Batman is back, and he is pissed as hell. The Batman, Matt Reeves’ moody reboot of the famous comic book hero, launches a new version of the Caped Crusader for the 2020s. Somewhere between the Snyderverse’s failure to launch a solo franchise with Ben Affleck’s elder-statesman take, and the enduring appeal of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, there’s a lot of room for something new. Unfortunately, Reeves’ new take has a lot in common with the old takes.
The Batman is full of moments most Bat-fans will have seen before, and not that long ago. At its most exhausting, it restages moments from the Nolan trilogy: A mobster tells Bruce Wayne the truth about how the world works, Batman fights his way through a nightclub in a fury or through a hallway illuminated only by gunfire, footage of the film’s villain terrorizing their next victim is broadcast over the evening news. Almost all of the characters, apart from the Riddler, are recognizable from previous Batman movies. The new layers on display here are easily derived from what came before. There is nothing particularly bold about The Batman. Its strength is in its execution.
A rain-slick mystery in the mode of David Fincher’s Seven, The Batman is a methodical hunt for the Riddler (Paul Dano) after his grotesque murder of Gotham City’s incumbent mayor in the leadup to the city’s elections. Batman (Robert Pattinson) has been operating in Gotham for two years, and has established both a street rep that keeps common crooks scared and a rock-solid partnership with police Lieutenant James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) that lets him in on crime scenes, even if most other cops hate it.
The case takes the pair on a tour through Gotham’s underworld, crossing paths with crime boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), striver Oz “The Penguin” Cobblepot (Colin Farrell), thief Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), and all of Gotham’s mobsters and elites, who have become codependent. Like its protagonist, The Batman is driven — while the hunt for the Riddler sprawls out in different directions, the film never deviates from it. Bruce Wayne rarely appears out of costume, wholly given to his mission and seeing little use for the life he was born into.
In building a story around the construction of Batman over his human alter ego or any people around him, The Batman becomes a movie of abstract ideas about cities, and where their denizens should place their faith when they know the game is rigged. These are compelling ideas to explore, particularly in this version of Gotham City — which is built to look like a dark-carnival rendition of 1970s and ’80s New York City transposed to the present day. Recognizable landmarks are given a grimy makeover, and theatrical gangs overrun the streets in a merging of fantasy and reality that ultimately adds up to a metaphor in search of a meaning.
If Batman is, as he repeatedly states, “vengeance,” then what is Gotham? The answer is pretty simple: It’s every city as portrayed by conservative commentators, a den of crime that needs Batman to clean it up, but maybe not the way he’s been doing it for the last couple years. Bruce Wayne’s arc is one where a young man who was molded by Gotham learns that perhaps it’s time for him to mold it in turn.
This also feels familiar: The arc of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was expressly about the idea that Batman was a necessary response, but also one with an expiration date. It’s about a guy who learns how to move from boogeyman to inspiration, and how the latter is a more effective vehicle for change.
The contours of how Reeves gets there is how he distinguishes The Batman. Like Heath Ledger’s Joker, the Riddler in this film is a cipher with a point to make: Gotham City’s vision of law and order is a lie fueled by corruption, and Batman’s journey to stop him, using the tools and means of his wealth, calls that wealth into question. In the world of The Batman, all money is dirty money, powering the ascent of dirty politicians and mobsters while also blinding the well-intentioned to the reality of their impact on the community. The tension between Batman and Catwoman does not just come from their positions on opposite sides of the law, but also Gotham City. He lives in a tower and sees the entire city, while she comes from the gutter and tells him he can’t see a damn thing.
The echoes of past Bat-films are made worse when the people telling the story are so good. Robert Pattinson is a great Batman, surly and serious, but not impenetrable. His Bruce is still open to learning, still capable of feeling, but isn’t invincible. He might not crack a smile in this film, but it’s conceivable that he could, once he achieves a better work-life balance. Zoë Kravitz also makes for a great Selina Kyle, even though the movie does little to establish Catwoman as a known presence the way it does Batman. As Batman’s de facto partner, Jeffrey Wright’s Jim Gordon is perhaps too similarly steely, a great movie cop, but one who could lean a bit more into the fact that he’s a Gotham City cop, where a guy named “The Riddler” leaves birthday cards behind for Batman.
The film’s take on the Riddler may be the movie’s most divisive aspect. Much like Batman, Paul Dano is masked for most of the movie, a character who’s more in line with Jigsaw from the Saw franchise than the quizmaster of the comics. He’s a cruel constructor of death traps, out to impart some kind of moral lesson that won’t be revealed until the movie’s end. Unfortunately, he looks quite silly, somehow requiring more suspension of disbelief than the guy in pointy ears trying to catch him.
Fortunately, The Batman’s detective-story structure means he’s mostly an offscreen puppetmaster, and as ridiculous as he appears, everything else in The Batman looks incredible, as ambitiously staged fight scenes unfold in a city draped in shadows and streetlamps. The film is only hard to parse during one of its most ambitious setpieces, a car chase that attempts to give its pursuit the physicality of a fistfight, with close shots and weighty collisions. It’s a failure of ambition in a movie that mostly has none, because the cinematic vision of what Batman can be has become terribly narrow.
The pieces were there to do something different. Director Matt Reeves established himself as a surprising blockbuster director with his Planet of the Apes sequels, two films that turned a rote franchise revival into meaningful, bold show-stoppers. His cast is headed up by popular actors with outsider appeal, and more than a decade of dark and grim Batman stories inspired by the same handful of comics have primed audiences for something different.
Instead, The Batman is frustratingly safe, a movie full of potential for more and settling for less. It preaches to the choir, reinforcing the same ideas trodden over and over again across five movies, multiple video games, and every comic book in the mold of Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s Batman: Year One. If those are your Batman touchstones, the film may very well speak to you. If, on the other hand, you’re curious as to whether Batman can speak to a different audience, it might be time to pack up the signal. No one’s coming to save you.
The Batman premieres in theaters on Friday, March 4.