Batman’s coolest new gadget in The Batman is also one of his smallest. Without spoiling the specifics, it’s a high-tech camera that allows him to sift through crime scene clues or surveil a suspect without them ever realizing they’re being watched. While gadgetry is a crucial part of every Batman movie, this camera is doubly effective because it ties directly into The Batman’s most important theme: The question of who is seen and who goes unseen in a society, and how problems that are willfully ignored — if not intentionally buried — can metastasize from the shadows.

The shadows are also where you’ll mostly find Batman in this movie, although in his case, it’s by choice. In an early voiceover, Robert Pattinson’s Caped Crusader notes that Gotham City’s criminal element “think I’m hiding in the shadows. But I am the shadows.” Boy is he ever.

Pattinson’s Batman has a habit of emerging slowly from the inky corners of back alleys, like a wraith cloaked in Kevlar. In one scene he fights an entire hallway full of goons in total darkness; their muzzle flashes are the only source of occasional illumination. Even when he’s in the middle of a well-lit room, this Batman manages to find a dark spot to stand in. (If you plan to see The Batman primarily to spend a few hours gazing into Pattinson’s piercing blue eyes, you’re going to be disappointed.) No Batman to date has taken his “Dark Knight” nickname quite so literally on a visual level.

Of course, there have been plenty of stylistically dark Batman movies in recent years. The Batman continues that trend, although it does make a few gestures towards considering why this DC Comics hero’s movies have grown so bleak in the last 20 years. It primarily differs from Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder’s Batman films in the focus of its plot. Rather than presenting a nonstop barrage of chases and fights, The Batman director Matt Reeves uses action as sporadic punctuation in a genuine detective story. Unlike most of Batman’s recent cinematic adventures — and most superhero films in general these days — this is a mystery of epic length, not an adventure of epic scale.

The Batman
Warner Bros.

That mystery concerns a series of murders in the upper echelons of Gotham City society. There’s no question who’s at fault; it’s the Riddler, played by a very creepy Paul Dano. The real enigma is why the Riddler has begun killing Gotham’s elite — and why he’s leaving Batman riddles at each crime scene. The investigation into these crimes leads Batman to an underworld fixer known as the Penguin (Colin Farrell, whose Italian accent is even thicker and more cartoonish than his pockmarked prosthetic makeup) and to Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz), a beautiful waitress at Penguin’s club who has her own motives for looking into the Riddler case, and for aligning herself — tentatively — with Batman.

It’s fun to try to piece together the Riddler’s puzzles alongside Pattinson’s Batman — he is almost never billionaire playboy “Bruce Wayne,” even when he’s dressed like the son of a famous doctor with a vast fortune — at least until the central mystery becomes so large it gets a little tough to keep track of. (There’s a reason only a guy as smart as Batman could solve it, I guess.) The benefit of this massive, multilayered conspiracy is that lets Reeves explore his grungy, corrupt Gotham City from the top to bottom. The film introduces us to the optimistic new mayoral candidate running on a platform of change (Jayme Lawson, who could have used more screentime) and to the aging puppet master (a chillingly placid John Turturro) who controls Gotham’s rackets. The Batman is expansive enough to show how these people are connected, whether they want to be or not, and what the Batman’s presence means to all of them.

Reeves, whose previous works include two excellent Planet of the Apes sequels, has a knack for big-budget moviemaking that’s as substantial as it is smart; he never sacrifices his movies’ deeper meanings for the sake of a quick action beat. That’s certainly true here. Other Batman films have taken the character seriously, but I’m not sure any has ever treated what the character means — to his fans as well as to the fictional residents of Gotham City — any more thoughtfully.

Reeves investigates Batman as rigorously as his Batman pursues the Riddler. You might have seen the moment in The Batman’s trailer where a gang member asks who he is and he responds “I’m vengeance.” In context, that’s not just a cool line; The Batman is about what it means for a “hero” to define himself as vengeance, and whether or not that’s actually a good thing. Some Batman die-hards may not like a Batman movie that actively questions the necessity of its title character. Personally, I found it refreshing.

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

At least I did until the ending — or maybe I should say endings plural, because The Batman trudges through about as many conclusions as The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. It first finds a satisfying finale about 20 minutes before the credits finally roll, then continues into a massive sequence that I thought was the weakest part of the entire movie. It’s unnecessary, unexciting, and mostly unmotivated by the 150 minutes that preceded it.

Love it or hate it, everything up until that moment in The Batman feels like a personal, idiosyncratic work made by someone who wanted to say something with and about its title character. In a Hollywood where every creative decision feels focus grouped to death, that fact alone makes The Batman commendable. It’s the sort of expansive, contemplative blockbuster that can only happen when a studio believes a concept is so bankable they could produce almost anything, slap the word “Batman” on the marquee, and make a billion dollars. It’s only really in that final act where it feels like someone in a position of power got cold feet about what they were making, and demanded more action in this dense, dark, adult whodunit — whether it made sense for the story or not.

As a result, I wound up walking out of The Batman with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. The more I thought about it, though, the more I appreciated Reeves’ ambitions and his willingness to do something that wasn’t just more of the same old Batman. He really did make you see the character in a new way. Even the stuff in the shadows.

Additional Thoughts:

-While a lot of The Batman feels familiar because it arrives after 30 years of Batman movies, Paul Dano’s Riddler stands out as something new and different. This guy is about as far as Frank Gorshin or Jim Carrey prancing around in a green bodysuit as you can conceivably get. Some of his scenes are genuinely disturbing — and might upset some parents if they decide to take younger kids to this PG-13 rated movie.

-A bit more about Pattinson: To me, at least, he felt a little like a return to the Michael Keaton style of Batman — a guy who isn’t necessarily the most physically imposing but comes across as so completely consumed with his obsessions that you can believe that he might really dress like a bat and fight crime.

-Speaking of dressing like a bat: Keaton’s Bruce Wayne wore an armored suit that protected him from harm, but The Batman’s Batman is really armored, to the point where he can shrug off entire barrages of bullets. For a character whose physical vulnerability has always been a part of his appeal — he’s a superhero who gets by on his cunning and training, not superhuman gifts — that struck me as a somewhat odd choice.

-Every movie Batman has worn black eye makeup under his mask, but Pattinson’s is the first one seen actually applying makeup to his face. (There’s an infamous scene in Batman Returns where Keaton rips off his mask and his makeup magically vanishes from one shot to the next, as if that Batman was too cool to wear makeup.) Covering Pattinson with dark makeup not only gives a realistic texture to The Batman, it also reflects back on that core theme of seeing and looking. When Pattinson has these streaks of black makeup running down his face, it’s as if watching Gotham City rot away in front of him is poisoning his eyes and infecting his soul.

RATING: 7/10

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