by Jarrod Jones. A Gotham City stunner that thunders, booms, and pounds those dreary milquetoast Marvel doldrums into paste, The Batman grapples with a moral quagmire raised by the mere existence of its subject and gets to work building a better superhero saga for the modern age. Existing in that elusive sweet spot between Tim Burton’s gothic nightmare world and Christopher Nolan’s stark post-9/11 realism, Matt Reeves’ oppressive vision of Gotham arrives feeling very much of our current moment while also looking like an emo kid music video where it rains all the time and people are only awake between the hours of dusk and dawn. I hope they make 10 of these.

It’s a miracle that it exists at all. Initial plans at Warner Bros. had The Batman slated as a standalone project for Ben Affleck, who was also signed to direct. That film, possibly set after the events of Joss Whedon’s calamitous studio re-do of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, would have featured Joe Mangianello’s assassin character Deathstroke as the film’s heavy. Had it come into being Affleck’s The Batman would’ve boasted a more recognizable brand of superhero brio than what Reeves has contrived here, which looks and feels as far away from the homogenized shared-universe landscape of the Marvel Cinematic Universe or even Snyder’s apocalyptic DC Extended Universe as a superhero movie can conceivably get these days. Free from franchise building (for the most part) The Batman‘s scope might not set the multiverse on fire, but its stakes are just as staggering.

The Batman is a lot of movie. At just under three hours it’s one part skeezy serial killer mystery and one part propulsive superhero saga, with a flourish of doomed romance thrown in to set hearts alight. It follows Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) as he enters his second year as Gotham’s vigilante, whose growing legend as a hostile force for justice has given him an intimidating reputation: Criminals catch but a glimpse of the Bat-signal in the night sky, and suddenly every dark corner is potentially the last wrong turn they’ll ever take. When the Batman finally appears from those shadows, his steps explode like some demon leviathan ready to lay low anything that stands in his way. It’s ridiculous.

The influence of this young Dark Knight isn’t just freaking out criminals, it’s caught the attention of The Riddler (Paul Dano), a Zodiac-style maniac who streams his brutal attacks on Gotham’s high-ranking officials and sends Batman strange cipher valentines. The Riddler’s twisted game embroils several members of Gotham’s underworld, all of whom answer to Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), a mob kingpin whose decades of control has given him so much reach that he can pull some of the city’s most shining exemplars down to his preferred level of hell—including a majority of the Gotham City Police Department, a spiraling district attorney (Peter Sarsgaard) and, once upon a time, Bruce’s late father (Luke Roberts). 

Riddler isn’t Batman’s only problem; he soon finds himself caught up in the personal dramas of an intrepid cat-burglar named Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz). The potential for a freaky fly-by-night romance between these leather-bound kids complicates Bruce’s pursuit of The Riddler for a shocking amount of spoiler-filled reasons and is indebted to the Donald Sutherland/Jane Fonda detective thriller Klute, an inspired take on Batman and Catwoman’s fraught 80-plus years of will-they/won’t-theys. Here, Pattinson’s reclusive Bruce Wayne isn’t bombing around Gotham nightclubs with a supermodel on each arm; he’s breaking noses in the midst of The Penguin’s (Colin Farrell) Iceberg Lounge—romance is the furthest thing from his darkly driven mind, and his naïveté concerning the fairer sex makes him more vulnerable as a marauding hero than he’s ever been before.

The chemistry between Pattinson and Kravitz might be the film’s most potent asset. Powered by Michael Giacchino’s plinking piano keys and deep bass lines, the dawn-colored sequences where Selina and Batman play atop a stage overlooking the Gotham skyline nudge The Batman closer to some sort of kinky opera. Watching Kravitz run her razor-sharp nails over Pattinson’s demented armor, not to mention their sudden kiss halfway through the film, might have more pyrotechnics to it than the film’s massive Riddler-laden climax.

