The Batman Review: The Dark Knight Returns In What May Be The Best Bat-Movie Yet

Do we really need yet another "Batman" reboot? The answer, after watching Matt Reeves' tremendous "The Batman," is apparently a resounding yes. The story of the Dark Knight has been told and retold again so many times that you might think there's nothing left to do with this character, and yet, Reeves and company have crafted a sprawling, ominous, dreamy epic; a mash-up of action-adventure, mystery, horror, noir, and even a little romance thrown in for good measure. There were multiple moments here where I had to stop and ask myself, "Wow, is this the best Batman movie?" It just might be. 

I don't know if it would be fair to call "The Batman" original. Not only is it drawing on decades of comic books, it's also heavily riffing on several different movies. Reeves isn't shy about wearing his influences on his sleeve, and there are moments here that recall "Klute," "L.A. Confidential," "Zodiac," and, most prominently of all, "Se7en." But none of that makes the film derivative. Despite its noticeable callbacks, "The Batman" somehow seems innovative. Invigorating, even. It's a reminder that even in our current franchised movie landscape, a damn good director can still do something fresh with the familiar. 

Perhaps most impressive is the way "The Batman" balances its tone. Reeves has managed to combine the gritty realism of the Christopher Nolan "Dark Knight" trilogy with a more fantastical, pulpy comic book approach. It reminds one of "Batman: The Animated Series," which was set in some sort of strange in-between timeline that was both ultra-modern and choked with a retro, art deco style. "The Batman" is grounded and dark, but it's also full of big, bold, reality-straining swings. And we buy it all because Reeves does such a fantastic job drawing us into this world and making it feel believable; timeless, even. 

Two years of nights

Have no fear: "The Batman" isn't another origin story for the Caped Crusader. We are not yet again saddled with a scene where Bruce Wayne's parents are gunned down in Crime Alley. As "The Batman" begins, the Dark Knight has been active in Gotham for two years. Unfortunately, his presence as a masked vigilante isn't going as planned. Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) sees it as his mission to clean up the crime in Gotham, but in the two years since he first stepped out of the shadows, crime has only risen. We learn all this through a growly, noir-like narration provided by Pattinson's Batman as he scribbles in his journal, like Travis Bickle after cruising the filthy streets of New York in his taxi. "Two years of nights have turned me into a nocturnal animal," Batman grumbles.  

The opening salvo of "The Batman" firmly establishes all of this, and shows us what it's like to live in Gotham. The production design is stellar and firm, creating a city that's sort of New York (there's even a Times Square-like area and a Madison Square Garden clone) mashed-up with other locales. This gives the city a strange, surreal feeling, as gothic architecture that looks straight out of a Hammer Horror film clashes up against modern trappings. It seems to always be grey and raining in Gotham, and at night, the streets become a war zone.

And the criminal element is aware that the Batman is out there, somewhere. So much so that when Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), the only Gotham cop sympathetic to Batman, lights up the night sky with the bat signal, criminals start to second guess themselves. Reeves presents this brilliantly, showing us petty crooks going about their illegal ways and then suddenly spotting the signal shining in the sky. They stop dead in their tracks and glance nervously at dark, impenetrable shadows, wondering if Batman is about to appear and beat the crap out of them. And he often does! But rather than just appear out of thin air like so many Batmen before, this Batman is often heard coming — his boots thudding against concrete or splashing through puddles as he trudges out of the gloom like some creature crawling from the depths of hell. 

Pattinson's Batman is a freak of the highest order. Other on-screen Batmen have their weird sides, but Pattinson plays the character as a strange, pale, mumbly ghoul who is prone to bursts of violence. He has no interest in putting on airs to pretend to be rich playboy Bruce Wayne. He leaves all the family's matters in the hands of Alfred (Andy Serkis), the only thing close to family Bruce has left. The relationship between Bruce and Alfred isn't very warm, though. Bruce keeps everyone at arm's length, and is often quite cruel to Alfred. He has nothing even resembling social skills, and when he's not out fighting crime, he mostly putters around in his Batcave or in the gigantic Wayne Tower, which looks like a place Dracula might rent on Airbnb.

As Batman, Bruce has a rather simplistic view of crime. You're either good or bad, there's no room for nuance. He has no sympathy for anyone. In his eyes, if you break the law, even a little bit, you deserve to have your head smashed in. Of course, that's more than a touch ironic, since, as a vigilante, Batman himself is breaking the law. But as "The Batman" unfolds, the Batman begins to question his approach. He's spent almost his entire career so far targeting petty crooks and hoodlums while seemingly oblivious to the massive corruption running rampant within Gotham's higher echelon. That's about to change.

The long Halloween

It's Halloween in Gotham, and the city is in for plenty of tricks and treats. There's a serial killer prowling around — the Riddler (Paul Dano), who dons a military mask and behaves like the Zodiac killer, complete with puzzles and ciphers that he invites the cops (and Batman) to solve. Riddler is targeting the powers-that-be in Gotham, including the mayor and the police commissioner. And his series of killings opens up a whole can of worms, revealing the structural rot lurking amongst those who run the city under a guise of law and order. While trying to catch the killer and solve his riddles, Batman begins to discover that nothing in Gotham is as it seems, and that things are far worse than he could've even suspected.

