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The Batman review

You’ve seen a lot of Batman flicks, but this is the darkest one yet. The Batman, starring Robert Pattinson as DC’s Caped Crusader, is a dramatic and apocalyptic film. Bruce Wayne has been fighting Gotham City street crime for two years, ever since his parents were murdered. He’s forged a partnership with upstanding detective Jim Gordon, but nothing prepares them for a grotesque masked murderer’s chillingly planned string of atrocities. As Batman deciphers the cryptic clues, a larger scheme emerges. The true puzzle is how the ranting killer’s bizarre reason relates to Batman.

The Batman (in theaters March 4) is hardly a superhero film. Matt Reeves, who co-wrote the script with Peter Craig, combines prior Bat-films: The single Joker movie’s psychological history, oddly timeless style, and layers of black sarcasm are all present.

But it’s also a detective mystery, pulling from David Fincher’s serial killer chillers Seven and Zodiac. It’s a gangster movie. 70s conspiracy thriller. And a grim noir. Above all, The Batman is a horror movie.

Tim Burton’s Batman shook and offended pearl-clutching parents in 1989. The tights-wearing comic book hero was replaced by a traumatized oddball in black rubber fetish gear, sparring with a grinning, acid-scarred madman. The movie has to be given a new rating in Britain.

Let’s not get into the constant fan debate about whether superhero movies are for kids or adults. You can’t show a child The Batman. This new film is PG-13, but it’s on a different world than the relatively bloodless Dark Knight films, immersing you in a three-hour nightmare of mounting dread and simmering misery with some shockingly cruel touches.

This deliberately scary Batman flick starts with a sinister opening full of serial killer terror and torture porn. They are introduced as a whirling mass of faceless, masked beings. Michael Giacchino’s furious soundtrack and jagged horror movie strings add to the suspense. Instead, a grotesque serial killer plunges the city into a boiling cauldron of growing terror. Batman stalks the night with a heavy stomp and heavy fists, meting out retribution with a chilling lack of impact.

Robin is a scruffy mess, unlike Christian Bale’s polished professional or Ben Affleck’s grizzled old man. This youthful Bruce Wayne is unformed and yet already unraveling, murmuring a Taxi Driver-esque voiceover as he drowns in a filthy torrent of anarchy and degradation. Pattinson is the Batman, his finely angled jaw and expressive eyes looking from beneath the black mask indicating misery. Still, a bit less of Batman slowly… walking… and… thoughtfully… looking… With all his fighting and detective prowess, this Batman is shaky. That gives the film vitality.

Zoe Kravitz is excellent as Selina Kyle, the Catwoman to Pattinson’s Bat. It’s a film full of schlocky turns rather than character exploration. The same goes for Jeffrey Wright’s Jim Gordon, who has to stand next to Batman and yell exposition at him. John Turturro’s purring menace echoes Brando in The Godfather, while a hardly recognizable Colin Farrell channels Robert De Niro’s Al Capone from The Untouchables.

A more humanized Batman — not only as Bruce Wayne but as Batman himself — is refreshing after 14 films. This Batman doesn’t just vanish from a room but has to flee for his life. One of the film’s pleasures comes when Batman performs something we’ve seen him do a million times, but Pattinson’s wince shows it’s his first time. One of the most dangerous and exciting moments in superhero history.

While the tale revolves around sleuthing, the action scenes are thrilling. The fights are shown in long lingering views, with the Batman wading through them with the economy. The utilization of light and shadow adds to the punch-up intensity. Apocalyptic vehicle chases are among the most exciting. No shiny high-tech speedster or city-conquering tank for Pattinson’s Batman. This Batmobile is a devilish hot rod, lighted exclusively by blood-red taillights and infernal flame. It’s a fiery high point in a crazy film.

The Batman’s psychological and political undertones are complex, not least in its depiction of women. Despite the big cast, there aren’t many. The plot revolves around a woman’s murder, which is repeated several times. This is a dramatic twist for a crucial woman in Bruce Wayne’s life. Selina Kyle is a motivated badass, but the camera (and Batman) lingers up her stiletto boots to her tight skirt before revealing her.

Unlike earlier films, Batman is explicitly tied to the Riddler’s voyeurism and violence. The moral ambiguity is more akin to the darkly satirical Joker movie. When Batman first arrives, a mugging victim cannot tell his attackers from this demonic creature who brutally punishes them. That Bruce Wayne is a wealthy guy who enjoys hospitalizing the poor is also a first for a Batman film. It’s a lot like the Joker movie: inequity may radicalize an oppressed society. But Joker concentrated on a villain, so you had to be in on the joke. A more positive moral grounding can be found in Batman’s dark world, where the hero is a conflicted, doubtful figure.

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