The best onscreen Batmen have always understood the value of a good frown. Over the many cinematic iterations of the comic-book hero, one thing has remained consistent in his portrayal: His menacing cowl leaves the bottom half of his face exposed. The actors who did the most with the role in years past (think Michael Keaton and Christian Bale) made full use of their mouths, pouting with all their might. But the quivering lips of Robert Pattinson, the latest star to don the mask for Matt Reeves’s The Batman, might have them beat—never have I seen the Dark Knight grimace with such fervent intensity.
Reeves’s new film is the first live-action solo movie outing for Batman in 10 years (Ben Affleck’s iteration was always bumping shoulders with Superman, Wonder Woman, and the like). The director takes up the superhero mantle with the same seriousness he devoted to other genre projects, including his two Planet of the Apes films, which were dour but impressive. The Batman is nearly three hours long, very light on jokes, and flush with grim portent—set in shadowy alleys, bloody crime scenes, and dank mob hangouts, with ghostly sounding choirs intoning “Ave Maria” over the score again and again. It is, in short, a film to scowl to. But if you can lock into that moodiness, it’s also quite enthralling.
Calling The Batman a brand-new take on the comic-book character would be going too far—he’s been interpreted so many times over the years that generating something entirely unique would be difficult. But the film is a good blend of many of Batman’s best, dingiest vibes, half murder mystery and half tale of institutional rot. It’s a blown-out, pulpier Zodiac, this time with a detective dressed in rubber animal armor. This interpretation is po-faced to the extreme, but Reeves’s commitment to the material and Pattinson’s preternatural grumpiness in the role make The Batman sing—though the ballad is undeniably emo.
This film, blessedly, has nothing to do with any other recent DC Comics movie; Jason Momoa’s Aquaman won’t suddenly ride into town on a tidal wave. It also, even more blessedly, is not an origin story, instead checking in with Batman a couple of years into his caped crusade to purge Gotham City’s streets of crime and corruption. Yes, the script frequently mentions the haunting trauma that drove the billionaire Bruce Wayne to put on the bat costume—the murder of his parents in an attempted mugging—but Reeves at least trusts that viewers are familiar enough with Batman’s whole deal that we don’t need to see the same story beats play out all over again.
Instead, The Batman focuses on the nitty gritty of a serial-murder case that magnifies the abject state of Gotham’s landscape, where street crime has gotten bad enough that the citizenry is fairly on board with a man dressed as a bat walking around and brutalizing muggers. And Pattinson’s Batman really walks—saunters, even—into every high-stakes situation, mostly eschewing the theatricality that defined the past films directed by Tim Burton, Joel Schumacher, Christopher Nolan, and Zack Snyder. He’s less prone to hanging off of gargoyles or gliding from rooftop to rooftop, striking fear into the hearts of criminals. Reeves is far more interested in digging into the character’s insular, deductive reasoning.
Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne is barely removed from the costumed alter ego, a far cry from the free-spending playboy he’s usually portrayed as. Pattinson plays him as a recluse, rarely seen in public since the death of his parents and often glowering behind his long black bangs. He’s petulant toward his loyal butler, Alfred (Andy Serkis), and entirely unconcerned with occupying the philanthropist role his beloved father did. When he applies black eye makeup and puts on the Batsuit, Bruce seems automatically more comfortable, as if the only way he can tolerate being perceived is if his garb is as dark as his mood.
This excellent, committed performance is the kind Pattinson has been giving for years in smaller movies such as Good Time and The Lost City of Z, but it even has roots in the seething romanticism of his angry teen Twilight vampire, who sometimes seemed almost revulsed to be so deeply in love. He’s matched by a well-cast ensemble. Paul Dano plays the role of chief tormenter here as the Riddler, a rubber-clad serial murderer leaving elaborate clues for Batman at every crime scene; he’s appreciably squirmy and unpredictable, switching from singsong nerdiness to guttural rage in an instant. Colin Farrell, coated in thick makeup that would fit in on the House of Gucci set, has outrageous fun as the mobster Penguin, injecting the movie with brief bits of swaggering levity every time he’s on-screen.
Batman’s allies are a soberer bunch. Jeffrey Wright does reliable work as the gruff cop Jim Gordon, an ally to Batman in a sea of corruption; they get together to mutter about clues every 20 minutes. And Zoë Kravitz is an enigmatic Catwoman, a thief playing both sides of the law who has a semblance of a spark with Batman. Despite its length, Reeves’s film doesn’t leave a tremendous amount of time for flirtation, but it’s at least a little more sexed up than Nolan’s and Snyder’s rumbling symphonies of masculinity.
The cleverness of Reeves’s script, co-written with Peter Craig, is that every member of the ensemble helps unravel the Riddler’s big mystery, which is just one strand in the corrupt web of power underpinning Gotham. The script also dares to make Batman quite a passive character at times—the movie is extremely low on action, especially by modern superhero standards, and a more extravagant rescue sequence in the final act is the least engaging part, seemingly spirited in from a higher-octane movie. The narrative is methodical, and Batman spends most of it a couple of steps behind the villains he’s chasing, but I was never bored by the journey of self-discovery he’s on. He may not be the world’s greatest detective yet, but at least he’s actually interested in becoming one.
Listen to David Sims discuss The Batman on an episode of The Atlantic’s culture podcast The Review: