After years of hype, delays, and a Ben Affleck-shaped rework to boot, Matt Reeves’ The Batman is finally here – to the tune of a staggering $248m opening weekend. This continuity-free take on the Dark Knight truly has free rein to be whatever Reeves and its eclectic star Robert Pattison wish it to be. The result is a dark, sprawling new iteration of the Caped Crusader, that stands proudly as one of the best cinematic versions of the character yet.

Gone are the clunky origin stories, wacky sidekicks, and gravelly voices that marked previous versions of Batman. Here, Robert Pattinson plays Bruce Wayne as a Nirvana-listening, brooding emo, leading a life of solitude in his cave, with his brambly relationship with butler Alfred (Andy Serkis going cockney) as the only interaction he gets. Taking cues from the iconic comic run The Long Halloween, this is a Batman stooped in brutality, willing to go to whatever lengths necessary to strike fear into Gotham’s criminals and dish out his form of vengeance following his parents’ murder. It’s an even darker spin in the character after Nolan’s masterful trilogy, but Reeves makes it work expertly.

The adversary this time around is Riddler, previously seen on-screen as a spandex-wearing Jim Carrey cartoon. Paul Dano’s take on Edward Nashton (not Nygma this time) takes plenty of cues from the Zodiac killer, with cryptic hand-written notes to police and brutal, symbolic killings to get his ideology across. It’s a darker take on the character than we’ve ever seen before, bereft of the zany guessing games and wacky one-liners, and for the first time in Riddler’s history he’s truly intimidating here. It’s a role that Dano was seemingly born to play, after equally stellar turns in thrillers like Prisoners, and it’s great to see his take on the character provide such a stirring impact.

Of course, though, the star of the show is Pattinson’s Batman, melding the consistent broodiness of Michael Keaton’s Caped Crusader with the brutishness of Ben Affleck’s under-developed interpretation. Pattinson absolutely sinks into the role and is all but unrecognisable, with an imposing physique and gravelly presence rarely associated with the softly-spoken Twilight alumnus. It’s aided by a script from Reeves and Peter Craig that places Batman, not Bruce Wayne, firmly as the narrative crux. We only see Pattinson outside of the cape and cowl in a handful of scenes, and it gives him so much room to create a Dark Knight that’s arguably more comic-accurate than ever before. He’s long been labelled the world’s greatest detective, and after glimpses in The Dark Knight, this film finally lets us see exactly why he earns that title.

This take on the bat doesn’t pull his punches — except in one notable case — but learns an awful lot throughout, doing the origin story in a subtle but impactful way. We don’t see Bruce Wayne become Batman, but we certainly see him coming to terms with what being Batman means. That’s on top of electric chemistry with Zoë Kravitz’s Catwoman, a sleek, endearing, and more developed spin on the character than previous iterations. Her performance, and Catwoman’s characterisation more broadly, may be some of the film’s biggest surprises, in a back-and-forth that more than surpasses that seen in 1992’s Batman Returns.

But none of it would click without the masterful direction from Reeves, that seeps through every scene and frame like the rain-drenched Gotham streets. His take on this property is rooted in film noir, with hints of Fincher and even a bit of Nolan to spruce things up. That’s not to say his vision isn’t singular: there’s an almost nostalgic 90s feel permeating the film, even down to things like the Batmobile design that work so well. His directorial style is slow, dense, and sprawling, and it leads to a 176-minute product that’s given plenty of room to craft its own world and then tell a story. The length and pacing aren’t the sort of things that’ll appeal to those tangentially familiar with the character, but it’s good to see a director given total control over his product.

That pacing isn’t always perfect though, and one of the few glaring issues with The Batman is its somewhat clunky third act. It’s not as grating on a rewatch, but towards the 150-minute mark the film teeters with a seemingly logical conclusion, before ramping things up again for one last dance. It’s not necessarily a problem — The Dark Knight does something similar with the Two-Face twist at the end — but it does feel a little haphazard after the pacing slowly broils down in the third act.

But that’s a minor criticism in a film that’s otherwise gripping, thematically rich, and incredibly rewarding. Batman is a character who has been done quite literally to death on the big screen over the decades, and it’s testament to Reeves and Pattinson in particular that their new version is able to reignite such feverish excitement among audiences. While the difference between Reeves’ and Nolan’s Batmen isn’t quite as distinct as, say, Nolan’s and Joel Schumacher’s, it’s a comic-accurate take on the character that’s hard not to instantly fall in love with.

Calls will be rampant for a sequel, something Reeves himself has hinted at, and it’s hard to see a scenario where Pattinson doesn’t don the cape and cowl once more. It’s quite the feat to make an eighty-year-old character feel fresh and exciting all over again, but The Batman does exactly that. It’s one of the very best comic-book films full stop, and a rollicking, intellectually stimulating watch that reaffirms why this character has endured the test of time over and over again.

★★★★½