Batman’s long and colourful screen history has seen plenty of filmmakers and stars come and go, all of whom have — for better or worse — put a unique spin on the iconic character. For Tim Burton it meant creating an especially gothic Gotham City; Joel Schumacher leaned into the camp and went hard on the Bat-puns; Christopher Nolan’s militarised, “realistic” Batman set a new standard for superhero filmmaking; and most recently Zack Snyder’s integration of a trigger-happy Batman into the bombastic DC Extended Universe polarised audiences. The increasingly daunting first hurdle faced by any filmmaker taking on Batman is simply finding an angle from which to create something fresh.

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

The starting point for writer-director Matt Reeves is a smart one: though this is set in Batman’s early years as a masked vigilante it is not — thank god! — another origin story. Reclusive billionaire Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) has already got the suit and car, the combat moves and the growling voice. He’s set up base with his trusty butler Alfred Pennyworth (Andy Serkis) and developed a relationship with police lieutenant James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright). He’s successfully struck fear into the hearts of Gotham’s low-level criminals as the nightmarish embodiment of “vengeance”. But there’s a sense that this is a Batman who hasn’t quite got his philosophy figured out — is vengeance enough?

“This whole town is full of lunatics ever since you came here,” a mobster accuses Batman in The Long Halloween, one of the classic Batman comics Reeves draws heavily on for his film version. (Frank Miller’s Year One is another touchstone.) The idea that superheroes necessitate their villains is an especially prominent one in Batman’s history — and a problem Bruce is forced to grapple with in The Batman when a grizzly series of high-profile murders accompanied by riddles and cyphers also come complete with letters addressed to the Batman himself. His investigation soon leads him to the Iceberg Lounge, a thumping warehouse club and mob hangout spot hosted by Oswald Cobblepot (Colin Farrell), where he encounters crime lord Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) and Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), a waitress with a curious talent for safe-cracking…

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Kyle is, of course, the character better known as Catwoman; Cobblepot is the Penguin, and the serial killer with a penchant for puzzles is the Riddler. We’ve seen these villains on screen before — but never like this. Just one glance from Jim Carey’s manic Riddler from Batman Forever (red hair, bright green spandex, and a question-mark-shaped cane) to Paul Dano’s disturbing new take on the character (sporting a DIY look clearly influenced by the real-life Zodiac Killer) tells you everything you need to know about the approach: this is Nolan’s superhero “realism” taken to the next level.

Did we need another “dark,” “grown-up,” “gritty” take on this character? While there’s still part of me that yearns for another Batman that embraces the inherent silliness of the material — yes, this is me coming out as a Batman & Robin apologist — The Batman makes a pretty compelling case for exploring the Dark Knight’s dark side. Cinematographer Greig Fraser (coming off the back of his impressive work on Dune) manages to craft some striking images out of a shadowy palette; this Gotham’s pouring rain adds a fair amount of texture to a genre generally enamoured with a certain visual flatness. Reeves opts for a particularly visceral approach to the action: you really feel every punch and gunshot. Batman’s stunts have never felt more precarious; even his “wings” are only put to the test when absolutely necessary.

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The Batman manages to be engaging without relying on constant pyrotechnics, though when is does turn to those — as in an explosive highway chase — the results are nothing short of exhilarating. For the most part, however, Reeves’s choice of antagonist provides a chance to move away from familiar save-the-city antics and instead focus on Batman’s comic-book designation as the World’s Greatest Detective; we spend a lot of time with Batman just trying to solve Riddler’s clues. As an attempt to differentiate The Batman from previous entries, it really works. Actually, it’s easy to forget you’re watching a superhero movie altogether — the knotty narrative often has more in common with 1970s conspiracy thrillers than anything else.

Even at a lengthy three-hour runtime The Batman is dense and, perhaps inevitably, ever so slightly overcrowded. Serkis’s Alfred and Wright’s James Gordon are underdeveloped, leaning heavily on our existing knowledge of the characters. Dano’s Riddler dips in and out of the picture, suitably menacing at first and then a little over-the-top once he’s finally given some screen time unmasked — the performance certainly does the job, though. (Like Joker before it, the film collapses seemingly progressive political aims with the aesthetics and strategies of the far right. Expect Discourse.) Kravitz is always a captivating screen presence and Farrell — unrecognisable under heaps of prosthetics — is having a blast. It’s a joy to watch these two.

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Pattinson’s angsty Bruce Wayne can’t match up to Christian Bale’s memorable take on the playboy-billionaire secret identity. (Actually, he’s rarely out of costume; we get the sense here that “Bruce Wayne” is just a useful — if uncomfortable — alter-ego for Batman.) In character as Batman, however, Pattinson might just be the best to take on the role yet. His expressive performance suggests that donning the cape and cowl night after night is not so much a principled duty as it is a dangerous obsession. Pattinson’s Batman, aided by brutal fight choreography and a stunning reinvention of the batsuit, is an imposing, menacing, intense presence. None of it seems particularly heroic, nor is it meant to.

Reeves has managed to create something that feels at once fresh and familiar, synthesising the noir, gothic, detective and action elements that have made Batman such an appealing character across media into a version of his world we haven’t seen on screen before — with a engrossing narrative to boot . As someone who grew up with the comics it is, in short, the film my thirteen-year-old self daydreamed about; perhaps only more complicated or “mature” than the previous films in superficial senses, but hugely entertaining all the same.

The Batman releases in cinemas March 4th.