Before The Batman screened at my local theater, several trailers preceded the nearly three-hour return to the grisly streets of Gotham. One, for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and another pleading Marvel fans and audiences alike to see movies such as the aforementioned in theaters, because that’s the presentation in which they are made for.
Whatever vehicle these superhero flicks are distributed as, they seem to be creating vortexes, with gradually increasing concentrations of star power, beloved IP, and billion-dollar VFX swirling and swirling until they reach a portal that catapults the resulting projects into an infinitely vast galaxy of ephemeral interest.
The same fate almost eclipses Matt Reeves’ Batman installment, though certain tethers keep it from vanishing into the ether.
The Batman’s grounding in a semi-steampunk detective noir presents both a new purpose and a new opportunity for Batman, this time played by Robert Pattinson, to assess the meaning of his existence and vigilantism.
Behind a foreground of oppressive darkness and a cloak of danger around every corner — formed by newly minted Academy Award cinematographer Greig Fraser — lurks a house of cards whose corruption, deceit, and criminality are about to be exposed by a series of murders. First comes the mayor of Gotham, whose now-fatherless son draws Batman’s sympathies to the fore.
While Bruce Wayne’s backstory is thankfully left off camera, the murders of his parents and their status as Gotham magnates drive a day-in-and-day-out murder spree of public officials perpetrated by The Riddler (Paul Dano). A mix of an internet outcast and one of the impoverished folks left behind by community renewal projects, The Riddler is one of Reeves’ attempts to bring The Batman to the present day, though his machinations get lost in the grand scheme of Gotham’s own implosion.
As The Riddler lays his traps and tricks, Batman teams up with Lieutenant James Gordon (a calming Jeffrey Wright) and Catwoman, a rather underwhelming performance by Zoë Kravitz. I’d lean toward the unequal plot vs. substance balance explanation for her chaotic storyline, as she deals with the murder of her best friend (maybe lover? Too much bisexual hinting here), her gangster father/murderer of her mother, and Batman’s secluded, emotionally unavailable, and strictly pacifist nature.
What unfolds is an intricate and devastatingly evil power dynamic between city leadership and the criminal underworld that, of course, can’t be solved with a single movie. The obvious set-ups for franchise sequels, including an unrecognizable and grunting Colin Farrell as The Penguin, an entirely unnecessary kiss between Bat and Cat, and the boyish, self-assuring Joker laugh that emanates from Arkham’s walls, relinquish this movie from any duty to inspire past the first box office weekend numbers.
This is tough, because the film’s aesthetics, cast, moderate pacing, and gravely serious tone are pretty standard attempts to establish a movie, one that tries to gain critical acclaim and separate itself from the oodles of superhero detritus already floating around. Thank goodness it is not a Snyder cut, but, like that film and many, many others in the genre, its existence can’t quite be justified by its merits.