Well, that was dumb.
I had faint hopes that writer-director Matt Reeves, who did some interesting things with the Planet of the Apes reboot, might find a fresh, consistently worked-out angle on The Batman. But I was disappointed. That is, for nearly three slogging hours, I was disappointed.
“Overlong and underlit” is the leading critic’s joke going around, but the midnight-in-the-alley look of The Batman was okay if unremarkable. There was big talk about this movie being modeled on film noir, a genre that at its darkest and most powerful represented modern society as an existential hell from which there was no escape. But really, The Batman doesn’t go much further into noir than rainy night scenes and angsty poses. It wallows around in Gotham’s supposedly limitless depravity for a while then takes it back in the end.
Gotham always has to be bad enough to be policed by Batman, but this film promised a bit more. All municipal authority in Gotham — government, police, courts, everything — is shown to have been mob-run for decades and ethically diseased through and through. But in the film’s earnest closing scenes, the brave, idealist mayoral candidate tells a rapt crowd that Gotham can be saved through belief in elected officials “and each other.”
Batman/Bruce Wayne, played as a depressed arrested-development case by Robert Pattinson, seems to be realizing over the course of the film that that this whole violent vigilante thing might not be mentally healthy or even beneficial to the community. In his opening scene, Batman moans “I can’t be everywhere” in a city almost leprous with evil draining from the top of the power structure. He then follows up on this declaration of urgency by descending on some teenage muggers in Halloween makeup and savagely beating them.
This attack on small fry when sharks are everywhere in the water seems to indicate a critical view of the caped crusader. What’s his crusade? But at the end of the film, as a newly compassionate Batman looks out over a semi-destroyed Gotham and decides to stay, he says he must fight against “the lawless and the looters,” who will be scavenging in the ruins of the city.
There’s so much ideological confusion in the film, it’s tempting to excuse director Reeves, who cowrote the script with Peter Craig, on the grounds that he probably meant to look more insightfully and consistently into the dark heart of the Batman character and his gangrenous city, and simply got overruled at certain points — that is, at the Hollywood ending, in particular. But the word is that Reeves got a very high level of creative control and insisted on a complete rewrite of the script when he took over the project from Ben Affleck.
To be fair, diving into the full extent of Gotham’s political corruption isn’t such a bad approach. Still fairly familiar, but promising — if it had been more boldly worked out. Also not bad is having the Riddler maddened by poverty and envy, secretly longing to align himself with wealth even as he targets the elite. He’s obsessed by finding a fellow vigilante figure, so that it makes sense when he blathers exultantly to Batman, “We’re a team!”
It’s the waffling and uncertainty about what effect is being sought from scene to scene that ultimately drains the film of interest. So much is treated earnestly that could only make sense as a kind of Paul Verhoeven deep satire, such as when a rapidly reforming Batman slowly, carefully, tenderly saves a tiny group of people from destruction while, at the same time, most of the population of the city must be dying horribly. And he does it holding a burning torch aloft like the Statue of Liberty.
As usual in these huge-budget Marvel and DC Comics things, a lot of gifted actors are standing around dwarfed by the gigantic production but doing their expert best to make an impression. John Turturro is excellent as a smiling mob boss, and Colin Farrell is clearly having a riotous time in a few scenes as a lowlier gangster, the Penguin, even if he is buried under prosthetics. Paul Dano is convincingly creepy as Edward Nashton aka the Riddler, here portrayed as a semidocumentary-style serial killer. And Zoë Kravitz is gorgeous and slinky in a weakly written version of Selina Kyle aka Catwoman, working as a nightclub waitress, a drug dealer, and a cat burglar until her girlfriend is abducted by mobsters, leading her to throw in with Batman. Jeffrey Wright as Lieutenant James Gordon, Batman’s ally on the Gotham police force, and Andy Serkis as Batman’s faithful butler Alfred round out the cast.
So many villains mean so many plotlines to develop and then wrap up, and they are by no means efficiently handled. No movie ever signaled so many near-conclusions. And the messy structure isn’t bolstered by regularly timed action scenes, which are surprisingly sparse in relation to overwhelming amounts of dialogue and exposition. In fact, the Riddler’s morbid Seven-style torture-murders are what structure most of the film. The only memorable action scene is Batman’s nighttime chase after the Penguin on a traffic-jammed highway, punctuated nicely by the Penguin’s indignant screeches at being pursued by a driver even more maniacal than he is.
Of course, this movie’s review-proof, and everyone’s going to see it anyway and judge for themselves. They’ll all go see the next version of Batman too, which will also feature the supposedly fresh approach of making it darker than this current Batman. But “darkness” in these films tends to mean unimaginative low-key lighting and insincere luxuriating in urban rot and moral ambiguity that always seems to resolve itself into the usual dopey good guys versus bad guys face-off.