A serial killer is at large in Gotham City, targeting the most prominent, powerful and influential among its elite. Only the masked crime-fighter known as the Batman, a.k.a. traumatized billionaire orphan Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson), is able to match wits with the mysterious riddle-loving maniac. Aided by steadfast Detective Lieutenant James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) and slinky Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), a professional thief pursuing her own secret agenda, Batman doggedly unravels a fiendishly complex mystery whose revelations strike unnervingly close to home.
Over the last ten years or so comic book fandom has grown increasingly impatient with 'artistic interpretations' of Batman. Tim Burton's cartoon gothics, Christopher Nolan's 'gritty' crime thrillers and Zach Snyder's Wagnerian rock operas all reflect their filmmakers’ fascination with specific aspects of the character and the DC comics mythos. Hence fans singled Matt Reeves' film out for praise as the most 'authentic' presentation of the Detective Comics Batman. Whether that is true or not comes down to personal taste and what viewers themselves want to see in a Batman film. The fact is elements of Nolan and Burton (even Snyder's work to a extent and the contentious Gotham television show) endure here. Meanwhile Reeves also infuses his interpretation with elements of neo-noir, specifically the filmography of David Fincher - specifically Seven (1995) and Zodiac (2007) - and Seventies crime thrillers. If Christopher Nolan's films drew extensively upon the social issue-charged New York crime pictures of Sydney Lumet, Reeves looks to the urban westerns of Don Siegel. The opening shot of a victim viewed through a scope-sight instantly evokes Dirty Harry (1971), itself influenced by the real Zodiac killings, as does the plot with its race against time to decipher the killer’s cryptic messages. Robert Pattinson's brooding narration obviously nods to Frank Miller's Batman: Year One but also Taxi Driver (1976) with Travis Bickle's similarly obsessive crusade through a scumbag ridden urban hell and the multilayered conspiracies lurking behind Chinatown (1974).
Much like a Seventies crime thriller The Batman is also a surprisingly slow burn and, at just short of three hours long, not for those without stamina. There is plenty of action, all of it expertly orchestrated with the gunfire light corridor fight and tension-filled high-wire climax particular highlights on both visual and visceral levels, but Reeves forgoes the rollercoaster thrill-a-minute style of even Nolan’s no less cerebral thrillers for a brooding, mood-and-character driven mystery. Pattinson's Batman has a touch of Clint Eastwood, a more believable tough guy demeanour bereft of the silly voice that marred Christian Bale's otherwise sterling presence in the role. His Bruce Wayne is also interesting though much less personable, almost alien: an introverted, antisocial ghoul in a designer suit. It is a bold take, believably shell-shocked over past trauma and well played by Pattinson but maybe less humane and relatable. Fittingly Reeves makes Gotham an extension of Batman's tortured psyche, drawing from Tim Burton in that respect, haunted, gloomy, oppressive. However Reeves' sprawling, crime-infested city is more vivid and alive than Burton’s stylish yet curiously depopulated dystopia.
Leavening the gloom and doom the film exhibits a subtle yet very dark sense of humour. It is evident in the Riddler’s grisly puns, Batman’s very dry wit and Matt Reeves’ own occasional surreal asides. Shouldering the dramatic weight alongside Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz upholds a proud tradition set by Michelle Pfeiffer and Anne Hathaway of magnetic, lethal and of course devastatingly sexy Catwomen (sadly Julie Newmar's underrated comedic take never made it to the movie). Drawing upon more recent comics the Bat/Cat relationship here receives arguably its most mature and faceted presentation. Pattinson and Kravitz preserve the familiar semi-flirtatious/semi-antagonistic banter but forgo tiresome games for instant sparks and collaboration, albeit with differing motives. Indeed the spectacular climax scores extra points for taking time out to include a moment of genuinely affecting tenderness that reinforces the validity of the Bruce-Selina romance.
Alongside the solid leads Reeves has the benefit of a sterling supporting cast. Among the highlights Colin Farrell, unrecognizable under layers of prosthetic makeup, makes a grounded, believable Penguin; Andy Serkis as Alfred: fatherly and touchingly affected by Bruce's self-destructive streak; Peter Sarsgaard as a sweatily crooked district attorney whose fate amusingly mirrors that of wife Maggie Gyllenhaal in Nolan's movie; John Turturro as reoccurring mob boss Carmine Falcone; and most notably Paul Dano - terrifyingly unhinged as a howling, groaning, venomous Riddler with one hell of an axe to grind.
The plot, motivated by a clash between the haves and have-nots (the final prison cell confrontation between hero and villain evokes the closing scene in Akira Kurosawa's thematically similar High and Low (1963)), is dense and suitably labyrinthine. Having said that just because it is complicated does not mean the story is all that ambitious or deep. One could argue Burton's psychological study in Batman Returns (1992) and Nolan's war-on-terror allegory in The Dark Knight (2008) had more profound things to say about society at large filtered through the Batman mythos. Reeves' film by comparison, as polished and undeniably intelligent as it is, is arguably more insular. It is for the most part a film about Batman. Even so the core message of learning to evolve beyond past trauma to become something greater does resonate, culminating in a transformative moment where Batman stops being a mere dark spectre of "vengeance" (a comics fan could tell you, Batman's really more about justice) and becomes instead for the imperiled citizenry a literal guiding light.