That definite article means it’s the genuine article. Adding “the” to Batman’s name has become a huge part of the brand identity, a sign of how elemental and atavistic this shadowy figure is supposed to be. You can imagine some growly voice saying “the Batman” – but not Tom Holland putting on a deep baritone to say he’s “the Spider-Man”, or Henry Cavill booming he’s “the Superman” (although maybe you could have Billy Joel stride into a dark Gotham City bar to raspingly confront “the Piano Man”).
Director and co-writer Matt Reeves has created a new Batman iteration in which Robert Pattinson reinvents billionaire Bruce Wayne as an elegantly wasted rock star recluse, willowy and dandyish in his black suit with tendrils of dark hair falling over his face; but Wayne magically trebles in bulk when he reappears in costume and mask as the Dark Knight, his whole being weaponised into a slab-like impassivity. And this of course is happening in the sepulchral vastness of Gotham City, the brutal and murky world which Christopher Nolan thrillingly pioneered with his Dark Knight trilogy and made indispensable for imagining Batman on screen.
Intriguingly at first, The Batman feels like a serial killer chiller such as Saw. For a time it promises a mystery plot relating to the theme of municipal corruption which is so important to the Batman franchise, and holds out hope of an unmasking with a satisfying narrative resolution. But not really. It is tremendously designed, visually spectacular with great set pieces and juddering, sternum-shivering impacts coming at you out of the darkness. There are unassumingly good performances from Jeffrey Wright and John Turturro, and Zoë Kravitz’s superpower is charisma. But the film is overlong; the Riddler’s puzzles aren’t particularly ingenious or even important to the story and there’s a pretty feeble non-ending which sheepishly sidesteps The Batman’s existential crisis.
Gotham City’s political classes are complacently congratulating themselves on rooting out a major drug dealer, Sal Maroni. But the city is still drenched in crime and addiction to a new narcotic called “drops”, to which law enforcement is clearly turning a blind eye. Most exercised about this is the Riddler (Paul Dano), sporting a rubber gimp mask for his many social media appearances. He sets out to whack the corrupt Gotham establishment one by one, including Mayor Don Mitchell (Rupert Penry-Jones) and district attorney Gil Colson (Peter Sarsgaard), leaving quibbling questions for the Batman on Hallmark-type cards at the scene of each gruesome crime. So our antihero effectively joins forces with commissioner Gordon (Wright, lending his innate dignity and integrity to the role) to take down the Riddler, incidentally putting himself up against mob boss Carmine Falcone (Turturro) and his bloated sidekick Oswald “The Penguin” Cobblepot (Colin Farrell) who don’t like questions being asked about who is doing the corrupting.
But wait. The Riddler is obsessed above all with what he says is the most grotesquely crooked thing about Gotham City: the plutocrat Wayne family and Bruce’s late father who made fraud and crime the city’s foundation stone. The Riddler longs to kill Bruce Wayne. And the Batman is beginning to wonder … could the Riddler have a point?
The Batman has some people in his corner. Kravitz is stylish and assured as cat burglar Selina Kyle, or Catwoman, who has reasons of her own for detesting creepy Falcone. There is a nice sequence when Bruce gives Selina some surveillance contact lenses to wear before she sashays through Carmine’s club, making eye contact with the cringing regulars, while Wayne monitors it all on a screen.
Andy Serkis plays Wayne’s butler Alfred, a loyal plain-speaking fellow who has apparently done time in the “circus”: meaning the John Le Carré intelligence world, not the actual circus, although it’s confusing given the Cirque du Soleil stylings all the combatants are going in for.
But the ending is tiresome and shark-jumping in the extreme, with faux-apocalyptic scenes which work better in less solemn superhero adventures, and an exasperating non-revelation whose significance is teased for the next film. Inevitably, night falls on the latest Batman iteration with the cloudy sense that – of course – nothing has really been at stake. A classy turn from Pattinson, however, as the crime fighter with an injured soul.