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The Batman is a flawed but striking pop-noir blockbuster

Robert Pattinson goes goth in a superhero movie that's at least one great villain shy of greatness
Robert Pattinson in The Batman
Robert Pattinson in The Batman
Photo: Warner Bros.
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In The Batman, Matt Reeves’ slick, overlong, majestically moody superhero spectacular, Robert Pattinson really puts the goth into Gotham City’s chief protector. His eyes slathered in mascara like Robert Smith (or The Crow, another nocturnal winged avenger), this version of the DC crime fighter zips around town on a motorcycle to the non-diegetic accompaniment of Nirvana’s album-closing downer “Something In The Way.” He also narrates the film in hushed voiceover that teeters, gargoyle-like, over the edge of self-parody. “They think I’m hiding in the shadows,” he whispers. “But I am the shadows.” These musings sound like diary entries—and it turns out that’s exactly what they are. At last: a Batman who journals!

The Bat is a limiting role for any actor. How much emoting can you really do with just your chin? Keaton, Bale, Affleck—they all had the secret identity to play with at least. In The Batman, we barely see Bruce Wayne with the cape and cowl off. When we do, he’s the same glumly laconic dude. Pattinson, returning to blockbuster duty a decade after playing a different creature of the night, squashes the essential duality of the character, erasing any real difference between Wayne and his alter ego. In doing so, maybe he gets at an essential insight about the ageless adolescent appeal of Batman—namely, that he’s something of an ageless adolescent himself, a guy so stunted by childhood loss that he exists in a permanent state of teenage angst.

The Batman exists in that state, too. This may be the broodiest of all cinematic takes on the Dark Knight, a version much more Gen X in its disaffection than the Bat-movies they made in the ’90s. It also may come closer to the experience of reading a Batman comic than any Batman movie before it. Reeves paces his epic almost like a limited series—you can practically identify the moments where one issue is breaking into the next—and he complements his sometimes episodic storytelling with a striking visual variety.

The director and his co-writer, Peter Craig, draw heavy inspiration from a particular Batman story, The Long Halloween, setting their movie during roughly the second year of Wayne’s moonlighting vigilante tenure, before most of the town’s goons have gone full rogue. As in that acclaimed story arc, there’s a serial killer on the loose—in this case, a version of The Riddler who’s knocking off prominent members of the city’s social and political elite. We’re a long way from the capering question-mark theatricality of Jim Carrey or Frank Gorshin: As played by Paul Dano, under a goggled steampunk anarchist getup, this deranged puzzle enthusiast has more in common with Jigsaw or the diabolical John Doe of Seven. Of course he fancies himself a kindred spirit to Batman. What lunatic worth his weight in themed weapons doesn’t?

There’s method to The Riddler’s madness. His murder spree is designed to publicly expose a web of secrets and lies, connecting the mob boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) to dirty lawmakers and lawmen, as well as Wayne’s late industrialist father (who, thankfully, we don’t have to see gunned down in an alley for the umpteenth time). That makes The Batman the rare Detective Comics adaptation to privilege actual detective work, with Reeves devoting as much time to crime scenes and clues as he does to well-orchestrated scenes of Batman beating the snot out of hoodlums. The mystery could use a knottier, more intricate architecture, though. Isn’t every Batman movie ultimately about the corrupt heart of Gotham? The revelations here might be less shocking than Reeves imagines, even for those who haven’t read the celebrated source material on which he’s loosely riffing.

The Batman has some of the rain-slicked neon dreariness of a David Fincher procedural, but it’s still set in an outsized comic-book world of good guys and bad guys. It’d be difficult to call any of these iterations of the characters definitive, even as most of them are played by first-rate actors. Zoë Kravitz brings an uncommon emotional realism to Catwoman, reimagined here as a nightclub waitress with a vendetta against the mob. The lack of va-va-voom campiness is less detrimental than the way the script jettisons this classic anti-heroine’s usual shifting allegiances and moral ambiguities. She’s nearly as on-the-level as a pre-promotion Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright)—and less interesting for it. And then there’s Colin Farrell as fellow Batman Returns heavy The Penguin, still a low-flying bird in Gotham’s criminal pecking order. Unrecognizable under mounds of Dick Tracy prosthetics and a goombah accent, Farrell is mostly a hoot. But it’s a glorified cameo.

As a work of multiplex visual art, of blockbuster eye candy, the film can be breathtaking. Reeves understands the graphic power of this graphic-novel material; he has an illustrator’s eye for exaggerated angles, previously demonstrated in the locked-vantage action sequences of his Let Me In and Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes. Here, he flexes that talent during a chaotic car chase that ends with an upside-down POV shot of Pattinson’s hero emerging triumphantly and terrifyingly from an inferno. Earlier, Reeves firms up Batman’s intimidating bona fides through a montage that keeps cutting to criminals glancing nervously into pockets of darkness, until the towering hero finally steps slowly and ominously out of one of them. And the film sounds even better, thanks to a remarkable Michael Giacchino score that alternates minimalist strums and imperial marches; it’s somehow in the same league as the operatic themes Danny Elfman once lent the franchise.

The Batman
The Batman
Photo: Warner Bros.

As The Batman creeps into hour three, it becomes clear that, for all its doomy pulp grandeur, the movie is missing something crucial, and that’s the gravitational pull of true infamy—the villainous magnetism of a Nicholson or a Pfeiffer or a Ledger. Its Riddler gets a great introduction, scouting his first victim with binoculars in the creepily voyeuristic opening scene. But the more we see of him, the less scary he becomes; Dano, who seemed like inspired casting on paper, can’t seem to find a consistent persona—even a consistent voice—for this master of enigmas. When the movie finally puts him and Pattinson face to face, it’s a pale imitation of a similar moment in The Dark Knight—all you-and-I-are-not-so-different bloviating. And giving the psychopath a QAnon-like internet following turns out to be little more than an easy explanation for how a lone-wolf killer amasses henchmen.

Still, the film sustains its seductive atmosphere—its hushed pop-noir cool—even as the story fizzles into a string of reveals and a curiously perfunctory climax. The Batman is as much a plot machine as the Christopher Nolan movies (the exposition could be stacked into twisting skyscrapers), but it moves differently, crawling and slinking over its extended running time instead of racing through it like a bat out of hell. And if we didn’t exactly need another Batman movie, there’s a charm to seeing one relatively steeped in the language of the original medium… even if a part of that language is a portentousness suitable only for tortured costumed orphans or goth kids of all ages.