The maximalist approach of Matt Reeves’ The Batman extends to its very title: This three-hour-long epic is a comic-book adaptation with the full menu of extras, right down to that plushy definite article padding out the name of the Caped Crusader. Less an origin story than a coming-of-age tale, The Batman captures the title character only two years into his crimefighting career. As played by the smoldering English actor Robert Pattinson, Bruce Wayne is both younger and more vulnerable than the bat-dudes we’re accustomed to seeing. He almost appears to use his pointy-eared face mask as protection from the world, and is rarely seen unmasked even when at home, where his only confidante at the gloomy Wayne family mansion is his butler Alfred (motion-capture master Andy Serkis, doing what at times appears to be a Michael Caine vocal impression).
When a highly placed Gotham City politician is murdered in his home by a mysterious assailant, Bruce works with police detective Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) to decode the encrypted message the killer has left behind. This criminal mastermind, played with enjoyable scenery-chomping lunacy by Paul Dano, is the Riddler, a deranged genius fixated on exposing corruption in the Gotham City government. The Riddler’s obsession extends to proving that Bruce’s beloved father, Thomas Wayne, was involved in a dirty coverup scheme, an accusation that forces Bruce to relive the trauma of his parents’ long-ago murder.
True to its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink aesthetic, The Batman is also overstuffed with antagonists. In addition to Dano’s Riddler, Gotham’s complex web of crime and corruption includes menacing mob figures like John Turturro’s Carmine Falcone, cowardly city-government middlemen like Peter Sarsgaard’s compromised district attorney, and a truly unrecognizable Colin Farrell (as in, I had no clue it was him until the closing credits) as the Penguin, a portly, insecure crime-boss-in-the-making. To break up the sausage party, there is also the welcome presence of Zoë Kravitz’s Selina Kyle, a woman with a tragic past who works as a bottle-service girl at the Penguin’s nightclub when not prowling Gotham’s alleys as Catwoman. Kravitz’s take on the feline antiheroine is less slinky predator (cf. Michelle Pfeiffer in the Burton series) than aggrieved survivor of a brutal childhood, making her a persuasive soulmate for Pattinson’s extra-goth Gothamite. (They also share a taste for black leather, which never hurts.)
Though The Batman’s vision of Gotham as a run-down, amoral dystopia borrows some imagery from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series, Reeves also brings his own visual flair to the material. Especially in a few enigmatic early sequences, the rain-glazed streetscapes and neon-lit diners recall the lonely universe of an Edward Hopper painting. The simple but effective soundtrack depends heavily on two recurring musical themes: Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” often transformed by composer Michael Giacchino into a minor-key dirge, and Nirvana’s plaintive ballad “Something in the Way,” used as a kind of leitmotif for Pattinson’s Kurt Cobain-esque hero. If this all sounds too angsty to tolerate, The Batman is not without flashes of intentional and often effective humor, usually relegated to the villains: In one otherwise tense confrontation, Farrell’s Penguin delivers a non-sequitur putdown about Batman’s grasp of foreign-language grammar that had the audience on the floor.
The Batman is a movie where mood and tone prevail over theme and story. Reeves is in it for silhouetted shots of the Batman against a lowering night sky, not for the kind of present-day political allegories that interested Nolan or the steroidal action of Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman and Justice League. One car-chase sequence goes long on fiery crashes (and estimated body count) without providing much in the way of cleverly paced or choreographed action. And though the 176-minute runtime sometimes feels endless, a more accurate descriptor might be “end-full.” On our way out, two colleagues and I named four distinct possible endings, including a pointlessly extended set piece involving the flooding of “Gotham Square Garden” during an election-night rally, and debated which one should have served as the actual conclusion. My vote went to the moment, a good twenty minutes before the final credits, when [redacted rising star] made an 11th-hour appearance as [redacted upcoming villain].
Still, Reeves’ and Pattinson’s vision of the Batman as a Hamlet-like heir unable to move past the primal shock of his parents’ murder has a certain emotional power. With his black carapace, inexhaustible riches, and impossible-to-defeat technology, Bruce Wayne can be a forbiddingly invulnerable character. But as imagined here, he is a still-unformed, almost emo young man in the process of searching for his adult identity—a Spider-Man-like character in a gritty Gotham world. Pattinson, who first rose to fame as the lovelorn vampire of the Twilight series and has since found a niche as the muse of art-film directors from David Cronenberg (Cosmopolis) to Claire Denis (High Life) to the Safdie brothers (Good Time), brings real pathos to the part of Bruce Wayne, who is also (while plenty buff) a bit wirier and more physically fragile than your average wall-of-muscle superhero. When the Catwoman comes to his rescue in one late scene, you have no trouble believing he might be in need of her whip-wielding assistance.
This is the 12th live-action movie to feature the Batman character since Michael Keaton played him in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. Since then we’ve seen, among others, George Clooney’s Bat-credit-card-carrying comic superhero in Joel Schumacher’s notorious flop Batman and Robin, Christian Bale’s vocally filtered edgelord in Nolan’s grim Dark Knight trilogy, and Ben Affleck’s stolid brooder in Snyder’s multi-superhero vehicles for DC. To follow the trajectory of onscreen Batmen over the past 30-plus years is to trace the evolution of the character from self-aware camp icon to emotionally damaged recluse—one gauge, perhaps, of America’s ever-changing requirements when it comes to pop-culture heroes. The Batman could stand to lose a half-hour of running time and at least three of its apparent endings, but I left it still humming that Nirvana song and wondering what this messed-up new Bruce Wayne, cape streaming moodily behind him as he rode away on his bat-motorcycle, would get up to next.