With his Planet of the Apes installments, Matt Reeves demonstrated that big studio franchise movies based on iconic screen properties didn’t have to exclude intelligent, emotionally nuanced storytelling. The same applies to The Batman, a brooding genre piece in which the superhero trappings of cape and cowl, Batmobile and cool gadgetry are folded into the grimy noir textures of an intricately plotted detective story.

Led with magnetic intensity and a granite jawline by Robert Pattinson as a Dark Knight with daddy issues, this ambitious reboot is grounded in a contemporary reality where institutional and political distrust breeds unhinged vigilantism.

More balanced in its bleak social realism than 2019’s Joker — it’s shaped by the perspective not of a villain but of a conflicted hero whose arc takes him from being an instrument of vengeance to a crime-fighter who refuses to surrender his hope of making a difference despite the daunting odds — The Batman seems less likely to be dismissed as nihilistic exploitation.

Release date: Friday, March 4
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Jeffrey Wright, Colin Farrell, Paul Dano, John Turturro, Andy Serkis, Peter Sarsgaard, Barry Keoghan, Jayme Lawson
Director: Matt Reeves
Screenwriter: Matt Reeves, Peter Craig, based on characters from DC, created by Bob Kane with Bill Finger

Rated PG-13, 2 hours 56 minutes

It’s a soulful nocturne of corruption and chaos, and as much as I longed for a few more glimmers of humor, at no point during the hefty three-hour run time did my attention wander. But Reeves’ film hammers home the realization that somewhere along the line, someone — probably Christopher Nolan — decided that Batman movies should no longer be fun.

That’s fun in the sense of amusement. Don’t get me wrong, there’s excitement and thrills, notably in an electrifying chase on a bridge in which the Batmobile withstands explosions and a wall of fire like an armor-plated muscle car.

There’s also plenty of sexual tension in the dangerous allure between Pattinson’s Batman and Zoë Kravitz’s Selina Kyle, a slinky creature of the night with a rockin’ rubber fetish-wear wardrobe, formidable kickboxing moves and a payback agenda that plants her on the path to becoming Catwoman. What there isn’t much of is laughs, unless you count the sick sense of humor of Edward Nashton (Paul Dano), the alienated geek accountant better known as the Riddler.

For those of us who grew up on endless reruns of the 1960s Batman TV series, with its campy parade of guest villains and its cartoonish wham-boff-kapow fight scenes, there was a natural progression in Tim Burton’s studio reinventions of the enduring DC property. In particular, his 1992 entry, Batman Returns, is a favorite for many of us, thanks in large part to the lip-smacking turns of Danny DeVito as the Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer as a Catwoman destined — with no disrespect to Kravitz, who’s terrific — to remain unequaled.

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The dour self-seriousness that crept into screen treatments starting in 2005 with Nolan’s Batman Begins is probably truer to the original DC Comics vision of creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger, and to the 1986 rejuvenation by Frank Miller. But as compelling as the Nolan and now Reeves takes on the material are, all that gravitas can become, well, heavy.

I found myself even thinking wistfully of the truly terrible Joel Schumacher ‘90s entries, gaudy trash that at least could be relied upon to give you a glitzy Gotham City shindig — or spark heated debate about the appropriateness of nipples on a Batsuit.

Even when Pattinson sheds the bat drag to make a rare public appearance as reclusive billionaire Bruce Wayne, he still looks like a sweaty refugee from a ‘90s grunge band. That association seems intended, given that we hear Kurt Cobain’s whispered vocals on the isolation anthem “Something in the Way” early on. Maybe jettisoning playboy glamour and embracing existential angst is now the only way to go, given the state of the world.

Reeves delivers a lot of movie. Does it stretch the definition of escapism to immerse ourselves in a fiction so reflective of the toxic cynicism that pervades our 21st century reality? Perhaps. But this glowering study in crime and punishment is meticulously crafted, vividly inhabited storytelling with a coherent, thought-through vision, and that makes for muscular entertainment.

Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig make the smart decision not to rehash the origin story for the umpteenth time, or continue with the DC Extended Universe explored by Zack Snyder. This is strictly a solo show, and for once, Batman is a more psychologically compelling character than his nemeses. He even moves differently as he materializes out of the shadows — slow, purposeful, like a pallbearer without a coffin, his footsteps thudding like doom itself.

The action starts more than a year after he has begun stalking the Gotham streets and pulverizing felons. The bat signal is already in use in the night sky to call for his assistance, but Batman remains a fearsome enigma in a city falling apart after two decades of violent crime. His sole law-enforcement ally is the future Commissioner Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), at this stage still a lieutenant in a police force rife with corruption.

The arresting opening unfolds to “Ave Maria,” with an unseen figure watching through binoculars as the young son and wife of Mayor Don Mitchell Jr. (Rupert Penry-Jones) step out on Halloween night while he stays behind, glued to news coverage of the tight election race in which he’s up against progressive candidate Bella Reál (Jayme Lawson).

An intruder in the room in a combat mask and army surplus gear dispatches the Mayor with a blunt instrument. When police arrive at the scene they find the dead politician with his face wrapped in duct tape scrawled with the words, “No More Lies.” A note attached to the corpse addressed to the Batman identifies the killer as the Riddler, providing a cryptic clue to future assassinations, the grisliest of them lifted directly from Orwell’s 1984.

