The Batman is dark. It takes place largely at night, features multiple scenes of its costumed hero slowly emerging from the shadows, and its new build of the always-murky Gotham City seems to be located in a rainier climate than before, somewhere near the unnamed city from Seven. And yes, The Batman is that other kind of dark, too. Batman, still a little green a year or two into his self-appointed job as protector of Gotham, spends much of the movie chasing down a serial killer who leaves clues scrawled in a creepy-kid handwriting/font-in-waiting, alongside a series of prominent corpses. This is the handiwork of the Riddler, last glimpsed wearing a series of brightly colored, question-marked bodysuits, springing his child’s-garden-of-brainteasers material with the infinite elasticity of comedy superstar Jim Carrey. Now he is a masked, muffled weirdo played by Paul Dano, watching his victims from a distance, working himself into a messy froth to subdue them, leaving taunting messages for the flummoxed authorities via complicated ciphers.
The Riddler may be the most flagrantly antisocial Gothamite we meet in this movie, but the other characters dress up in their own costumes of discontent. Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz), recognizable though not referred to as Catwoman, grimaces through her degrading server work at a criminal-friendly club, as she sets up cat-burglary scores, attempts to protect her friends, and plots various forms of revenge, while Batman (Robert Pattinson) stalks the streets and irritates any cops who aren’t his tentative, already-weary ally Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright). The Bat and the Cat are matching his ‘n her skulkers with voids where their families should be. Only a scarred gangster known as the Penguin (Colin Farrell) seems to be having much fun.
Of course, Batman has a heavy burden to bear—thematically, sure (you ever hear about his parents?!?), but also practically, as the only mainstream superhero who allows rich swirls of darkness and shadow in their palette. (Plenty of superhero slogs get stuck in the gray zone of bad cinematography, falling short of inky blackness.) Certain fans believe that this confers a grown-up respectability upon this Bat-material, which, of course, is largely hogwash. This reputation does, however, give filmmakers more leeway to add textures and shading into the superhero universe. It’s been that way ever since Tim Burton and the stunning production design of Anton Furst brought Gotham to nightmarish life in the 1989 Batman.
Burton’s two movies about this character, especially his masterful Batman Returns, whimsically cross-faded gothic tragedy with circus-sideshowmanship. By comparison, it’s a little difficult to discern how seriously we’re supposed to take The Batman. Based on the past work of director and co-writer Matt Reeves—the dramatic clarity of his Planet of the Apes sequels; the ultimate doominess of his monster movie Cloverfield—it seems like he’s aiming for psychological realism, not too far removed from Christopher Nolan’s beloved Dark Knight trilogy. Those movies were pulpier than some of their most ardent fans gave them credit for, and The Batman is pulpier still, whether or not the filmmakers admit it.
Reeves must at least appreciate comic books; his compositions favor close-ups and shallow focus, and he extends this preference by occasionally affixing his camera to an unusual vantage point—the back wheel of a car, or Batman himself—as action shifts in the background, keeping his foregrounded image unnaturally steady. Here, those shots look especially like panels, without the ostentatious pose-and-crib styling of Zack Snyder, or even the experimental page-flipping of Ang Lee’s Hulk. It’s a more modest and (relatively speaking) subtle way of making the on-screen action resemble the dynamic action of comics. If his Warner Bros. stablemates the Wachowskis specialize in splash panels, Reeves seems to enjoy the smaller corners of the page, the way complicated action can be broken down into single images. He places these eerie moments of clarity within action-sequence tumult, most impressively in a scene where Batman’s muscle-car Batmobile relentlessly pursues the Farrell’s sputtering, wiseass Penguin, or in his longer shots of Batman in combative motion, deflecting bullets and bulldozing various stooges.
