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A Thrilling New Era for ‘The Batman’ Asks What Happens When Vengeance Isn’t Enough

The Batman introduces its hero via voiceover, with the Dark Knight waxing grimly poetic about the dangerous people infesting Gotham’s nights and, of course, the even more dangerous creature hunting them in the dark. “They think I lurk in the shadows,” he glowers. “But I am the shadows.” It’s a little Sam Spade, of course, as this movie isn’t so much influenced by noir as possessed by it. But voiceover is also very much an element of comic books, where thought balloons and captions give you access to characters’ interior lives while the art depicts their exterior ones.

It’s a tell for what kind of Batman movie Matt Reeves is going for here which, perhaps more than any live-action Bat-adaptation before it, feels like a Batman comic book turned into a movie instead of a movie with Batman comic book characters in it. Christopher Nolan set his trilogy squarely in the real world while Tim Burton hewed more strangely fantastical, as was his wont at the time. Reeves threads the needle here, making his Gotham recognizable but not strictly reality. Gothic architecture towers over the crime-infested alleys with seedy neon signs that light a huge collection of the oddballs and rogues that populate this bizarre metropolis. It all looks darkly beautiful, and Reeves finds innovative ways to make sure you can see what’s going on in the dead of night, which seems to be the only time of day in Gotham.

The most obvious comic book influence is The Long Halloween, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s 1996 miniseries about a string of mysterious murders early in Bruce Wayne’s nocturnal career. The Batman follows the spirit of that story and structures itself like a detective procedural, with Robert Pattinson’s Caped Crusader and his police pal Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) casing the streets, knocking on doors and heads, looking for clues. Somebody is killing off Gotham’s rich and powerful, leaving cryptic notes for Batman at the scene of the crime. This mystery mass murderer calls himself the Riddler (Paul Dano, in antisocial sociopath mode) and he says this is all part of a much larger conspiracy. That conspiracy seems to involve an ambitious nightclub owner called the Penguin (an unrecognizable Colin Farrell, going full 1940s gangster), a mob boss named Carmine Falcone (John Turturro, excellent here), a hot-tempered cocktail waitress/cat burglar you’ll probably recognize (Zoe Kravitz, slinky but, mercifully, multi-dimensional) and maybe even the Wayne family itself.

At the center of it all is Pattinson himself — the tenth actor to suit up as Batman. The Batman finds him two years into the Bat-role and his legend is still spreading. Small time crooks are scared of him. More powerful elements of the criminal underworld think he’s just one more weirdo in a city full of them. Most of the cops want him behind bars and what normal people there are in town aren’t sure what to think, with muggers and their intended victims alike fleeing in panic when he shows up.

Pattinson’s spin on the character is a clever one. As Bruce Wayne, he’s no suave playboy or flashy CEO. Instead, he’s a haunted husk of a man, wandering his mansion in sweatpants and tattered shawls, slowly losing himself to his grief and his mission while Alfred (Andy Serkis) begs him to get a grip.

The mask is Wayne’s last connection to meaning, invigorating him. In it, Pattinson exudes a quiet ferocity, preferring growly whispers and barely contained rage to Christian Bale’s “SWEAR TO ME” bombast. No Batman movie has ever asked for more actual Acting from its Batman, and Pattinson embraces the limitations of emoting from behind a mask to some wonderful effect. In multiple scenes, he must continue to appear stone cold to everyone around him while we, the audience, need to see that he is devastated, terrified or maybe falling in love, and Pattinson pulls it all off with his eyes and the slightest twitch of the sharpest jawline in Gotham City. It’s extremely impressive.

But more impressive still are Reeves’ thematic interests. Fans of his Planet of the Apes entries will recognize some similar issues cropping up here. If you’ve seen the trailers, you know Batman identifies himself as “Vengeance” to anyone who asks. His foes find themselves at the business end of that vengeance throughout, and those scenes are thrilling, but Reeves is very clearly skeptical of Batman’s tactics and the whole idea of “redemptive violence” at large. Batman remains very unclear on whether or not he’s doing any good and, as the Riddler’s plan continues to unfold, his questions only get more pointed. Is vengeance really enough to save Gotham? Can corrupt institutions be beaten into reform? And if not, what do we do?

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Reeves is pretty transparent about the bearing these questions have on our present moment when we too seem beset on all sides by corruption out of our control or even ability to meaningfully confront. The pleasure of superhero stories is that we can escape to a world in which power does not always corrupt and some of the powerful are on our side, winning the battles we can’t. The Batman does not so subtly suggest that some battles can’t be won with power. At least, not the kind of power we usually associate with superheroes.

As a movie, The Batman isn’t perfect. Three hours is a lot of Batman and there’s a good 20 or 30 minutes that could have been trimmed from the runtime, particularly in the third act where some of the pleasing reserve gets lost, too many ill-advised sequel teases stack up and some intriguing earlier threads are abandoned or too tidily resolved.

But it’s a winning first entry into a new era for Batman movies and sets the stage for a different, quieter, altogether more cerebral plummet into the darkness of Bruce Wayne’s world. And while it promises plenty of adventures, maybe the most exciting thought is that this is a Gotham City that won’t be saved with fists or fear, but faith in something more.

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