The meaningful glance exchanged at the first crime scene between Batman and the Mayor’s son (Archie Barnes) evokes painful history, given that Bruce Wayne lost his parents at a similar age. But the integrity of his father, Thomas Wayne (Luke Roberts), is called into question later in the movie as the Riddler reveals ties to the past that explain his obsession with the Batman. He decrees that it’s retribution time for “the sins of the fathers.”

The murderer directs Batman and Lt. Gordon to the mayor’s mistress, Annika (Hana Hrzic), a waitress at the Iceberg Lounge. That nightclub — and drug distribution hub — is owned by mob boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) and run by his sleazy stooge Oz (an unrecognizable Colin Farrell in countless pounds of latex), who will go on to become the Penguin. Gotham’s rich and powerful meet there in a VIP club within the club called 44 Below. It’s there that Batman first encounters Selina, who has her own father issues and her own score to settle.

The plotting is less invested in following the standard superhero model than in spinning a detective yarn, pumping up intrigue about the identity of a stool pigeon instrumental in taking down Falcone’s chief underworld rival while raising questions about the misuse of the $1 billion City Renewal Fund endowed by Thomas Wayne.

The script panders a little at times, like when Selina sounds off about “white privileged assholes.” But the deep dive into institutional corruption feels timely yet still organic to the source, and the father themes play into the loss of faith in elected officials.

Likewise, the Riddler’s fiendish manipulation of online conspiracy theorists to build a fanatical following to help bring Gotham to its knees feels all too real. Reeves is savvy about tapping into the anger festering in the aggrieved margins of contemporary America, and Dano makes a credibly creepy instigator for that flock of insurgents, a seething incel with the smarts and tech skills to wreak havoc.

That the Riddler’s charges of corruption are legitimate doesn’t make him any less evil. All the 21st century technology employed sits surprisingly well on a narrative framework right out of the classic noir playbook.

As Reeves showed particularly in War for the Planet of the Apes, the director is skilled at shifting between genres, which allows the final act to morph fluidly into disaster-movie action, with large-scale destruction challenging the resolve not only of Batman but of the political light on the dark horizon.

For all its grandiose seriousness about the threat to lawful democracy, however, it’s the intimate moments of the film that resonate most. The interludes between Batman and Selina go beyond wary mutual attraction to explore both the intersections and the divergences in their respective ideas of justice. Even their motorcycles seem connected. And the surrogate father role of Bruce Wayne’s loyal butler and chief advisor, Alfred (Andy Serkis), is conveyed in a moving hospital scene after the latter is injured in an attack.

Hardcore Batfans might feel slightly cheated that celebrated archvillains Catwoman and the Penguin are represented only in their embryonic stages. But in the case of Kravitz’s hardened but unquestionably human Selina, especially, the attention to character is rewarding — love the pixie cut and the white claw manicure, too. Farrell presumably will have more to do in coming installments, when there’s less standing in the way of Oz’s hunger for power. Another unmistakable superstar from Batman’s hall of infamy is introduced in a shadowy cameo near the end, indicating a major role in the next movie.

The biggest dividends of Reeves’ approach go to Batman/Bruce himself, with Pattinson playing him as a sorrowful, almost desperate man, indifferent to his astronomical wealth and fully aware that he can do only so much to reverse the course of a society rotten to its core.

All that makes his moral and physical resilience in the climactic action more stirring. It’s also refreshing to see a Batman who doesn’t just walk away unharmed from every scrape, but actually takes the knocks and feels the hurt, even showing a humanizing moment of fear as he activates his wing-suit and prepares to leap off the roof of Gotham police headquarters. Pattinson is riveting throughout.

On the heels of Greig Fraser’s spectacular work on Dune, the cinematographer gives the film a moody, tenebrous look to match the tortured pit of Batman’s soul, and production designer James Chinlund’s world-building is first-rate, weaving together elements from real cities and sets to form a Gotham that resembles New York while establishing its own gritty, gothic identity, pulsing with menace and mystery.

Visceral use of sound is key to the film’s immersive effect, but even more so an absolute banger of a score by Michael Giacchino. The symphonic underlay might have seemed excessive in less confident hands, but the graceful incorporation of specific themes for Batman and Selina, as well as pre-existing music ranging from classical pieces to Nirvana, provides tonal variation to ensure that The Batman never becomes a punishing downer.

Distributor: Warner Bros.
Production companies: Warner Bros. Pictures, 6th & Idaho, Dylan Clark Productions

Cast: Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Jeffrey Wright, Colin Farrell, Paul Dano, John Turturro, Andy Serkis, Peter Sarsgaard, Barry Keoghan, Jayme Lawson
Director: Matt Reeves
Screenwriter: Matt Reeves, Peter Craig, based on characters from DC, created by Bob Kane with Bill Finger
Producers: Dylan Clark, Matt Reeves
Executive producers: Michael E. Uslan, Walter Hamada, Chantal Nong Vo, Simon Emanuel
Director of photography: Greig Fraser
Production designer: James Chinlund
Costume designer: Jacqueline Durran
Music: Michael Giacchino
Editors: William Hoy, Tyler Nelson
Sound designers: Chris Terhune, Lee Gilmore, Craig Henighan
Visual effects supervisor: Dan Lemmon
Casting: Cindy Tolan, Lucy Bevan