Batman does this a lot; he also keeps tromping, workmanlike, out of the shadows, and when he attempts a more majestic, fantastic escape flight, he wipes out spectacularly. I didn’t clock the screen time, but it feels like Robert Pattinson spends more time in that durable Batsuit than some of his predecessors. On the human side of things, he recalls the Keaton/Kilmer Batmen of the ’90s cycle—aloof, remote, and downright socially awkward as a Bruce Wayne who seems to be distractedly thinking of his superheroic tithing even (or especially) when he’s forced to appear unarmored in the harsh light of day. Reeves seems to want to give Bruce/Batman a worthy, knotty case to untangle, and remake his image as a sleepless, irritable private eye. Some of the movie’s zip derives from how unsuited Batman is to reclaiming that world’s-greatest-detective mantle: He clumsily interrogates the Penguin, tries to team up with Catwoman only to watch her repeatedly go rogue, and generally fails to make the friends or surrogate family that might sustain him. (How many Jokers have we gotten on-screen, and yet Chris O’Donnell is the only one allowed to play a proper Robin?!) The ever-loyal James Gordon brings around him to crime scenes and keeps referring to him, from a slight distance, as “man” (as in, “we really gotta go, man”).
Wright makes that line sound like his own, whether it is or not. He brings some actorly personality to his short scenes, as does Farrell. Pattinson and Kravitz rely more on their looks, but not in an empty-model sort of way. They cut the right figures in their various guises, which is half the battle in such a visually driven environment. Regrettably, Pattinson is denied the opportunity to masquerade as Bruce Wayne’s undercover identity as a low-level criminal named Matches Malone. Kravitz, however, has enough DIY for the both of them, sporting a cat-eared ski mask and fingernail claws. It’s fun to watch the Bat, the Cat, and the cop warily circle each other and attempt to chase down clues.
Where the clues ultimately lead, though, feels less lucid. Not so much because the movie is indecipherable (it’s not) or overplotted (it probably is that) but because it scans so much like a comic book, and not a great one. Like most past Batman movies, it pulls from and amalgamates a number of sources. Unlike those past movies, the dominant rhythm is that of a readably unspectacular twelve-issue miniseries—though the comics-world coinage of “maxiseries” makes particular sense for this three-hour movie that’s neither endless slog nor gripping epic. The story adds up, in a nominal sort of way, and has some unexpected twists and tweaks in the final stretch, meant to challenge Bruce Wayne’s obsessions and guide him toward the lessons he’s lost in the pursuit of, as he puts it and as Selina drolly echoes back to him, “vengeance.” What the movie doesn’t do is reach a true crescendo, either of tension (as in Nolan’s films) or grotesque beauty (as in Burton’s). It hits its notes early and often, like the insistently memorable Michael Giacchino theme that accompanies it.
That leaves The Batman most resembling, of all things, the follow-ups to Burton’s work, when Joel Schumacher took the reins for Batman Forever (the one with Carrey’s Riddler) and Batman & Robin. It’s a different tone, of course. Schumacher embraced live-action cartooniness—sets that look like sets; actors that act like chattering wind-up toys—and making kids laugh. If anything, Reeves’ comic relief carries the faintest echo of Burton’s mordant humor. Yet Reeves shares with Schumacher an inability to make the characters feel like they truly exist in between the plot points and set pieces. That’s why certain characters, like Bruce’s loyal butler-guardian Alfred (Andy Serkis), depend on the presumption that they’re arriving pre-endeared to the audience at large, and therefore in little need of character development.
The Batman isn’t completely devoid of feeling. Kravitz has a heat that short-circuits some of Pattinson’s more po-faced tendencies, and it lingers in the air between them even as they’re pulled apart. (Imagine, superheroes with the desire to kiss each other before their relationship is fully and clearly defined!) There are even moments, toward the end, when the movie turns hearteningly optimistic amidst the viscerally rendered gloom, evoking the muddling-through so many of us have found ourselves performing (albeit on a less dramatic scale). Yet much of the actual story consists of lateral piece-moving, dependent on a bunch of gradually revealed and remodified backstory. If the serial-killer trailing and cipher-decoding is supposed to evoke the historical unease of Zodiac (“This is the Riddler speaking,” Dano intones at one point), it lands closer to ’90s thrillers that slickly repackaged dread as flashy excitement–aimed at adults in quote marks, perhaps equally well-suited to fourteen-year-olds. Sound familiar, comics readers? The darkness of The Batman is somehow both richly textured and flimsy–a painting done up on newsprint.