Noir is a term thrown around a lot with a character like the Batman. This makes sense; the Dark Knight’s roots lie in the pulpy detective stories of the 1930s—he even first appeared in Detective Comics #27—and that era of crime fiction eventually gave way to the noir movement. Yet despite that phrase being used often to refer to previous Batman stories, cartoons, and even as a publishing gimmick where DC re-released old graphic novels in black and white print, very few of these tales are true noir.
In noir, the hero knows (or eventually learns) he can never win, and the world is a worse place than he can accept. It’s a bleak perspective that no Batman movie has directly embraced. Until now.
Director and co-writer Matt Reeves has long suggested his The Batman would differentiate itself from previous Caped Crusader movies by being a murder mystery. But there’s more than just a sense of the mysterious to Reeves’ rain soaked epic. With his labyrinthine plotting, tragically human ensemble of characters, and an especially broken Bruce Wayne (a portrait in aloofness by Robert Pattinson), Reeves has crafted a richly realized Gotham City where there may be heroes and villains, but no one is innocent.
The Batman embraces this fatalism in its hypnotic opening minutes, which begin with Pattinson’s Batman narrating his sense of misery and seeming futility after a year into his war on crime. Are things getting better? It doesn’t feel like it as hapless families huddle beneath a rainstorm and Orwellian TV monitors in a city square. Elsewhere, a cacophony of crimes are being committed: a bodega is robbed at gunpoint; an anarchist vandalizes a government building; and muggers follow easy prey off an elevated train toward dark corners. Yet in every vignette, these would-be hunters also feel hunted, hesitating to enter the deepest shadows and always stopping to look over their shoulders.
When the Bat-shaped wraith inevitably emerges from one of these black pits of gloom, it’s as if a vampire has manifested from their fear, and a crescendo of despair is signaled by Michael Giacchino’s bombastic, Gothic score. And at barely the 10-minute mark in a three-hour movie, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
As advertised, The Batman is largely a murder mystery in which a traumatized and narrow-minded Dark Knight is tenuously working with the only detective on the Gotham City police force who trusts him, Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright). The pair are wrapped up in a high profile case too when a major city leader winds up dead, murdered in his own home on Halloween night by a serial killer with a fetish for Zodiac paraphernalia… and riddles. As the trail of victims grows, so do the word puzzles, which this so-called Riddler (Paul Dano) leaves at every crime scene for the Batman.
Soon our dark avenger and his resigned accomplice, the butler Alfred (Andy Serkis), realize these murders implicate a vast conspiracy of civic leaders throughout Gotham, be they mayors or crime bosses like Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) and his right hand man, Oz “The Penguin” Cobblepot (Colin Farrell). There’s also an enigmatic young woman named Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz) somehow involved. At first glance, Batman might write her off as just a pretty face or even a moll in the criminal underworld, but the closer he gets, the more he understands he’s found a potential ally—or rival—in unraveling a mystery that will shatter the lies everyone believes about Gotham’s official history… including Batman.
Despite initial social media protestations to the contrary by folks who hadn’t seen the movie, The Batman’s running time mostly acts as one of its greatest assets. Here is a superhero movie that is deliberately paced and takes its time to live with its characters and the tangled web they weave through the city. Minus a few obligatory scenes of Pattinson’s bleary eyes being unhooded from his mask, revealing a thousand-yard stare and smeared makeup worthy of the grunge music on the soundtrack, there is no real “Bruce Wayne” scene—as in Bruce going out in public—for the first whole hour.
The bold choice to keep Pattinson primarily in the costume, or desperate to return to it, emphasizes the hopelessness of this character. There will be many comparisons made (and some fairly) to Christopher Nolan’s own transcendent The Dark Knight trilogy, particularly the second movie in that series. But the Batman played by Christian Bale was an activist, a character who literally says he wants to “inspire hope.”
By contrast, Pattinson’s Bruce has entirely removed himself from high society, and while in costume, he answers to the name “Vengeance.” This is a potentially miserable protagonist, one whom the movie smartly tracks by pairing him with scene partners who can at least try to break through his storm clouds, especially Kravitz’s Selina.
In that role, Kravitz finally finds her star-making turn. Often marginalized by scripts or direction to the background of otherwise compelling stories like Big Little Lies or Mad Max: Fury Road, her Selina is the most fully realized iteration of the character on the page thanks to Reeves and Peter Craig’s screenplay. And Kravitz brings that multifaceted woman to life in every scene she shares with Pattinson–their electric energy is both romantic and an alternating game of cat and mouse. For once, the “criminal” seems like the well-adjusted one of this pair, gently tempering his grim self-seriousness. (Although for comic fans, think of her more as a proto-Catwoman, a la Batman: Year One and The Long Halloween.)
Their scenes, as well as those between Pattinson and Wright, are given room to breathe and feel lived in due to the movie’s luxurious length. In this way, The Batman is less emulative of Nolan’s more propulsive storytelling and instead closer to the downbeat neo-noirs of the 1970s which heavily influenced the aesthetic and tone of The Batman. This trickles down to the way Gotham’s underworld and villains congregate in seedy decrepit warehouses in the sticks and basement nightclubs instead of atop Gotham high rises. There’s a sweatiness to this world, which is echoed in each brutal fight sequence or the way Farrell’s scenery-chewing Penguin fidgets while being interrogated.
In other aspects, however, the vast length makes the film’s actual issues harder to ignore. This can include Dano’s Riddler being squeezed unconvincingly into scenes that poorly mimic Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, and a final third act (or really a fourth act) that appears tacked on by a studio note insisting the movie pivot to Nolan levels of spectacle. After 140 or so minutes of a somber and even intimate crime drama, this feels like an incongruous betrayal of what Reeves has built. With all those narrative obligations, certain characters subsequently get lost in the shuffle, particularly Serkis’ frosty interpretation of Alfred.
Nevertheless, to not recognize The Batman as a magnificent achievement would be to miss the cave for the bats. It’s also worth remembering that Nolan didn’t make The Dark Knight during his first time at the plate—it came after Batman Begins, a film which seemed like a game-changer in its time but appears safely bound by formula in retrospect. And rest assured Reeves sets up more to come.
After a superhero film this extraordinarily satisfying and this determined to have something new to say about Bruce Wayne—and our own world by extension—the anticipation for what comes next will be immense.
The Batman opens in theaters on Friday, March 4.