He's assisted in this task by Gordon, who acts here like Batman's partner, traveling along with him to crime scenes and hashing out clues. Wright's performance is altogether warm and charming, and he has a great voice for reading all those riddles out loud, too. He's the only cop in the city who believes in Batman, and he's constantly shielding the Dark Knight from other angry cops who don't take kindly to this caped freak. Batman is also backed-up by Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz), a cat burglar who is drawn to this mysterious masked man. Pattinson and Kravitz burn up the screen together, and "The Batman" isn't afraid to paint its main character as someone with sexual wants and needs — there's even a troubling moment where Batman spies on Selina and watches her undress. Selina, in turn, is drawn to Batman because she senses someone just as damaged as she is lurking beneath that mask. She has a dark past, and it ties directly into the central mystery at the heart of the narrative. 

The attraction to Selina, who is a criminal, is part of what makes Batman begin to reconsider his no-nonsense stance on crime. Besides, there are far worse elements lurking about — like the Penguin, a low-level crime figure played deliciously by a completely unrecognizable Colin Farrell. Farrell chomps the scenery, and while his part isn't huge, he makes every second of it count. He's not the fish-head snacking freak from Tim Burton's "Batman Returns." He's a tough-talkin' thug with dreams of running this town. That will have to wait, though, because the real crime boss is the reclusive Carmine Falcone, played John Turturro. Turturro is giving the most subtle performance in the film, which works, because the character seems relatively harmless at first — until we begin to learn how nasty and sadistic he really is.

And then there's the Riddler, who exists on the periphery of things. Dano has played unhinged weirdos before, but he goes all-out here, delivering rambling, disturbing speeches where he modulates his voice from a faint whisper to an ear-blasting shriek without warning. It is a jarring performance, and at times genuinely scary. He might be slight in frame, but he still instills fear due to his malevolent unpredictability. 

The dawn is coming

Through it all, Michael Giacchino's immense, thunderous score rumbles and Greig Fraser's sharp, shadowy cinematography awes. A late-breaking moment where Batman fires up a flare and is awash in blood-red light is jaw-dropping. And Reeves and Fraser clearly understand the importance of iconography — I'll confess a moment where Selina and Batman share a deep kiss while shrouded in silhouette against the bright, shining Gotham skyline made me utter a dreamy little sigh; what can I say, I've always been a little bit of a simp for that Bat/Cat relationship.

Part of what makes "The Batman" so appealing — beyond its crackling mystery and genuine thrills — is how self-contained everything is here. Sure, there's plenty of room left to inspire inevitable sequels. But in our current landscape where every superhero-related movie feels like it only exists to set up an entire franchise, "The Batman" gives us a complete story that doesn't require homework to understand. Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig realize that by now we know exactly what we need to know about Batman and his world, enabling the film to hit the ground running. Most of all, this isn't just a Batman movie — it's a movie about Batman. The character is so often overshadowed by his colorful rogues' gallery, but here, the Dark Knight is the driving force. He's in practically every scene, and we get to watch his character learn and evolve.

"The Batman" also feels like the right "Batman" for our current nightmarish era. Just as Nolan's trilogy became a comic book-tinted reflection of America's so-called "War on Terror," The Batman" is an encapsulation of a world run by wildly corrupt, all-powerful men who think they're the heroes of their own particular story. While the script and the majority of the film were both finished before the 2020 presidential election, there's a harrowing sequence here set in the immediate aftermath of a political event that can't help but give us media flashbacks to footage of the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the Capitol. Gotham, with its cruel, filthy-rich leaders who seem to thrive on hurting others, begins to feel like a microcosm of America as a whole, where the rich get richer and the poor struggle to make it through the day. None of this is to say "The Batman" is overly preachy, or even overtly political. But those real-world connotations only add to the overall atmosphere of what Reeves and company are building here. 

And then there are the little details. The bits and pieces that make up the whole. I loved Batman's high-tech contact lenses that somehow double as cameras. I loved a running joke about Batman showing up to the same club on multiple occasions and encountering a pair of twin bouncers each time. I loved how the Batmobile is essentially a big, loud muscle car that can fly through explosions without a scratch. I loved the little peppering of Gotham's history, which paints the Waynes as a kind of Kennedy-esque family with their fair share of scandals. I loved how the impossible geography of Gotham sent my mind reeling as I tried to figure out how the landscape works. I loved how insanely elaborate the Riddler's little greeting cards were, and how outlandish his plan is when you really start to think about it, and how much I didn't care how silly it might be because it all clicked into place just right. I know there will be plenty of people who feel they are burned out on all things Batman. That there couldn't possibly be room for yet another retelling of this same old tale. But "The Batman" defies the odds. It's epic, mythic, pulpy blockbuster filmmaking at its best. 

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10