CHICAGO - With two notably cartoony exceptions, the last 30-some years of live-action Batman storytelling have been an experiment in increasing grimness.
Tim Burton brought gothic gravitas to a character best known for kitschy ‘60s excess. Christopher Nolan grounded Burton’s comic book aesthetic in a realistic world. And Zack Snyder gave the character a grimdark ethos — even as spin-offs like "Suicide Squad" and "Joker" embraced their own respective brand of edgelord undertones. (Only Joel Schumacher’s two late ‘90s entries were bold enough to suggest that maybe a campy live-action Batman isn’t such a bad thing.)
In that sense, director Matt Reeves’ latest take on the Dark Knight is both something new and more of the same. Live-action Batman movies have essentially become to our current era what Julia Roberts rom-coms were to the ‘90s. The pleasure and/or limitations of these films come from seeing familiar pieces rearranged in slightly new ways (a new British character actor as Alfred, a new design for the Batmobile) even as they head toward largely predictable endpoints.
This time around, "The Batman" offers a weirder, less likable Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattison) and some slightly subversive things to say about its own genre. (If "Batman Begins" is "Pretty Woman," "The Batman" is "My Best Friend’s Wedding.") But at the end of the day, it’s still yet another grim and gritty Batman movie — one that’s plentiful style can’t quite make up for its lack of substance.
About "The Batman": Buckle in for a long ride
Zoë Kravitz and Robert Pattinson in 'The Batman.' Photo: Warner Bros.
The thing about those Roberts rom-coms is that they were at least usually short and fun. "The Batman," on the other hand, is incredibly self-serious and unconscionably long, clocking in at a whopping 2 hours and 56 minutes.
Set during Bruce’s second year operating as the caped crusader, "The Batman" is a "Seven" meets "Chinatown" neo-noir detective thriller in which Batman must hunt down a cryptic Zodiac-style serial killer (Paul Dano’s Riddler) while unraveling a web of citywide corruption that involves organized crime players like John Turturro’s Carmine Falcone and Colin Farrell’s Penguin.
Aiding him in that mission are two classic noir archetypes: Jeffrey Wright’s Lieutenant James Gordon, seemingly the last good man left in the Gotham City Police Department; and Zoë Kravitz’s Selina Kyle (a.k.a. Catwoman), a femme fatale with her own agenda.
It’s not a bad pitch for a Bat-tale, and comic book fans who’ve longed to see a live-action film emphasize the character’s "world’s greatest detective" side will no doubt be pleased. Within the confines of its PG-13 rating, "The Batman" is much more unnerving than previous Batman installments, with a seedier take on Gotham and a villain who not only violently bludgeons his victims to death but also dreams up "Saw"-style torture scenarios he then broadcasts on his various social media feeds.
Jeffrey Wright and Robert Pattinson in 'The Batman.' Photo: Warner Bros.
The trouble is — as with 2019’s "Joker" — grafting a somber pastiche onto a superhero base coat can sometimes feel more exhausting than rewarding. With little playfulness outside of Kravitz’s, and occasionally Wright’s, performance, there’s something that starts to feel increasingly ridiculous about watching a grown man in a batsuit frantically solving riddles in order to prevent another man’s head from being blown off by a collar bomb.
‘The Batman’: Pastiche stretched to the limit
While genre stories have long provided a space to hash out big ideas about human nature and morality (just look to Reeves’ two mid-2010s "Planet of the Apes" films for stellar examples), "The Batman" lays out its themes of vengeance and greed so bluntly that they start to lose their punch.
It doesn’t help that all the beating heart humanity Reeves gave his primate protagonists is missing from his po-faced take on Gotham City. It’s as if Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig were so panicked they might never get to make another Batman movie that they decided to cram an entire trilogy’s worth of story into this one, leading to a film that heavily favors plot over character.
Andy Serkis in 'The Batman.' Photo: Warner Bros.
There’s an interesting kernel of an idea to Reeves’ vision of Bruce Wayne as a socially awkward, reclusive weirdo — half cynical, sleep-deprived noir detective; half "Donnie Darko" loner— but the specificity that might actually endear us to the film’s characters is missing. When Alfred (Andy Serkis) is threatened, we care not because the movie has spent any meaningful time fleshing out the specific dynamics between this Bruce and this Alfred, but because we always care about Alfred, right? Why write an actual relationship when you can just rely on likable actors and general cultural osmosis instead?
See ‘The Batman’ for: Its visual panache
Robert Pattinson in 'The Batman.' Photo: Warner Bros.
The real shame of the film’s bloated runtime is that it bogs down the pieces that do work — namely a third act subversion that reconfigures the nature of the story we’ve been watching. Although, even there, there’s an unresolved tension to what "The Batman" spends its time luxuriating in and what it ultimately wants to critique. Reeves may be less performative in his excess than Snyder, but his filmmaking is no less indulgent.
Indeed, indulgent is perhaps the best word to describe "The Batman," from its lengthy runtime to its evocations of violence (one villain's scheme near the end of the film dances up against the limits of good taste) to its self-serious sense of importance.
But indulgence isn't always a bad thing, and the biggest strength of the film is its sumptuous visuals. Without directly modeling his compositions on splash pages, Reeves still manages to convey the feeling of a comic book brought to life — as Batman stalks towards the camera backlit by flames or Selina takes a moment to steady herself in the flashing lights of a sordid private club.
"The Batman" looks great, particularly on the big screen. And it’s certainly cohesive in its vision. But when that vision is so similar to what’s come before, this one is more for pre-existing Bat-fans than Gotham City tourists looking for something new.
Opens in IMAX previews March 1; exclusively in theaters March 4. Rated PG-13. 176 minutes. Dir: Matt Reeves. Featuring: Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano, Colin Farrell, Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro, Peter Sarsgaard, Andy Serkis.
About the writer: Caroline Siede is a film and TV critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, she lovingly dissects the romantic comedy genre one film at a time in her ongoing column When Romance Met Comedy at The A.V. Club. She also co-hosts the movie podcast, Role Calling, and shares her pop culture opinions on Twitter.
Prep for ‘The Batman’ with these movies, streaming (for free!) on Tubi
Lured (1947): For a whole new side of Lucille Ball, check out this 1947 noir in which she plays an American dancer who gets called in by Scotland Yard to help them solve a case involving a serial killer targeting lonely women. Rated TV-PG. 102 minutes. Dir: Douglas Sirk. Also featuring George Sanders, Boris Karloff and Charles Coburn.
Battle Royale (2000): Call it the original "Hunger Games." This 2000 Japanese action-thriller is set in a near-future world where the totalitarian government curbs juvenile delinquency by selecting a random high school class to fight to the death each year. Once banned for its controversial subject matter, "Battle Royale" has now emerged as a brutal, bloody, hugely influential cult classic. Rated TV-MA. 122 minutes. Dir: Kinji Fukasaku. Language: Japanese. Featuring: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda, Taro Yamamoto.
The Raid: Redemption (2012): Widely considered one of the greatest action movies of the 2010s, "The Raid: Redemption" (otherwise just known as "The Raid") follows an elite squad tasked with infiltrating a high-rise building run by a ruthless drug lord. Anchored by the Indonesian martial art of Pencak Silat and some creative staging in a limited setting, "The Raid" carves out a brutal action movie aesthetic all its own. Rated R. 100 minutes. Dir: Gareth Huw Evans. Language: Indonesian. Featuring: Iko Uwais, Joe Taslim, Doni Alamsyah, Yayan Ruhian, Pierre Gruno.
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