It’s cause for modest celebration that “The Batman” achieves, for much of its nearly three-hour running time, a baseline of artistry: it’s eminently sit-through-able. There’s a category of movie that used to be the Hollywood stock in trade, which a dear departed relative used to call “brain cleansers”—one kicks back, the time passes with some rooting interest, some excitement, some curiosity about what’s coming next. For its first two hours or so, “The Batman” largely fulfills the commitment to be engaging and clever; its deftly inventive director, Matt Reeves (who co-wrote the script with Peter Craig), conveys the impression of substance where it’s hardly to be found. The movie is good with an asterisk—an asterisk the size of the financial interests at stake in the franchise’s intellectual property. As free as Reeves may have been to make the film according to his lights, he displays an element of custodial, even fiduciary, responsibility. It may well win him favor with the studio, with the ticket-buying public, and with critics who calibrate their enthusiasm to box-office success, but it gets in the way of the kinds of transformative interpretations of the characters that would make the difference between a baseline movie and an authentically free and original one.
The Batman is a vigilante who works with the coöperation of the police, who project a bat-sign into the sky, with a bright light, as a call to him and a warning to evildoers who anticipate him swooping in. Yet, as he lands on a subway platform and lays low a gang of young miscreants, made up Joker-style, who are assaulting an Asian man, the victim is also struck with fear and pleads with the Batman not to hurt him. The Batman describes his uneasy role as an avenger—indeed, he says, as vengeance itself—in a voice-over that holds out hope that the superhero will be endowed with at least an average level of subjectivity and mental activity. No such luck: that voice-over might as well be a part of the explanatory press notes for all the insight it offers into the protagonist’s thoughts. Yet his haphazard thwarting of random street crime in the chaos of Gotham City gets sharply focused on one criminal, the Riddler (Paul Dano), who, in the opening act of his crime spree, virtually summons him.
The Riddler gruesomely murders the mayor of Gotham and tapes to the victim’s body a greeting card for the Batman and other clues to his motives and to his next victim—to the conspiracy that he has discovered and the perpetrators he’s targeting. In taunting the Batman by dosing him with knowledge, the Riddler is also making him an unwilling but inextricable ally, both forcing him to join in the same fight and informing him of the underlying and overarching truth about Gotham, about the social order that the avenging masked man is dedicated to defending and preserving. The Riddler has learned that many of the city’s officials, particularly ones involved in law enforcement, have been on the take from gangsters (I’m avoiding spoilers here and throughout); decisions to prosecute are tainted by the self-dealing of politicians and police.
The Batman is drawn even further into the tangled conspiracy when he accidentally encounters another masked avenger, Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz), who, as Selina Kyle, works in a night club run by a gangster named Oz, who is nicknamed the Penguin (Colin Farrell), and frequented by other criminals, such as a mobster named Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), and corrupt officials. When her roommate and lover, Annika Koslov—whom the Riddler linked to the conspiracy—vanishes, the Batman helps her to investigate, and she helps him to untangle the web of corruption that the Riddler has discerned and capture the Riddler himself. Meanwhile, the Batman is working closely with a police detective named Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), who, in collaborating in the pursuit of the Riddler, is playing the dangerous game of unmasking corrupt colleagues and superiors.
The reason for dwelling on these details is pleasure. The intricacy of the movie’s intertwined plots has a plain and simple efficiency that undergirds the onscreen actions like an architectural framework, and Reeves adorns that framework with a vigorous variety of visual twists and dramatic tempi. The opening scene, in which the Riddler spies on the mayor before doing him in, involves a telescope that Reeves (working with the cinematographer Greig Fraser) mimics with a telephoto lens, while, on the soundtrack, the masked Riddler wheezes with a huffing eeriness out of David Lynch. The best gizmo in the Batman’s bag of high-tech tricks is a pair of contact lenses that are also video cameras beaming their signal to the devices of his choice. The movie’s design also offers a handful of piquant touches, from the infinitesimal points of Catwoman’s mask-ears to the cable zip line that the Batman discharges for rapid rescues and escapes. (The Batmobile, however, is definitively outshone by the vintage black Corvette in which Bruce Wayne, out of disguise, shows up at a funeral.)
There’s a car chase that, if not especially original, at least conveys its obvious patterns in images of taut precision and culminates in the film’s money shot, which brings it to a rooting conclusion with a strikingly clever and simple twist of visual logic. There’s a fight scene in a dark room at night where the only light comes from bursts of gunfire; there’s a jolt of superheroic vulnerability when the Batman makes a midair misstep in his flight suit. In a movie deprived of humor, one moment of it bursts out with a gleeful surprise, as the gargle-voiced Penguin cuts loose with a rant attacking the Batman’s linguistic skills. That’s as good as it gets, though; the laundry list of moments that pop hangs on the framework as if to conceal its essential emptiness.
The crucial marker of the movie’s faux earnestness is visual darkness—the movie is set largely at night (explained in part by the Batman’s own nocturnal habits), which furnishes the bland metaphor, or cliché, for grim doings. The sleek foreground of elaborate yet functional design doesn’t reverberate with symbolic power; it has no loose ends for the free play of imagination. Its coherence is impressive, overwhelming—and deadening. The energy of directorial intention doesn’t reach offscreen—it implies nothing beyond the action. (It’s the kind of enticing visual beauty, conveying above all the realm of power, that Kogonada questions in “After Yang.”)
The emptiness below the movie’s surfaces reflects the emptiness of the characters it depicts; they’re reduced to a handful of traits and a backstory, defined solely by their function in the plot. Even though the title character bears two identities and lives a double life constructed of careful and elaborate ruses, “The Batman” makes shockingly little of Bruce Wayne. Robert Pattinson’s performance provides the only hint of substance: in both personae, he maintains a stone face throughout. The utterly repressed expression that he lends them could suggest anything from self-discipline to existential anguish, though I see it as a superhuman effort not to burst out laughing at the simulation of seriousness, of any personality at all. The movie’s solid dramatic architecture is essentially uninhabited—“The Batman” is a cinematic house populated only by phantoms with no trace of a complex mental life.
The indifference to characters as sentient beings rather than pawns in a plot emerges in a twist that’s a long-standing marker of action-film superficiality: apocalyptic chaos. Again avoiding spoilers, the Riddler doesn’t only target individual high-level miscreants in Gotham but decides that the entire city deserves to go down with them. (The possibilities, with its Biblical implications, are endless—and remain untapped.) When his monstrous scheme is unleashed, crowd scenes conjure mass destruction as a plot point, the staggering loss of life as a generic and inchoate jumble. Extras, whether live or digitally created, are anonymous collateral damage in a city that “The Batman” presents only as a stage for the clash of its protagonists. The movie’s inability to imagine its superheroes and supervillains with any meaningful psychological identity is of a piece with the failure to imagine ordinary people with any degree of individuality. Nothing that distracts from suspense or excitement, no details of personality to get in the way of superficial identification with flattened-out heroes, nothing that suggests a world of possibilities beyond the sealed-off borders of the screen, is allowed to seep through the movie’s solid and opaque surfaces. Its triumph of superficial pleasure is chillingly triumphalist.
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