Matt Reeves’ “The Batman” isn’t a superhero movie. Not really. All the trappings are there: the Batmobile, the rugged suit, the gadgets courtesy of trusty butler Alfred. And of course, at the center, is the Caped Crusader himself: brooding, tormented, seeking his own brand of nighttime justice in a Gotham City that’s spiraling into squalor and decay.
But in Reeves’ confident hands, everything is breathtakingly alive and new. As director and co-writer, he’s taken what might seem like a familiar tale and made it epic, even operatic. His “Batman” is more akin to a gritty, ‘70s crime drama than a soaring and transporting blockbuster. With its kinetic, unpredictable action, it calls to mind films like “The Warriors” as well as one of the greatest of them all in the genre, “The French Connection.” And with a series of high-profile murders driving the plot, it sometimes feels as if the Zodiac killer is terrorizing the citizens of Gotham.
And yet, despite these touchstones, this is unmistakably a Matt Reeves film. He accomplishes here what he did with his gripping entries in the “Planet of the Apes” franchise: created an electrifying, entertaining spectacle, but one that’s grounded in real, emotional stakes. This is a Batman movie that’s aware of its own place within pop culture, but not in winking, meta fashion; rather, it acknowledges the comic book character’s lore, only to examine it and reinvent it in a way that’s both substantial and daring. The script from Reeves and Peter Craig forces this hero to question his history as well as confront his purpose, and in doing so, creates an opening for us as viewers to challenge the narratives we cling to in our own lives.
And with Robert Pattinson taking over the role of Bruce Wayne, we have an actor who’s not just prepared but hungry to explore this figure’s weird, dark instincts. This is not the dashing heir to a fortune prowling about, kicking ass in a cool costume. This is Travis Bickle in the Batsuit, detached and disillusioned. He’s two years into his tenure as Batman, tracking criminals from on high in Wayne Tower—an inspired switch from the usual sprawl of Wayne Manor, suggesting an even greater isolation from society. “They think I’m hiding in the shadows,” he intones in an opening voiceover. “But I am the shadows.” In the harsh light of day, Pattinson gives us hungover indie rock star vibes. But at night, you can see the rush he gets from swooping in and executing his version of vengeance, even beneath the tactical gear and eye black.
As he’s shown in pretty much every role he’s taken since “Twilight” made him a global superstar in 2008, working with singular auteurs from David Cronenberg to Claire Denis to the Safdie brothers, Pattinson is at his best when he’s playing characters who make you uncomfortable. Even more than Christian Bale in the role, Pattinson is so skilled at making his beautiful, angular features seem unsettling. So when he first spies on the impossibly sexy Zoe Kravitz as Selina Kyle, slinking into her leather motorcycle gear and shimmying down the fire escape in her own pursuit of nocturnal justice, there’s an unmistakable flicker of a charge in his eyes: Ooh. She’s a freak like me.