Matt Reeves’s The Batman is instantly notable for not rehashing the familiar beats of Bruce Wayne’s life. The film introduces us to his superhero alter-ego, Batman (Robert Pattinson), some two years into his vigilante work, at a point where the masked crusader has become a boogeyman to low-level hoodlums but not yet a threat to Gotham City’s entrenched organized crime syndicates. Unsure if he’s making any progress on cleaning up the city’s streets, Bruce gets his first test of the latter when his antics attract the attention of a mysterious figure known as the Riddler (Paul Dano), who sets out to dispatch Gotham’s political leaders, starting with Mayor Don Mitchell Jr. (Rupert Penry-Jones).
For a character that’s often been dubbed “the world’s greatest detective,” Batman’s prodigious gumshoe skills have rarely been foregrounded in cinematic adaptations of the classic DC property, but Reeves builds The Batman’s crackerjack momentum around Bruce’s keen deciphering of his nemesis’s riddles and ability to piece together leads. This gives the 176-minute film a refreshingly grounded approach that even Christopher Nolan’s ostensibly realistic trilogy of movies lacked. Here, Batman never stops to aloofly gaze down over Gotham’s grimy, rain-slicked streets because he’s too busy actually working on them.
This intimacy also maintains focus on Pattinson’s performance. As Batman, Pattinson doesn’t veer far from the general rubric that most actors have taken toward portraying this iconic superhero. Humorless and brooding, he speaks as little as possible, moves with a fearsome sense of purpose, and regularly bristles with a muted paranoia of the world around him.
As Bruce Wayne, though, Pattinson is a revelation. Wearing Batman’s cowl, his chiseled jawline screams power, but out of costume, his Bruce looks sallow and frail; even in private, the man is prone to hunching over in self-consciously wounded repose. The gulf between the man and his alter-ego is so vast in Reeves’s film that it’s hard to imagine how the skittish Bruce can be the same man who can incapacitate mob heavies with a single blow and command everyone’s attention upon entering a room. Bruce is a man broken by his parents’ death, but Batman is propelled by that trauma, refusing to ever again feel as helpless as he did that day.
Around Pattinson’s stoic presence, the other actors dial things up to 11. Dano leans into the Riddler’s demonstrative, attention-seeking ways, even suggesting at times the behaviors of YouTube and TikTok personalities, while Colin Farrell does his best stereotypical gangster voice as he chews the scenery into papier-mâché as rising mob lieutenant Penguin. Elsewhere, Zoë Kravitz is all slinky, sultry movement as Selina Kyle, a.k.a. Catwoman, and Jeffrey Wright, as honest cop Jim Gordon, is forever looking over his shoulder before a blade gets stuck in it.
This is exactly how a Batman movie should play out, with the hero as a mirthless straight man surrounded on all sides by characters who blur the lines between everyday Gothamites and someone you might find inside the Arkham asylum. It takes a crazy world to spit out a hero like Batman, and it’s been decades since a screen adaptation of this property has embraced the idea that it can take the material seriously while acknowledging its farcical aspects.
This careful balance between the sincere and the goofy is lost in the second half, though, as the film abruptly shifts into a boisterous action spectacle as the Riddler’s initially small-scale havoc blossoms into citywide destruction. This pivot undermines the strengths of Reeves and cinematographer Greig Fraser’s heavy use of soft focus and perspective, which works wonderfully in depicting both Batman’s observational skills and moral myopia but turns something like a car chase between the hero and the Penguin into an incomprehensible mess.
There are also numerous contradictions, not least of which is the clash between criticizing Bruce for using his wealth to promote his heroism—the film even distorts the popular image of his parents being philanthropists with insinuations of misconduct—and ultimately affirming the Waynes as unimpeachably noble. At times it feels like, given Warner Bros.’s repeated attempts to launch a DC version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Batman is trying to be an entire trilogy in one film in case the studio takes Batman in yet another direction.
Still, The Batman’s ambitions are admirable, and no other adaptation of the property has so proudly touted the achievements of the ones that have come before it. Every Batman film to date has drawn from the comics, but usually only one or two key texts, and almost always Frank Miller’s darkly revisionist The Dark Knight Returns. Miller is an influence here, but so is the Gothic style of Norm Breyfogle, the Art Deco stylings of the Tim Burton movies and Batman: The Animated Series, the operatic sweep of the Arkham games, and more.
If any one influence dominates the film, though, it’s Scott Snyder’s 2010s run on the comic. A loose adaptation of the Zero Year storyline that comprises the final act to the heavy intimations that the emphasis on Gotham’s widespread corruption may lead to a future focus on the Court of Owls. The Batman, then, is a unique commemoration of the Batman mythology and its stylistic and tonal shifts across its 80-year history. But more than its respect and affection for that mythos, the film stands apart for thoughtfully suggesting that our hero might actually one day make his city a better place, and not merely a safer one.