It's almost shocking how hard The Batman works to avoid providing the things audiences have come to expect from superhero movies. Whereas the Marvel pictures are full of action, humor, and fan service, director Matt Reeves has made one that's dour, light on action, and purposefully not fun. Watching it, I was reminded of David Fincher's Se7en, due to the gloomy, oppressive vibe it radiates. This isn't to say the film is bad. There's much to admire, despite a few significant flaws. You just have to be aware of what you're walking into.
The plot is kind of similar to Se7en, too. A psychopath – in this case, the Riddler (Paul Dano) – is brutally killing high-ranking Gotham officials, exposing their hidden corruption in the process. His first victim is the mayor. That immediately spurs Lt. Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) to call in Batman (Robert Pattinson). They put together clues left behind by the Riddler, most of which point in the general direction of local mob boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro). The investigation is complicated by Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz), a cat burglar seeking answers from Falcone about a friend who went missing.
Whereas most superhero movies are action-packed, The Batman focuses more on the Dark Knight following the Riddler's trail. Aside from a couple small fights and a car chase, the action is saved for the final twenty minutes. The film doesn't look like others in the genre, either. Even by Batman standards it's dark. Basically, the only colors here are black, brown, and deep red. At times, seeing the image onscreen is difficult because it's intentionally so murky.
There is something considerably downbeat about the plot. Reeves plays the whole caped crusader thing as though it's real. Bruce Wayne, for example, is a traumatized malcontent, still grappling with the murder of his parents when he was a child. The Riddler doesn't wear a flamboyant question mark-adorned costume; he sports a bondage-like mask with a pair of eyeglasses over it. His menace is portrayed as being akin to a terrorist, and the last act calls to mind actual tragedies like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. This is not Tom Holland's Spider-Man taking on Jake Gyllenhaal's Mysterio. You don't get that sort of larger-than-life sparring between hero and villain.
Does the approach work? Yes, but only to a point. There are many good qualities in the film. Pattinson is perfect for Reeves' vision of Batman, making him a bitter, angry vigilante. Dano is genuinely disturbing as Riddler. The actor seems to draw inspiration from real-life serial killers to create a bad guy who's chilling in how much he thrives on aggression. (Dano and Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight are the only two actors to ever portray a Batman villain who had a real-world sense of danger.) A theme of corruption is handled in an interesting way, too, implying that when it spirals out of control, societal destruction may be the only means of resetting things.
Other factors are much less successful. At nearly three hours, The Batman is way too long, especially given the relentlessly downbeat mood and dreary cinematography. When tragedy strikes during the last act, it almost feels depressing. Selina Kyle isn't really necessary to the story, either. Kravitz is always a welcome presence onscreen, but her character just elongates an already-long story. If Reeves (War for the Planet of the Apes) wanted to make the ultimate “dark Batman” movie, he succeeded. He also lost his pacing to an extent.
Given that some of us are experiencing superhero movie fatigue, there is something slightly refreshing about The Batman's efforts to go in a completely different direction. Matt Reeves has a strong artistic vision that's worth seeing for fans of the Dark Knight. The movie is not a home run, though. It's an ambitious and serious, yet slightly unsatisfying comic book adventure.
out of four
The Batman is rated PG-13 for strong violent and disturbing content, drug content, strong language, and some suggestive material. The running time is 2 hours and 55 minutes.