Speaking of which, The Riddler sets a dire mood for the majority of The Batman’s run time. White-knuckled dread looms all over this movie, beginning with its eerie Halloween murder sequence where a POV shot observes the fiend’s latest victim-to-be before he moves in for the kill. The sequence is silent, and spooky, and the subsequent murder scene pushes the film’s PG-13 rating as far as it possibly can before it finally cuts to black. Reeves, working from a script he co-wrote with The Town’s Peter Craig (which included contributions from an uncredited Mattson Tomlin), works around these limitations by having Riddler’s methods explained in lurid detail by the GCPD’s various coppers (including Jeffrey Wright’s Lieutenant Gordon), which are plenty gross and far more effective when left to the imagination anyway.

Dano’s Riddler is perhaps the oddest performance in The Batman. In his few appearances, he bellows and rants underneath a green bondage mask which gives his voice an imposing oomph. When Batman finally comes face-to-face with his enemy, Dano bounces all over the place, jumping from menace to lunacy in the span of seconds. It’s a nervy performance, but The Riddler is more intimidating offscreen than on. 

There’s an overall freakiness to The Batman that has been desperately missing from DC’s cinematic offerings of late. Pattinson’s Wayne is a grease-smeared weirdo who feels more at home in reinforced leather gear than a suave playboy’s suit. His diary-keeping also makes him a dead ringer for a Paul Schrader lead; his noir-infused, periodically dopey narration is read with conviction and when paired with the film’s pastiche of neon and wet pavement the film sometimes feels like a gothier version of Light Sleeper. When Bruce has to wear grown-up clothes, they hang off him like a scarecrow decked out in Dior. He even loses his cuff links, which his trusty butler Alfred (Andy Serkis) has to replace with his own treasured set. This Batman can’t be bothered with keeping up appearances.

That explains why Wayne is rarely seen outside of his uniform, a possible mood killer for some Bat-fans who are accustomed to the many versions of this hero who have famously put up a grinning facade to obscure the menacing alter ego underneath. Pattinson never once oscillates his identities in The Batman, which doesn’t sap the character of his duality but informs it; Bruce died the same night as his parents and became something else, but through the course of the film there’s a persistent notion that tells him Gotham needs something more stable than vengeance to keep it safe. In building a better Batman he has to build a better Bruce, which why his fleeting romance with Selina works so well: She’s the catalyst for his burgeoning growth, not just as a superhero, but as a human being.

But when Batman is cut loose to do his work, The Batman cooks. The perpetual downpour of rain and overcast gloom gives the film an aura of danger, accentuated by Greig Fraser’s bronze-and-blood cinematography. Action beats are kept to a minimum to make room for the film’s much-ballyhooed detective work, but the various spikes in havoc that do occur are blocked with an eye for maximum bone-breaking hurt. A car chase sequence at the center of the movie, where Farrell’s mouthy Penguin attempts to elude a muscle car tricked-out with a jet engine, snakes around Gotham traffic and feels like a hell-scorched riff on The French Connection.

The ferocity of this sequence, infused by The Batman‘s dedication to make all of this look like it was pulled from an Azzarello/Bermejo comic book, is enough to let you gloss over the fact that its ultimate destination might not stack up to all this atmosphere. The Batman thrives when it’s allowed to brood, to establish its operatic vibe, and with so much insanity going on inside Gotham at any given moment, when it finally comes time to knock out a show-stopping close, it feels as though The Batman is lapping an already impressive finish. Yet, despite its length, it’s Reeves’ eye for grandiosity that becomes the secret superpower of The Batman. Many cape movies can match its running time but a precious few are allowed to be this ambitious. Or fight this dirty.

Directed by Matt Reeves.
Produced by Peter Clark and Matt Reeves.
Screenplay by Matt Reeves and Peter Craig.
Starring Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano, Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro, Peter Sarsgaard, Andy Serkis, and Colin Farrell.

Rated PG-13 for bone-breaking Bat-violence and spicy Penguin language.