When making a movie, some directors excel at world building. With “The Batman,” director Matt Reeves has created something bordering on a masterpiece — reminiscent of the groundbreaking look of Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” of 1982.
Reeves, who honed his chops with such movies as 2017’s “War for the Planet of the Apes” and 2014’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” teamed up with production designer James Chinlund and director of photography Greig Fraser to design a Gotham that hasn’t been seen before — quite dark, grimy and rainy, but still with a bit of light.
Reeves and his team construct a world that looks plausible but not immediately recognizable — and they do so by using the gothic architecture of Wellington Square in Liverpool as a stand-in for Gotham Square. Then the team adds skyscrapers, some of which are unfinished and rusty, indicating the stunted growth of a once-thriving metropolis.
The movie opens on Halloween night, a little over a year after Gotham scion Bruce Wayne (Rob Pattinson) has begun patrolling the streets of his corrupt city and meting out vengeance. He’s still getting used to being Batman, and he’s moody and lonely but quite driven after the untimely death of his parents.
The Batman mutters to himself as he drifts around town on Halloween, watching revelers in their various masks, trying to figure out whether evil intent lurks behind some of them. Soon enough, of course, evil does emerge — in the form of a brutal killing of Gotham’s mayor.
Lt. James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) is investigating the murder and allows Batman to survey the scene — in part because whoever murdered the mayor left a note addressed to Batman. The note is a riddle, and every Batman fan will immediately know that the note is from the Riddler (Paul Dano), who turns out to be launching a killing spree of Gotham’s top leaders.
Other characters from the Batman universe pop up in various ways. Most notable is Catwoman, played slinkily by the amazing Zoe Kravitz. She turns out to be gunning for some of the same bad guys as Batman, and the two form an uneasy alliance that simmers with sexual tension.
Among the bad guys are Oz, otherwise known as the Penguin, played by Colin Farrell, unrecognizable underneath a mountain of prosthetics, and Gotham’s top gangster, Carmine Falcone (John Turturro). They hang out at the secretive hot spot known as the Iceberg Lounge, where shady district attorneys and cops consort with fellow criminals.
Catwoman works at the Iceberg Lounge under her street name, Selina Kyle. And Kravitz portrays Catwoman as a survivor who has had to fight amid corruption — sort of a cross between Evelyn Mulwray in “Chinatown” and Bree Daniels in “Klute.”
All of these ruminations about set design and characters of the Bat universe are, of course, secondary to the concerns of some moviegoers, who want to know whether the new film delivers the mandatory highly choreographed fight and chase scenes.
The answer is yes. In fact, a chase scene between Batman and the Penguin rivals the one in 1971’s “The French Connection.”
But to say much more would get into spoiler territory, so let’s just keep this short. If you’re looking for a movie that not only has artistic merit but also thrilling action, then “The Batman” might be for you. It’s bound to be a box-office winner, even though it’s nearly three hours long.