shore’s work in “Seven,” Michael Giacchino’s theme for the title character cooks John Williams’ “Imperial March” down to its most menacing elements and then cranks up the volume to ear-splitting, cavernous levels, making the audience feel like they’re watching the film from inside a stand-up bass whose strings are being manipulated with a large, blunt instrument.
Whether out of commercial fealty to the corporate overlords bankrolling the franchise or his own creative foreshadowing, Reeves also peppers in a handful of hints that there are future battles that this Batman will at least have the opportunity to fight, but where this movie functions best are in the scenes and sequences where it’s simply a character study about a person who’s determined to do what he thinks is right while trying to figure out whether or not he’s actually making any difference.
Of course, that’s also a notion that Nolan explored in “Batman Begins,” another film whose rhythms this one more than vaguely resembles, but ultimately Reeves’ film offers the right take on the character at the right moment — one that’s not completely new or iconoclastic to audiences, but different enough that they don’t feel like they’re watching the same Bat-channel all over again.
So, yes, “The Batman” is absolutely too long, and it has more than enough self-seriousness to match. But Reeves takes an unusual risk in the era of endless mythologies and cinematic universes by telling a story that actually could be complete, even if it’s also obviously meant to be the beginning of a larger narrative. If intellectual property exists precisely because people become compelled to invest themselves over and over in the journeys of these characters, then “The Batman” not only delivers the goods, it also embodies many of the reasons why that investment can feel so rewarding.
“The Batman” opens in US theaters March 4.