In the era of shared universes, legacy sequels, and nigh-on weaponised levels of nostalgia in most blockbuster filmmaking, it’s always a pleasure to see a filmmaker afforded a mega-budget to really build their own world from the ground up. Last year, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune immersed us in his singular view of Arrakis and now Matt Reeves gets the same privilege with The Batman. Untethered from any previous DC movie, Reeves has crafted the most striking and grimily gorgeous Gotham since Tim Burton’s 1989 take on this world, the backdrop for a thrilling superhero detective story that, even running at three hours, you won’t quite be able to get enough of.
This time around, Reeves avoids yet another retread of Batman/Bruce Wayne’s (Robert Pattinson) origin story, instead diving into the second year of Bruce’s time as a masked vigilante. Crime is rising in the streets of Gotham City while corruption runs rampant at the upper echelons of authority, corruption that has inspired masked psychopath The Riddler (Paul Dano) to embark on a killing spree of the city’s leading politicians and law enforcement, all while leaving clues and puzzles for Batman to find and solve.
It’s a noirish plot that wears its David Fincher influences on its sleeve and, refreshingly, actually lets the ‘Detective’ side of ‘Detective Comics’ shine, Batman hopping between murder scenes and seedy nightclubs to uncover the webs of corruption and violence that define his city. It’s one of the many ways that this version of Batman distinguishes itself from its various predecessors, helped along by Reeves’s brilliant worldbuilding. Shooting in Liverpool and Glasgow rather than any overly recognisable American city allows Reeves to build a Gotham that really is just *Gotham*, instead of a thinly-veiled analogue for New York or Chicago, and it’s a world you immediately get lost in.
Excellent design is elevated by Greig Fraser’s cinematography – along with his work on Dune, he’s fast becoming the best DOP a blockbuster could hope to get – all in service of a grimy and oppressive atmosphere that still manages to leave room for a lot of fun. Criticisms of self-seriousness have been levelled at this Batman, but that is patently ridiculous. Yes, it’s dark and morbid, but it’s also plenty goofy too, from the buddy-cop dynamic of Batman and Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) to Colin Farrell having an absolute whale of a time as the Penguin, hidden beneath some of the most extraordinary prosthetics work I’ve ever seen. There’s even a wonderful recurring gag with a pair of twin henchmen who keep on popping up looking ever more battered after each fight.
The serious/silly line is one that most of the best Batman comics walk, and Reeves keeps these two tones working in harmony throughout to make this Gotham feel that much more lived-in. Everything feels believable, from the cops’ bemused reactions to Batman stomping around their crime scenes to Riddler’s reimagining as a deadly vlogger, stopping to thank his fans in the chat of his livestreamed rants. Both Pattinson and Dano do really solid work, impressing even though they both spend most of their screentime under masks, while Zoe Kravitz is the MVP as the new Catwoman.
Finding herself embroiled in Batman’s investigation, Reeves and Kravtiz’s take on Catwoman is magnetic, sharing a red-hot chemistry with Pattinson that actually manages to make a superhero film sexy for the first time since, probably, these characters met with different actors all the way back in 1992’s Batman Returns. Pattinson and Kravitz also shine in their more action-heavy moments. Bruising fight choreography giving real weight to the punches thrown in the smaller-scale encounters and Reeves marshals some incredibly impressive set-pieces throughout.
A battle with some gunmen lit exclusively by gunfire is about as cool as a live-action Batman fight scene can be and the centrepiece car chase may be the best Batmobile moment ever captured on screen. Reeves has clearly taken nods from the Nolan films to do as much in camera as possible, and the results are well worth what must have been some titanic efforts, made all the more memorable by their pairing with crunching sound design and Michael Giacchino’s sensational score. Every time the soundtrack kicks in, it’s enough to send a shiver down your spine, Giacchino’s thundering yet malleable music a perfect match for Batman’s mix of intimidation and improvisation.
There are some grievances here and there – Bruce’s relationship with Alfred (Andy Serkis) is too thinly sketched, for example, and the massive runtime feels a little indulgent come the Return of the King-style multiple endings – that mean this doesn’t quite top The Dark Knight as the definitive Batman movie, but they’re minor problems within a really fantastic whole. Like The Suicide Squad and Dune last year (serious credit to Warner Bros for their commitment to putting money behind these more singular big-budget visions), or Reeves’s own War for the Planet of the Apes, The Batman avoids being just more assembly-line *content*. It’s an earnest and immaculately-crafted thriller and, as long as Reeves can keep his new universe clear of any of the multiverse nonsense DC plans to introduce later this year with The Flash, I can’t wait to see more from this world.