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Zoe Kravitz, left, and Robert Pattinson in a scene from The Batman.Jonathan Olley/The Associated Press

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The Batman

Directed by Matt Reeves

Written by Matt Reeves and Peter Craig

Starring Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz and Paul Dano

Classification PG; 175 minutes

Opens March 4 in theatres

Critic’s pick

Does the world need another Batman? Does the year 2022 even need another Batman? Over the next 12 months, audiences are set to encounter at least three caped crusaders (maybe four, if Lego Batman pops up unexpectedly, a reality which I’m not ruling out). There is Ben Affleck’s Batman, set to appear in The Flash, a new “multiverse” superhero movie that will also feature Michael Keaton’s Batman, back from the Tim Burton era. And then there is first-time Batman Robert Pattinson, starring in Matt Reeves’ simply titled The Batman, a wholly unconnected-to-the-other-Batmen movie that opens this week.

So while we’re not quite at Spider-Man levels of saturation yet – if we count No Way Home as a 2022 movie, this year offers upwards of a dozen separate Peter Parkers, thanks to this fall’s multi-Spidey cartoon Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (Part One) – holy brand-bonanza Batman, we’re certainly getting close. Which is why I’m as surprised as anyone to say that, after watching Pattinson in action, I’m calling on the industry to bring on all its many Batmen, Batwomen, Batbats. Keep ‘em coming hot and ready until we choke on a cowl.

I’m half-serious, or maybe even three-quarters. While not an essential work, Reeves’ The Batman is a thoroughly entertaining, engrossing and rewarding superhero spectacle that speaks to the genre’s sometimes larger ambitions. Grimy, slick and genuinely frightening in true horror-movie fashion, Reeves’ new film reassembles the best elements of Batman lore into one overwhelming and epic-length package. Almost everything here works – not despite our current overload of Batman culture, but because of it.

A highly expensive, unrelenting and somewhat self-destructive mash-up of serial-killer-era David Fincher (Se7en, Zodiac), Brian De Palma’s best creep-out cinema (Blow Out, Dressed to Kill), Abel Ferrara’s neo-noir sleaze (The Driller Killer, Bad Lieutenant), comic artist Frank Miller’s nihilistic take on the vigilante and every other Batman filmmaker who came before (minus Joel Schumacher), Reeves’ film is a big, sloppy, violent kiss of a movie. The hero is severely damaged, the villains truly psychotic. And the Gotham that they fight for control over – more a Manhattan gone to rot than either Christopher Nolan’s gleaming Chicago hiding a nest of rats, or Zack Snyder’s marble-slab metropolitan coliseum – is its own unique circle of urban hell.

The Batman is grimy, slick and genuinely frightening in true horror-movie fashion.Jonathan Olley/The Associated Press

It is more than a little silly to say that finally (finally!) someone had the stomach and stones to make a “dark” Batman movie – every Batman project post-Schumacher has boasted of having the darkest of Dark Knights – but Reeves has made the bleakest. Or maybe the meanest.

The director, best-known for his slick updating of the Planet of the Apes franchise, starts off on the best note possible: The Batman is not, thank Raʼs al Ghul, yet another origin story. For once, we can watch a Batman movie without having to brace for a scene in which Thomas and Martha Wayne are shot dead in an alleyway. (Although we do hear quite a lot about it.)

When Reeves’ film opens, Batman has been prowling Gotham already for two years, earning a solid vigilante reputation among the criminal class while also establishing tentative relations with the police, led by a not-yet-commissioner James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright). Other familiar faces are also in play. Loyal Wayne family butler Alfred (Reeves’ ape buddy Andy Serkis, offering a more MI6 vibe than Michael Caine’s cuddly caretaker) is tending to Bruce’s wounds and technology. Selina “Catwoman” Kyle (Zoe Kravitz) is slinking around causing trouble in the background. And Gotham’s ruling class is populated equally by corrupt officials (including Peter Sarsgaard’s district attorney) and familiar mafiosos (John Turturro’s Carmine Falcone, an unrecognizable Colin Farrell as Oswald “Penguin” Copplepot).

Then The Riddler arrives on the scene to violently shake up Gotham’s status quo, taunting Batman with a perverted glee that recalls, at the film’s best moments, Heath Ledger’s anarchic Joker crossed with the unstoppable force of nature that was Fincher’s faceless Zodiac Killer. The Riddler’s movie-length puzzle – some parts of which are more clever than others – doesn’t quite shatter everything that we ever knew about Bruce or his megafranchise, but it doesn’t much matter, either. As played by Paul Dano (who only briefly appears out of a head-to-toe costume that’s a cross between hazmat suit and the Gimp’s getup from Pulp Fiction), the villain is a truly creepy creation – not exactly original, but inspired by just the right bits of serial-killer culture and comic-book detritus to ooze itself into something memorably sick and threatening.

Paul Dano's Riddler is a truly creepy creation.The Associated Press

But bad guys always have more fun, don’t they? Take Farrell, who, hiding underneath pounds of prosthetics, has an absolute blast as the Penguin (or Ozy, as he’s called by most), including his participation in the film’s standout action scene: a rain-slicked highway chase that thrashes vehicles and twists metal with an almost erotic frenzy. It feels wrong to lump David Cronenberg’s name in with Reeves’ many other influences, but there is a certain Crash-ness to the proceedings.

When Pattinson’s casting was announced, there were small riots in certain corners of fandom. But the actor proved long ago that he is far beyond his Twilight days, and brings a neatly damaged and petulant attitude to a character more familiar than perhaps any other character of modern fiction (and that title isn’t a lie, either: there is far more Batman here than Bruce). Reeves’ frequent sound-tracking of Bruce’s pain to Nirvana’s Something in the Way is too on the nose/beak, but Pattinson makes the angry little billionaire orphan schtick work, playing both a hero to a city and a victim to his own anger. (And the music-cue issue is rectified mightily by Michael Giacchino’s excellent, haunting score.)

The only big problem of The Batman: it is far too big. At nearly three hours long, there is an unhealthy amount of narrative fat that Reeves could have trimmed with minimal pain, including the stop-and-go romance between Bruce and Selina (even if Kravitz has charm to burn) and elements of the final set-piece, which devolves into grand-scheme silliness. Reeves’ work is never boring, but there is a lack of discipline on display of which Alfred would not approve. But perhaps that is a problem for the next Batman to solve.

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