As comic-book villains go, the Riddler has been particularly hard to take seriously. The guy leaves cryptic clues to his crimes? What’s scary about that? How do you make him intimidating? Taking him out of that green bodysuit with the question marks is a good start for The Batman. The Riddler here wears a gas mask and dark-colored basic attire, and so he first appears in the living room of Gotham’s mayor (Rupert Penry-Jones), staring out from the shadows unnoticed by the politico, who’s in the midst of a tight race for reelection. This Riddler is a torturer with a wicked sense of humor — he kills the mayor, cuts off his thumb, and attaches it to a USB drive so that Batman can find the “thumb drive.” Even mutilating his victims isn’t enough, so Riddler releases photos of that mayor beating his mistress, destroying the man’s reputation postmortem. Because great villains have a flair for drama, he then crashes the mayor’s funeral by sending a car barreling through the church doors carrying the DA (Peter Sarsgaard) with a bomb strapped to his neck. The movie avoids overusing the bad guy by refusing to put him in the same room with the main characters, instead having him appear on TV and smartphone screens to taunt the authorities. The Riddler is played by Paul Dano, who has been playing creepy killers since his teen years. Now in his late 30s, he still looks like the kid you beat up in high school and who got even with you by ripping the brakes out of your car. Just as Heath Ledger’s Joker made The Dark Knight into a Batman movie for the War on Terror, Dano’s Riddler makes this into a Batman movie for our post-Jan. 6 era of fascists next door.
As we pick up the story, Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) has been the Batman for two years, and crime in Gotham has only risen since he started. We first see him beat up a bunch of subway thugs in clown face paint, and if that’s a jab at Todd Phillips’ Joker, I’ll take it. When the Riddler starts killing off the city’s most powerful officials, he leaves a trail of clues addressed to the Batman specifically, which is why Lt. Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) lets the Caped Crusader take an active role in the investigation. Corruption is rife among Gotham’s politicians, cops, and wealthy citizens, and the Riddler airs evidence that Bruce’s own martyred father ordered the murder of a journalist.
There’s more still in this movie’s 175 minutes, much of it revolving around Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), a nightclub bartender employed by a mob boss (John Turturro), who steals from her workplace but is clearly out for more. This actress has too seldom found roles that call on her to do more than be hot, but she’s incandescent here as a bisexual cat burglar who deploys her hotness to distract men or win them over. Turturro, meanwhile, makes a chilling kingpin, never more so than when our heroes hear an audio recording of him soothing an employee with his voice before murdering her. Colin Farrell is unrecognizable under prosthetic fat as the Penguin, and he injects some much-needed comedy playing the character as a low-level functionary, especially when he points out a purposeful grammatical error in the Riddler’s Spanish-language threat. “Am I the only one who knows the difference between ‘el’ and ‘la’?”
I wasn’t that big a fan of director/co-writer Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield or his Planet of the Apes reboots, but he does his finest work to date here, especially in a set piece where Batman and Gordon stake out Penguin’s operation, only for Catwoman’s unexpected intrusion to result in people dying. This leads to a great car chase with the Batmobile going after Penguin the wrong way down the freeway and the bad guy causing a chain-reaction pileup that Batman is lucky to escape. Reeves delivers clearer action sequences than any previous Batman director.
Even better is the way the Riddler is revealed as a mirror image of the superhero who busts Bruce on his privilege: “You’re not an orphan when you’re in a tower overlooking the park.” His criminal plot causes more death and devastation than any version of the Joker we’ve seen, partly because he’s been helped by his internet-troll followers and partly because he weaponizes information and undermines faith in all of Gotham’s institutions. One of the Riddler’s anonymous minions is captured, and the man repeats the Batman’s catchphrase: “I am vengeance.” Our costumed do-gooder has created his own enemies, and The Batman is the superhero movie that best questions whether having superheroes is a good thing.
Starring Robert Pattinson and Zoë Kravitz. Directed by Matt Reeves. Written by Matt Reeves and Peter Craig. Rated PG-13.