By Lynn Venhaus
The grittiest, gloomiest, and most pitch-black of the entire Caped Crusader canon, “The Batman” expands the compelling mythology with a neo-noir approach and very gothic Gotham look.
Now in his second year as masked crime-fighter Batman, reclusive billionaire Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) wades deeper into Gotham City’s underworld after The Riddler (Paul Dano) leaves a trail of cryptic clues, cyber messages and greeting cards addressed to The Batman. Wayne uncovers rampant corruption and abuse of power that has long plagued the metropolis while he seeks to apprehend a deranged killer.
Director Matt Reeves has set the iconic DC comic book character into year two of his “Batman Project,” where the scion of Wayne Enterprises, Bruce Wayne, calls himself “Vengeance” and roams at night, throwing punches with the “drophead” drug addicts and hoodlums overtaking his town.
His nocturnal alter-ego somberly narrates the film from his journals. “They think I’m hiding in the shadows, but I am the shadows,” he says in an intense, hushed tone.
This Batman works as a vigilante, delving into the detective work with Police Commissioner Gordon, played with his customary gravitas by Jeffrey Wright. After all, DC stands for Detective Comics, which Batman has been a part of since 1943.
Reeves, who helmed the found-footage thriller “Cloverfield” and two of the three “Apes” prequels “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” in 2014 and “War for the Planet of the Apes” in 2017, taps into modern-day fears here, much like a horror film. It’s not science that’s created an aberration, but human nature at its bleakest, because evil has seeped into the everyday fabric of big-city life.
Reeves and co-screenwriter Peter Craig, who specializes in gutsy action (Oscar nominee for “The Town,” the upcoming “Top Gun: Maverick”) take a page from Todd Phillips’ 2019 bold and menacing “Joker,” which depicted Gotham City’s slide into lawlessness as greed and sadistic forces rose.
No one out-broods actor Robert Pattinson, and he inhabits the Batsuit with an imposing physique – although a human one, battle-scars on his back. This superhero’s physical prowess is on full display in fierce fight sequences.
He has the Bat “toys” at his disposal – a very cool Batmobile makes a splashy entrance and he uses a turbo-charged Batcycle in hot pursuit of justice.
Pattinson, who broke out as sensitive heartthrob and tortured vampire Edward Cullen in the “Twilight” Saga (2008-2012), took a few years to find his way in post-blockbuster projects but has been memorable in interesting but odd indies – “The Lost City of Z,” “High Life,” “The Devil All the Time,” and his acclaimed “Good Time” and “The Lighthouse” (Independent Spirit Awards nominations). He projects vulnerability and an inner strength along with the physicality.
His re-imagined Bruce is even more emotionally bruised and psychologically battered than any previous characterization, although Christian Bale came the closest in the masterful Christopher Nolan trilogy (“Batman Begins,” “The Dark Knight” and “The Dark Knight Rises”).
For 80 years, the dynamic hero has grown a passionate fanbase and many spin-offs – including TV shows, animated series, and video games. Since Tim Burton’s “Batman” in 1989, there have been many incarnations of the Caped Crusader, each with their own take.
Bale perfectly embodied both the conflicted hero and suave bachelor, while glib charmers Michael Keaton and Ben Affleck played to their strengths as seasoned veterans. The OG, Endearing Adam West, of the landmark TV series and first movie in 1966, had fun with the kitschy camp and the bombastic cartoonish Joel Schumacher ones in the 1990s, with Val Kilmer and George Clooney, though charismatic, took a wrong turn.
With less to say and more to emote, Pattison is convincing as driven to restore order while wrestling with his demons. The poor little orphaned rich boy, traumatized by watching his parents murdered at age 10, has found a solitary life of purpose. He remains a lone wolf who doesn’t let people in easily – even his loyal butler Alfred.
After Michael Caine’s emotional turn in Nolan’s three, as a surrogate father and protector, to see a gruff Bruce keep Alfred at a distance is jarring. Andy Serkis, who was Caesar in Reeves’ “Ape” movies, is every bit the archetypal British gentleman and dutiful servant.
Nolan’s work remains the gold standard, but Reeves’ deeper dive into the crevices is interesting – and unrelentingly grim. The skies are either a gloomy gray or a foreboding hard downpour, reminiscent of “Blade Runner.”
Cinematographer Greig Fraser, Oscar-nominated for “Dune,” sets a moody atmosphere to emphasize the scummy cesspool, and uses very little daylight. Blood red punctuates the darkness.
Reeves has cast the ensemble well, with Zoe Kravitz intriguing as both Catwoman and Selina Kyle, who develops a complicated alliance with Batman.
While nothing will ever approach Heath Ledger’s fearsome Joker in “The Dark Knight,” the familiar villains here are fresh takes — Paul Dano plays The Riddler as a dangerous mastermind, revealing hard truths about the powerful and elite of Gotham, and exposing himself as an unhinged psychopath. He may not have the maniacal laugh of Frank Gorshin and Jim Carrey, but he will send shivers down your spine, nonetheless. You want more of his Edward Nashton.
The Riddler’s killing spree, brutally murdering political figures and lawmen as he baits Batman, ramps up the tension.
John Turturro excels as mob boss Carmine Falcone, a smooth operator who is as lethal with his words as his deeds.
Less successful is Colin Farrell, unrecognizable as the thuggish Penguin (Oswald Cobblepot). His sleazy character is not as developed as the other bad guys.
The tech work is solid, and production designer James Chinlund went farther with a crumbling Wayne Manor, a once-grand mansion that serves as a forlorn reminder of what all has been lost.
Reeves tapped his frequent collaborator Michael Giacchino to compose the score. Giacchino, who won an Oscar for “Up,” an Emmy for “Lost” and Grammy Awards for “Up” and “Ratatouille,” has created haunting character themes.
“The Batman” is one of the more complex reinventions in the DC-verse and signals a promising new story thread, but at 176 minutes, the pace is a detriment, for it seems unnecessarily slow. But it is rare that you get this much depth in a tentpole genre film.
“The Batman” is a 2022 action-adventure crime drama directed by Matt Reeves and stars Robert Pattinson, Zoe Kravitz, Paul Dano, John Turturro, Colin Farrell, Jeffrey Wright, Andy Serkis and Peter Sarsgaard. It is rated PG-13 for strong violent and disturbing content, drug content, strong language, and some suggestive material and runs 2 hours, 56 minutes. It is only in theaters starting March 4. Lynn’s Grade: B.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.