While Marvel Studios’ output has recently begun to strike a more serious tone on occasion, their stories still wind up hewing towards the lighter side of the genre, with only passing mention of topical issues and a sense of relative security that your favorite characters will make it through the movie (or will somehow be back next time either way). Yes, I know, the last Avengers team-up changed that, actually removing some major players for good, but that is the exception rather than the rule. Rival DC on the other hand has been more open to letting their filmmakers explore the darkness and, as evidenced by how few people made out of James Gunn’s 2021 take on The Suicide Squad, is willing to invest their stories with genuine stakes for nearly all of their characters. Matt Reeves’ The Batman carries that ethos forward by being more than happy to wallow around in the muck and grime of the Gotham underworld, for better and for worse.
Mercifully, we are spared watching Bruce Wayne’s (Robert Pattinson) parents getting murdered yet again and instead are dropped into a world where he has already been operating as the vigilante Batman for a few years, and sometimes assisting Gotham PD Lieutenant James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright). The criminals that have been increasingly terrorizing the city are already well aware of his existence and become fearful whenever the Bat Signal is cast into the night sky. In this version of the story, when he isn’t meting out justice on the streets in his costume, Mr. Wayne mostly remains holed up in his Gothic-styled penthouse mansion, letting longtime family butler Alfred (Andy Serkis) manage most of his affairs.
As a hotly contested mayoral campaign is under way, incumbent candidate Don Mitchell, Jr. (Rupert Penry-Jones) is murdered by a masked serial killer calling himself The Riddler (Paul Dano). He leaves behind a series of puzzles that seem to befuddle the Police despite their relative simplicity that lead Batman and Lt. Gordon on a hunt to determine his identity. Additional victims begin to appear, sometimes being first tortured in elaborate, PG-13-friendly versions of the traps in the Saw movies, each of whom are also powerful members of the city’s government, and each accompanied by more riddles and the release of evidence of their corruption.
The Riddler implies that if Batman can figure out the identity of the “rat” that helped the now-deceased mayor to bring down one of the city’s major crime families and bring him into the light, he will get an answer about his identity. So Batman heads to a nightclub popular with the criminal underground run by The Penguin (an unrecognizable Colin Farrell). While there he meets Selina Kyle a.k.a. Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz) who agrees to help him so that she can find her missing friend, who was likely abducted because she knew to much about the emerging conspiracy. This leads them all down a path for answers that could potentially bring down all of the city’s rich and powerful.
There’s a lot going on here, which probably goes some way towards explaining the movie’s nearly 3-hour runtime. While the story can seem convoluted, it’s actually fairly simple at its core so it’s always pretty easy to follow along. More importantly it’s also consistently entertaining to watch and try to puzzle out along with the characters, even though there are some moments when it feels like it could have been trimmed down a little more. This is an old-school noir at heart, and so there are fewer action sequences than fans of these movies might expect, but it pretty perfectly nails the tone that it’s going for and only occasionally veers into high camp territory. The action moments we do get are all handled well, with a chase down a busy highway in particular standing out, though the dark lighting and quick-cut editing can sometimes make things hard to follow.
The cast are all fine here, but as is often the case with this genre it’s the villains that really stand out. It wasn’t until I saw his name in the end credits that I realized Colin Farrell was The Penguin, and underneath all the prosthetics it’s clear he was really enjoying playing the part. Likewise, John Turturro relishes laying on a thick coat of genteel malice as mob boss Carmine Falcone. Paul Dano’s Riddler is more of a mixed bag. He feels genuinely frightening in his masked scenes, but near the end when his true self is finally revealed, he starts to feel like an imitation of Kevin Spacey’s serial killer in Seven with several grating mannerisms thrown in. Pattinson’s The Crow-inspired emo boi portrayal of The Batman takes a little bit of getting used to, but ultimately works well enough, and is at least consistently easier to understand than Ben Affleck and Christian Bale’s versions.
This is a smarter take on these characters than anything we got during the misguided Zack Snyder period, that tells a compelling story that feels mostly free of any extraneous clutter or borderline illogical plot turns. While sometimes too dimly lit, the stylish production design, beautiful cinematography, and smart score by Michael Giacchino all help to make Reeves’ noir-superhero version a treat to watch. Despite some minor flaws, this is easily among DC’s better movies, and I would really like to see where they can take this version of Gotham and its inhabitants going forward. ★★★★
RATED PG-13 for STRONG VIOLENT AND DISTURBING CONTENT, DRUG CONTENT, STRONG LANGUAGE, AND SOME SUGGESTIVE MATERIAL.
★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor
Though I hope and pray we get a good 20 years before they inflict another joker on us.
I fear that somewhat cringeworthy moment toward the end of the Riddler talking to a fellow Arkham inmate may have given us a preview of plans to do exactly that.