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.
Where do you go after “The Dark Knight”? Ben Affleck blew it, and even Christopher Nolan, who brought unprecedented levels of realism and gravitas to that franchise-best Batman saga, couldn’t improve on what he’d created in his 2012 sequel. So what is “Cloverfield” director Matt Reeves’ strategy? Answer: Go darker than “The Dark Knight,” deadlier than “No Time to Die” and longer than “Dune” with a serious-minded Batman stand-alone of his own. Leaning in to those elements doesn’t automatically mean audiences will embrace Reeves’ vision. But this grounded, frequently brutal and nearly three-hour film noir registers among the best of the genre, even if — or more aptly, because — what makes the film so great is its willingness to dismantle and interrogate the very concept of superheroes.
Sure, that’s been done before — “Who watches the Watchmen?” Alan Moore memorably asked, influencing decades of spandex-clad savior stories — though Reeves does something relatively unique here, at least by comic-book-movie standards: He strips the genre of its supernatural elements (even more than the Nolan trilogy did) and introduces a more complex version of a classic pulp hero who’s only a whisker’s breadth removed from the story’s bad guy, morally speaking. Whereas these movies are typically defined by their villains, “The Batman” gets under your skin by asking: What if the good guys aren’t really the good guys? What if the person we were counting on to protect us might actually be making the situation worse?
While Batman — who’s played here by gloomy “Twilight” star Robert Pattinson, representing the orphaned character’s tortured psychology to an almost painful degree — focuses on punching out petty thugs in shadowed alleys and on subway platforms, the Riddler (a genuinely disturbing Paul Dano) emerges to expose/dispose of the white-collar scoundrels embedded at the highest levels of power. Both men are vigilantes, though one is preoccupied with helping the police, while the other targets the systemic corruption that undermines our faith in such institutions — in Gotham City, for sure, but off screen as well.