Movie Review: A “Batman” for a vengeful age

A signature chase in “The Batman” involves the new Caped Crusader and his new hooniganed Batmobile — a Camaro/Mustang mashup — chasing Oswald Cobblepot through the anarchic, gloomy and rain-soaked streets of Gotham City.

As you would expect, that chase does not go well for “Ozzie,” aka “The Penguin.” And one cannot help but note the crashed vehicle the feckless, cagey criminal in peeled out of after attempting his getaway. It’s a Maserati.

The one thing that truly separates the Batman/Dark Knight movies from every other comic book adapted for the big screen is that we always get a Batman of our moment. Actors change and cars evolve and the tone and the nature of the villains shifts more dramatically still, always to suit “the moment.”

And there are no coincidences in movies like this, which are production-designed to death. Today’s villain drives a Maserati, on and off the screen.

The Robert Pattinson Batman era comes in a time of trauma, treachery and treason, with the very Republic at stake. Director and co-writer Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield,” a couple of Planets taken over by Apes) sets us up for a tale of vengeance in a time of great wrongdoing, with leaders murdered and criminals as big as rogue state rulers.

It’s too long, and maybe there’s a little too much concern about the way Pattinson’s hair flops over one eye. But from first frame to last, Reeves matches the master, Christopher Nolan in two important regards. As in the last Nolan “Dark Knight,” this Batman is embattled and almost overwhelmed by a city and its institutions coming apart at the seams.

And like Nolan’s “Knights,” this beast of a movie looks, sounds and plays as epic.

In that signature first act chase, it’s not just the howling, drifting Batmobile bearing down on an almost unrecognizable Colin Farrell as The Penguin. Michael Giacchino’s thunderous score makes us feel it is justice itself — vengeance — closing the gap to take out this version of a “Teflon Don.”

Pattinson — armored in a Batsuit meant to bulk him up and make the character’s many unsurvivable blasts, plunges and bullet blows seem survivable — grows into the persona this Bruce Wayne is projecting, a callow young man fighting crime, his past and the demons he carries, known and unknown. He’s good in the part.

In cowl and combat boots, BatPatts looms over Jeffrey Wright‘s returning (future) commissioner James Gordon, whose role has been beefed up to take the “carry the picture” burden off the “Twilight” hearthrob. And in casting the willowy and petite Zoë Kravitz, Reeves and Warner Brothers give us the tiniest Catwoman ever, shorter even than the feline Eartha Kitt. Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne in a Batsuit towers over her, even as the guy behind the mask is intimidated by the tiny tyro pursuing her own agenda.

Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig set this just-after-origin story in a time of rampant corruption — dirty cops and phony “law and order” politicians — and crime, with one unseen criminal murdering “hypocrites” in public life in a very public way, leaving the few uncorrupted cops and The Batman ciphers and riddles to figure out.

This Riddler isn’t cute and funny. He’s The Joker’s Just-as-Evil-Twin. But finding him is going to take teasing out his riddle/clues and tricking or entrapping the city’s crime boss (John Turturro, playing an unexcitable monster who’s comfortable in his own skin), this Penguin fellow (Colin Farrell), Catwoman and a DA (Peter Sarsgaard) whose motives seem as sketchy as a certain real-life “Gotham” DA.

Ok, maybe THAT’s actually a coincidence.

Pattinson gives us a Batman laboring under too much voice-over narration, but oh-so-right in one all-important regard. He’s fighting crime, dealing with nightly summons from the already-established Batsignal. He’s troubled, grasping for clarity and dealing with the police from a position of mutual distrust. They’re corrupt, he’s a “freak” overstepping his authority, thanks to his new friend and protector, Gordon.

With his trusty manservant Alfred (Andy Serkis) bearing the scars of an ex “Circus” (British intelligence) spy whose bodyguard work kept the kid alive, this Bruce Wayne started this “crusade” thing young, as an almost masochistic duty. He never questions that impulse, just doggedly goes about his business as the bodies pile up.

“Maybe it’s beyond saving, but we have to try.”

Kravitz makes a fine Catwoman, although the physics of somebody 5’2″ and model-thin kicking ass seems more a stretch than usual. Serkis has too little to do and our Riddler’s revelation is anti-climactic, despite the accomplished actor playing him.

Farrell’s transformation is Jared Leto “Gucci” level, so extreme as to make one wonder why he and they went this far.

Turturro and Wright are so good that Pattinson holding his own with them tells you all you need to know about him in the role. All those years of indie thrillers and quirky dramas after “Twilight” paid off. It’s not just about the eyebrows and hair any more.

The lack of supernatural aliens and alien gods has always made this comic book universe a favorite of mine, and I’m hard pressed to mention any “Batman,” even the Joel Schumacher ones, that didn’t connect to its era and try to say something about our times and the state of the nation in some way.

“The Batman” isn’t light, with just a couple of lines landing laughs, one of them detailing the orphaned son of murdered parents’ “No guns” ethos, which Gordon isn’t having.

“Yeah man, that’s your thing.”

Reeves, who did a good job of making the “Apes” movies topical enough to chew on, positions his comic book movie not just as a worthy successor to Nolan’s trilogy, but as a gritty, real-stunts/real-gravitas counterpoint to the digital effects heavy Marvel films and DC’s own “Wonder Woman/Justice League/Aquaman” efforts.

Yeah, it’s too damned long. But cleaning up this big a mess, Reeves and Craig tell us, is going to take a lot of time, and even then, there’s no guarantee evil won’t triumph. The hero our times call for is somebody undaunted by the task, undeterred by the odds, unswayed by negative press. And like the best among us, he’s still wearing a mask.

Rating: PG-13 for strong violent and disturbing content, drug content, strong language, and some suggestive material

Cast: Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Jeffrey Wright, Colin Farrell, John Turturro, Andy Serkis, Paul Dano, Alex Ferns and Peter Sarsgaard.

Credits: Directed by Matt Reeves, scripted by Matt Reeves and Peter Craig, based on the Bob Kane comic book. A Warner Brothers release.

Running time: 2:55

BOX OFFICE: “Batman” already a big hit.

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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