(CNN) — “The Batman” presents a muscular vision of the Dark Knight that hardcore fans have long desired, a dark and serious epic that’s somewhat offset by two disclaimers: At nearly three hours, the movie hangs around too long, really feeling it down the stretch; and despite its origins, this detective-driven take owes more to movies like “Seven” and “L.A. Confidential” than other superhero fare.
First, the very good news: Robert Pattinson is terrific as a young, brooding Batman/Bruce Wayne, narrating his story in a hard-bitten style that recalls the hushed tones of Dirty Harry and the film noir detectives played by Humphrey Bogart.
Batman again operates in a corrupt, muddy-toned Gotham whose ornate trappings are part New York, part “Blade Runner,” and when pressed into action, his fights are bruising, not balletic. The look might be stylized, but director/co-writer Matt Reeves has steeped Wayne’s tragic history in gritty realism, even more so than Christopher Nolan’s trilogy starring Christian Bale.
While running through the cast, there’s also plenty to praise in Zoë Kravitz’s Catwoman (a name never uttered, despite her fondness for felines), Jeffrey Wright’s James Gordon and Paul Dano’s Riddler. The last is dangerous, homicidal and enigmatic in a way that pushes the movie to the edge of its PG-13 rating, bearing a greater resemblance to Heath Ledger’s Joker than Jim Carrey’s manic incarnation, much less the colorful 1960s version.
For those reasons and others, “The Batman” begins extremely well, introducing the masked vigilante — still viewed warily by authorities two years into his on-the-job training — as he teams with Gordon to investigate a grisly, high-profile murder. Lurking in shadows, the Riddler engages them in a game of cat and mouse, sprinkling clues and taunting Batman, who has sought to strike fear into criminals’ hearts, rumbling when one asks who he is, “I’m vengeance.”
The mystery carries through a dense mythology that incorporates not only the tainted foundation upon which Gotham rests, but Batman’s origins (although for once, happily, they dispense with reenacting the murders that orphaned him). Those details emerge in part via Wayne’s interplay with the loyal Alfred (Andy Serkis), while Catwoman/Selina harbors separate but equally grim motives.
However resourceful Batman is, Riddler actually drives the story, in much the way “Seven’s” killer led those detectives on a not-so-merry chase that left a trail of victims. As clues pile up, more and more of Gotham’s power players get drawn into that web, with the Penguin (an unrecognizable Colin Farrell), the top henchman to mob boss Falcone (John Turturro), adding to the Rogues Gallery of villains.
The script by Reeves and Peter Craig in some respects echoes “Batman: Year One,” portraying the character at a more nascent phase, if not a completely green one. The look reflects the art of Neal Adams and Marshall Rogers, whose work in the ’70s helped redefine Batman and cast off the remnants of “Biff! Wham! Pow!” lightness and camp.
While the seriousness is welcome, the level of darkness risks becoming oppressive in a manner that doesn’t leave much room for fun of any kind. If that’s hardly a negative for Batman-ologists, it threatens to blunt the film’s appeal among those who can’t identify the issue of Detective Comics in which he first appeared.
Still, that’s a modest quibble compared to the main gripe that “The Batman” could easily lose 30 minutes without sacrificing much. Most of that flab comes during the final hour, which serves a purpose in terms of the character’s maturation but piles on at least one climax too many.
That’s a shame, really, because Reeves gets so much right that indulging in a “Snyder cut”-length flex from the get-go feels like an unforced error. Given what a major box-office attraction the film should be for hungry theaters and Warner Bros. (like CNN, a unit of WarnerMedia), plus the likelihood of sequels, there was no need to overstay its welcome.
Batman has a long history of provoking passionate reactions and debate, and the latest entry will be no exception. In Pattinson, the producers have found a Dark Knight worthy of the hoopla, while creating a Gotham much in need of him.
As new chapters go, it’s a strong beginning; if only it had known when to end.
“The Batman” premieres March 4 in US theaters. It’s rated PG-13.
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