The fact this latest take on the caped crusader has the definite article plonked in front of it tells you a lot about the intentions of filmmaker Matt Reeves. This is not part of the chaotic DCEU, Ben Affleck shuffled off stage left, Reeves keen to make a 'proper film', not a 'superhero movie'. For that reason, The Batman will charm critics and divide audiences, some loving its grimdark atmosphere while others will wonder why a story that features a billionaire dressed as a bat fighting crime in a rocket car has no sense of fun whatsoever. I appreciated Reeves' intentions and his commitment to a vision, though he seemed to be impersonating David Fincher most of the time; however, this is a long, dour watch, one that is lit in a way that makes you keep reaching for a pair of sunglasses that you assume must have fallen over your eyes. This is a (The) Batman picture that many will admire but I can't imagine will top many fans best Batman movie list. The Batman (Robert Pattinson) is in his second year as Gotham's vigilante, bringing vengeance and fear to criminals on the streets aided only by Alfred (Andy Serkis, woefully underused). Distrusted by the GCPD, he has one in ally in honest cop Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright, perfect) who brings him into a knotty case: someone is bumping off prominent Gothamites - first the Mayor and then a high-ranking policeman - and leaving cryptic clues that suggest the victims were all involved in corruption. Can the Bat track down this Riddler (Paul Dano)? The Batman may have a new ally too, Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz) working for the Penguin (Colin Farrell) at a bar frequented by both the political and criminal elite.
There are a number of influences at play in Reeves's film, based on a screenplay co-written with Peter Craig. The focus on a detective plot with a cypher baiting villain obviously evokes Zodiac (and before it Dirty Harry) while the grisly nature of some of the murders recall Seven. The pace and lighting also scream Fincher though there's a liberal dose of 70's Scorsese also, complete with a tortured soul voiceover like Travis Bickle. Nolan's trilogy also looms large, this film also bending over backwards to not be a superhero picture. From the comics, there are shades of Year One, The Long Halloween, Zero Year and Cataclysm with some of the revisionism offered up by writers such as Snyder, King, Ellis and Tyrion IV that call into question the look of a rich white bloke duffing up desperate and poor people who have turned to crime while the focus on the Bat and the Cat reflect the prominence given to the couple recently, especially by Tom King in his epic run. The comics have often claimed Batman is the world's greatest detective and much of The Batman has Bruce following the clues and making those deductive leaps. This does mean that the film has a lot more talking than punching, though the action scenes are decent enough, especially a scrap in the dark revealed only by the muzzle flashes of the assailants' guns. This is a film, however, that could do with at least one more big action set-piece, the best bit being a car chase between Penguin and Batman in his Batmobile (the car a mix of KITT and Fast and Furious). The ending ups the stakes a bit but felt a little half-hearted, as if Reeves felt that this was required rather than wanted. There's nothing here to match the Bat-Pod chase, for example.
However, enough about what The Batman doesn't do. For those who like their comics books to be called graphic novels, The Batman will delight. It's steeped in atmosphere and neo-noir details, Gotham always either dark, grey, raining or a hopeful pink at dawn or dusk. It's a film that totally commits to a mood, the lighting dialled down, scenes inside often lit with an orange glow as if hell is about to open. The film casts the leads well, Pattinson selling the isolated and vengeful young man who starts to see another way to be the Bat, one that instils hope as well as fear, while Kravitz offers up the most rounded and interesting Catwoman yet. Wright is effortlessly right as Gordon while John Tuturro does well as mobster Falcone. Reeves also offers up novel new takes on well-established villains. Farrell is unrecognisable as Penguin, the make-up, coupled with his performance deliberately evoking Robert De Niro. He's earned his HBO Penguin series. As for Dano, he offers a modern take on the Riddler that is a million miles away from Jim Carrey. Wearing an olive green mask, specs over the top, and giving a clever balancing act of genius and nutter, an incel psychopath, using the internet to fuel his crusade. He makes a good foil for the Batman, even if the two only share a couple of scenes together. Overall, this is an excellently made film, one that treats the premise with perhaps too much gravitas but that is persuasive in its worldview nonetheless, even though it feels a bit too much like Nolan's. Crucially all this successful world building means, should the leads and WB wish, they have an alternative Batman sandpit to play in, separate from the DCEU, with a Joker in Arkham making pals with Riddler and a Batman and Catwoman young enough to make a good few more.