PLOT In a corrupt Gotham City, a masked vigilante meets his evil double.
CAST Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano
RATED PG-13 (strong violence and gruesome themes)
WHERE In theaters
BOTTOM LINE An ambitious and very dark thriller that takes its hero back to his noirish roots.
They say every decade gets the Batman it needs, from his campy-groovy incarnation in the 1960s to his increasingly aggrieved iterations in recent years. If so, what does Matt Reeves’ "The Batman," the first in the series to feature Robert Pattinson in the title role, tell us about how we’re feeling?
Well, Gotham City is riding a crime wave — prescient! — but that’s the least of Batman’s worries. A masked madman known as The Riddler (Paul Dano) is sadistically murdering local politicians to expose citywide corruption. With each new body, Batman discovers that yet another hero was actually a villain. Stunned by the brutality and hypocrisy around him, Batman grows increasingly unsure whether he himself is a force for good or evil.
Yep, sounds like 2022.
Think hard before taking your kids to see "The Batman," the darkest, bleakest and most confrontational entry in the franchise since Christopher Nolan’s standard-setter, "The Dark Knight." It’s also an impressively ambitious superhero movie, wrapping its wings around domestic terrorism, online radicalization, the opioid epidemic (in the guise of a drug whimsically nicknamed "drop") and our crumbling faith in civic institutions. The violence in this edge-of-PG-13 movie is mostly bloodless but frequent and very intense, from elaborate torture schemes to plain old skull-staving.
To navigate this shadowy labyrinth, Batman becomes something he hasn’t been for a long time: a sleuth. (It’s easy to forget that he first appeared in 1939’s "Detective Comics.") Rarely has Batman spent so much time at crime scenes and poring over sinister brainteasers. Reeves ("War for the Planet of the Apes") and his co-writer Peter Craig ("The Hunger Games: Mockingjay"), mine this material for some ghastly good puns, but more often this moody film recalls "Seven," "Zodiac" and other grown-up noirs.
The movie is a tad overlong at nearly three hours, especially considering that the secondary characters feel underdeveloped. Andy Serkis does a yeoman’s job as Bruce Wayne's butler, Alfred; Zoë Kravitz is slick and sultry as Selina Kyle, the future Catwoman, though not as steely as her predecessors; and Colin Farrell has fun disguising himself under layers of latex as The Penguin. The standouts are Jeffrey Wright as the trustworthy Lt. James Gordon, John Turturro as a whiskey-smooth criminal named Carmine Falcone and Dano in heavy-breathing creep mode as The Riddler.
As for Pattinson, he’s uneven but intriguing. The "Twilight" star musters some muscular rage as Batman, but his delicate features and fine hair make him a feckless-looking Bruce Wayne. The overall effect is an odd combination of fury and foppishness, but maybe it’s something that the actor — and we as an audience — will grow into.
Thematically speaking, "The Batman" bites off slightly more than it can chew, especially when it turns tragic headlines into action set pieces. All of which raises a question: Is it possible that our problems are getting too big for this superhero to handle? By the time the sequel comes around, Batman may have his hands fuller than ever.