The number of actors who have played Batman in a live action film since Tim Burton’s original 1989 version brings to mind the Hamilton lyric, “Are they going to keep on replacing whoever’s in charge?” The 1990s films had the most turnover, with Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, and George Clooney each trying on the Batsuit, while the 21st century has brought three movies from Christian Bale, two from Ben Affleck, and now Robert Pattinson in The Batman. As if that’s not confusing enough, the forthcoming The Flash will have both Keaton and Affleck reprising their roles.
The latest version, directed by Matt Reeves and written by Reeves and Peter Craig, finds Bruce Wayne in full-on detective mode. High-ranking figures in Gotham are being killed, with a mysterious figure called the Riddler (Paul Dano) leaving notes for “The Batman” at every scene. Detective James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), who has a working relationship with Batman, allows him into the various crime scenes to help figure out who’s responsible and what will happen next.
The clues found by Wayne/Batman, with help from his butler, Alfred Pennyworth (Andy Serkis), lead him to the criminal underbelly of Gotham, where he encounters people like Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin (Colin Farrell), Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), and Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz). Selina, who has a thing for cats, is on her own personal mission, one that alternately coincides and diverges from that of the Batman.
The film maintains the dark mood of the 21st century Batman movies, with it seemingly raining buckets through the whole thing. But instead of the enigmatic nature of the Christopher Nolan trilogy or brute force of the Zack Snyder movies, this one treats its main character in classic film noir fashion. Batman has often been a loner, but if possible he’s even more so here, silently suffering while taking on the city’s bad guys.
The story plays out as a nonstop murder mystery, with the Riddler’s ultimate goal in question for most of the film. While not a full-on action movie, there are plenty of thrilling set pieces dropped in during its three-hour running time. Reeves, who directed the last two Planet of the Apes movies, has a knack for delivering the action goods. Batman engages in multiple close-quarter fights without the scenes becoming repetitive, a credit to both the filmmaking and Pattinson’s acting.
While the film remains engaging throughout its long running time, it’s difficult to fight the feeling that the same story could have been told with an hour or so shaved off. It’s almost like Reeves decided that he needed to shove all of his ideas into one Batman movie in case he never got to make another one. Most of it works, but making it through the entire film without at least one bathroom break should be considered a serious accomplishment, especially with all of the rain falling down.
Pattinson, who’s been taking on more serious roles since his time as Edward in the Twilight films, is impressive in his first foray as the Caped Crusader. Forgoing a deeper voice while masked, he instead embodies the privileged-yet-tortured life that Bruce Wayne has lived. Farrell, Dano, and Kravitz are all great as Penguin, Riddler, and Catwoman, respectively, mostly because they all treat their roles as actual characters instead of caricatures. Farrell, who truly is unrecognizable, might be the best of the bunch, using a thick accent and facial prosthetics to transform himself in fantastic ways.
Do we “need” another Batman movie after getting so many other iterations in the past 30 years? Probably not, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that The Batman works on many levels, from the actors to the action to its detective storyline. We’ll just have to wait and see if this version of Batman sticks around for a while.
The Batman opens in theaters on March 3.