Review: Matt Reeves delivers a sleek, film-noir inspired superhero in “The Batman”



Pictured here is Batman played by Robert Pattinson and Selina Kyle played by Zoë Kravitz.

In the chaotic wake of “Justice League,” its hotly debated Snyder Cut and the rest of the behind-the-scenes turmoil surrounding the Ben Affleck-led DC Extended Universe, the latest film based on DC comics, Matt Reeves’ “The Batman” is a fresh reimagining of the caped crusader with no interest in tying itself to previous films. Though the film’s lengthy runtime (just short of three hours) may scare wary audiences away, “The Batman” is a visually compelling film noir that honors Batman’s roots as the world’s greatest detective, peppered with a bone-dry sense of humor and slick action sequences.

Starring Robert Pattinson and Zoë Kravitz, “The Batman” follows billionaire Bruce Wayne (Pattinson) who has spent the last two years of his life fighting crime as the vigilante “Batman” to honor the legacy of his parents Martha and Thomas, who were killed in a mugging gone wrong years before. He takes on a new case when a mysterious killer begins leaving a trail of bodies across Gotham City, all of which come attached with messages and riddles for Batman to solve. Together with the help of lawman James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) and cat burglar Selina Kyle (Kravitz), Wayne attempts to discover the whereabouts of Gotham’s latest maniac, uncovering earth-shattering secrets about Gotham’s criminal underbelly along the way.

“The Batman” immediately and decisively sets itself apart from previous Batman films in everything from its production design to its gloomy, noir-inspired tone, but perhaps the most noticeable (and long overdue) change about Reeves’ approach to the character is how “The Batman” treats its leading man as a detective first and a superhero second. In an era of superhero flicks defined by high-flying spectacle and dazzling superpowers, “The Batman” keeps things mercifully grounded — still delivering action sequences by way of cleverly choreographed street level combat (enhanced by slick lighting and sound design) — but taking more time to explore and display Wayne’s abilities as a sleuth as opposed to his prowess knocking out goons.

It’s a welcome change that allows Pattinson’s take on the role to be more quickly understood and empathized with — his Bruce Wayne is a young (still brooding) borderline emo 20-something with a boatload of trauma and a bone-dry sense of humor. In a world of quippy, outgoing superheroes, Pattinson’s antisocial Wayne is strangely endearing in his standoffishness, especially when paired with the sharp-tongued Selina Kyle, or when sharing an emotional moment with father figure/butler Alfred (Andy Serkis).

Having a Bruce Wayne that’s so clearly uncomfortable with attention makes for an even more interesting take on the Catwoman/Batman relationship, which has famously endured across the ages, but never taken on quite as innocent of an air as it’s put on here, even in spite of their dark, gritty surroundings. Like Pattinson’s Bruce, Kravitz’s take on Selina Kyle is a similarly young, green imagining of the character — still maintaining the sly sense of humor, catchphrases and lithe reflexes that make her Catwoman, but emphasizing her humanity and the humanness of the woman underneath the skintight leather.

Together, along with the not-yet Commissioner Gordon (played by a heavily accented Jeffrey Wright), the crime-fighting duo tackles a mystery laid out by the Riddler (Paul Dano) who’s intent on exposing the corruption that marrs Gotham’s law enforcement and elected officials, and how they’re tied to the city’s dueling mob bosses, Carmine Falcone and Sal Maronie. Though the Riddler (a classic, campy Batman villain if ever there was one) is present, “The Batman” dedicates a sizable portion of its runtime to fleshing out and exploring the inner workings of Gotham’s criminal empires as opposed to its flashy supervillains  — another way Reeves sets his universe apart as the most grounded, realistic imagining we’ve seen yet.

The mystery that the Riddler sets up for Batman to solve is a competent, engaging one that takes the audience along for the ride — seamlessly weaving both Selina Kyle and the Penguin (Colin Farrell under no less than 50 pounds of prosthetics and makeup) into the twisted story of Carmine Falcone’s dirty rise to power, and the corrupt officials who paved the way. Though the mob mystery fundamentally works, the film’s weakest link is Dano as the Riddler — an element that feels shoehorned in at best and lazy at worst.

Dano’s Riddler is the movie’s attempt at addressing online extremist groups that populate on the seedier sides of sites like Reddit, and though the interpretation does modernize the Riddler in some fashion, it feels fundamentally like a different character with the Riddler name slapped on for good measure. Dano’s performance doesn’t help the situation, either. Gaudy and overacted (especially in comparison to the rest of the cast’s noir-leaning tendencies) his giddy, antisocial Riddler borders on a caricature of mental illness — an unsavory acting decision that left a bad taste in my mouth.

Still, even with Dano’s Riddler as a glaring weak spot, Reeves’ “The Batman” is without question one of the strongest comic book films of the past 10 years: a movie that not only stays true to the legacy of its source material, but that simultaneously reinvents a character that audiences know inside and out. An exercise in subversion of expectations, creative cohesiveness, and a macabre sense of humor, “The Batman” is a near-perfect entry on the caped crusader’s ever-growing list of film adaptations.