The Batman: More dark turns in the city of nightmares

Film review: There aren’t any gags, but this new iteration hits most of the right notes

The Batman
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Director: Matt Reeves
Cert: 15A
Genre: Action
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Colin Farrell, Paul Dano, Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro, Peter Sarsgaard, Andy Serkis
Runing Time: 2 hrs 56 mins

The habit of appending a definite article to Bob Kane's indestructible crime fighter goes back to the character's origins at the outbreak of the second World War. In recent years, however, it has acted as an indicator that the current custodians want us to take a Batman particularly seriously. Sure enough, Matt Reeves's The Batman weeps out the recreational nihilism – pounding rain, poorly illuminated alleyways, growled dialogue – that never goes out of fashion with less cuddly teenagers. If only staying in school were so cool. Amirite, mum and dad?

Robert Pattinson accommodates the swing towards adolescent existentialism nicely. RPatz is actually older than Christian Bale was when that actor took over the role in 2005, but, with his dark eyeshadow and rat's-tail fringe, the current Bruce Wayne seems like a youth in comparison. It would come as no surprise to learn that he loosens up by playing bass for Cauldron of Spit or My Stygian Afternoons.

The Batman is almost entirely without jokes, but even its firmest supporters will find themselves occasionally sniggering at all this self-importance. That is not, however, to suggest that Reeves’s film does not own and occupy its chosen environment. Indeed, this is the most well thought-through outing for the caped crusader since Christopher Nolan’s durable The Dark Knight from 2008.

It helps that, rather than fussing with origin stories, the screenplay by Reeves and Peter Craig imagines a corrupt Gotham City already awash with familiar allies and villains. You couldn't call the film even vaguely naturalistic. The villains have, however, moved further from big-top chic than in any previous big-screen incarnation. The Riddler (Paul Dano) is a grubby conspiracy theorist in a combat jacket. Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz) has a sleek glamour, but she hides her features with a modified balaclava rather than a peek-a-boo fetish mask. As you will almost certainly be already aware, the unrecognisable Colin Farrell plays the Penguin as a violent out-of-shape slob in an everyday suit. Why Reeves hired Farrell rather than an actual out of-shape-slob is not clear, but nobody could fault his performance or the effectiveness of the prosthetics.

The Batman differs from earlier movie incarnations in its commitment to a more traditional mystery plot and its engagement with contemporary cynicism about power structures. The vision of society in Nolan's films was hardly sunny, but, here, both insane villains and flawed heroes seem agreed on the irredeemable poisonousness of the system. Catwoman, still Selina Kyle by day, dabbles in drugs and burglary. The Riddler is pitched somewhere between urban terrorist and the Zodiac Killer. The Batman seems constantly tormented by his own addiction to vengeance. There are no great insights, but there is, at least, an acknowledgement that many potential viewers will now see the Wayne dynasty as – the phrase actually appears – "white privileged assholes". These themes are teased out as Batman and Lieutenant James Gordon (the perennially sonorous Jeffrey Wright could hardly be better suited) expand the search for a serial killer into an investigation of widespread corruption.

Reeves and his collaborators have a firm grasp on their aesthetics. Employing red neon as an accompanying motif to the endless nocturnal black, cinematographer Greig Fraser, current Oscar nominee for Dune, hints at the more high-brow nightmares of Gaspar Noé's films. There has been some advance chatter about the relentlessness of the violence, but, for the most part, the fights incline towards the balletic and the bloodless. Michael Giacchino's score does nothing to lighten the tone by working in variations on the Gounod Ave Maria.

For all that confidence, The Batman does eventually lose the run of itself. Swelling the running time close to three hours, the story, though well worked, has ideas above its humble station. One longs for the strings to be tightened. One yearns for just a smidgeon of levity. Everything suggests, nonetheless, that the definite articled version will run and run.

Released on March 4th