Sorting through the good and the bad of ‘The Batman’

This radical rethinking of a superhero movie (starring Robert Pattinson) is somehow both overlong and too short

Brad Keefe
"The Batman" starring Robert Pattinson

Entire generations have grown up with superhero movies, so it shouldn’t even be novel that these movies have gotten more and more adult. Still, writer-director Matt Reeves’ “The Batman” feels so boldly out of the box in the genre, it has to be noted.

It’s the grittiest, darkest, most noir big-screen Batman to date, but it also has heady themes and a three-hour runtime.

Often enthralling but sometimes a bit undercooked, it may be the first movie I’ve ever watched where I came away wanting either more or less.

Instead of another superhero movie, Reeves used familiar characters to drop us into an investigation of a string of murders. It’s a reminder that the comics company that introduced Batman, DC Comics, is short for Detective Comics.

(No spoilers below beyond the loose plot for those who care about these things.)

In an exceptionally dark and rain-soaked Gotham City — honestly dark, even by Batman standards — a high-profile murder sets the city on edge.

Police Lt. James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) ruffles some feathers on the force by immediately involving Batman (Robert Pattinson). Of course, he would have been involved soon enough. There was a greeting card addressed to The Batman at the crime scene.

The murderer’s identity is less of a mystery to the audience, as the enclosed card contains a riddle (and a cipher code).

With the profile of the first victim and the scope of the killer’s true plans coming into focus, Batman forges an uneasy alliance with Celina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz). She works at a bar connected to mob boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) and his underboss Oz aka The Penguin (Colin Farrell).

What unfurls is a layered and complex mystery, a far cry from the sort of theme park ride of Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman.”

“The Batman” is even denser than Christopher Nolan’s much-hailed “The Dark Knight.” It’s far less focused on action set pieces than any superhero movie to date.

Instead, it’s a gritty mystery and character study. The film feels closer to David Fincher’s “Zodiac” than any superhero movie, and the extended dance between its hero and villain is reminiscent of Michael Mann’s “Heat.”

What “The Batman” gets right truly elevates it to a serious drama and an exciting new world for superhero movies. Reeves' willingness to take bold chances should be applauded.

The cinematography is miles from the bright colors of Burton, capturing a dreary Gotham in a state of decay. It’s accentuated with a great score — and a great use of a song that will resonate with the generation that grew up with Burton’s Batman.

Pattinson proves what I already knew: The backlash around his casting was wildly misdirected. His ability to act through the suit (more screentime for Batman than Bruce Wayne easily) is an impressive feat, and his Batman is more tortured than any before. He speaks in more of a whisper than the gruffness that’s signature to the character.

Speaking of acting through the suit, a completely unrecognizable Farrell works wonders with limited time. The cast, in fact, is a joy throughout, including Andy Serkis actually not acting in a (motion-capture) suit as Alfred.

Then there’s the star who plays that villain who leaves those riddles. In the off chance you haven’t seen who it is, I actually won’t mention him by name. This is up there with any of the all-time great Batman performances.

The downside of all this great casting? Some of this talent is underutilized, and some characters (and a romance) are underdeveloped, which feels ridiculous in a movie that’s three hours long.

“The Batman,” good as it is, is simply overstuffed. Three-hour movies are always a bit punishing, but the movie ends up with too many plates to spin.

So I wanted less to make a more palatable movie experience, yet some things felt like there was more to explore. What’s the solution? Hear me out.

I found myself thinking what an amazing limited TV series this could have been. Imagining this cast and mystery-first approach, stretching this out over 6 hours could have given it more room to breathe.

My quibbles with the runtime aside, I think audiences going in expecting a more grownup mystery drama than a tentpole action movie will love “The Batman.” I really liked it, but Nolan is still king here.

“The Batman”

Now playing in theaters

3 stars out of 5