The Batman, directed by Matt Reeves, opens like a detective story. A serial killer, the Riddler, has just murdered the Gotham City mayor Don Mitchell (Rupert Penry-Jones). He’s left a clue for Batman (Robert Pattinson) in the form of a cipher. Soon, more murders and more clues follow. The setting (a bleak Gotham City almost always drenched in rain) and the clues (geometric figures arranged to form an enigmatic pattern) remind you of not a superhero movie, but a David Fincher thriller. Thrillers in fact: the disintegrating city is very Se7en-like, the ciphers Zodiac.
There has been no dearth of superhero films in the last decade. Somebody like me, who is not crazy about the genre, would even like to argue that it suffers from fatigue. Which is why The Batman’s entry point, a stylised whodunnit resembling a noir, is a great choice to dispel tedium. The film has other narrative ‘sweet spots’ as well. This isn’t a Batman origin story, nor does it depict a mature superhero. Here, Bruce Wayne is in the third year of his vigilantism, someone getting used to the horrors of human depravity. As a result, he’s raw and angry; he often talks about “vengeance”; the death of his parents still weighs on him.
This style makes even more sense, because as Batman and cop James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) investigate this case, the many secrets of Gotham City – and the people ruling it – tumble out. These revelations, including the one about his father, shock Batman. Here is someone who sees himself as the city’s saviour, but how can he save something that he doesn’t even know? Then there’s the final piece that completes this puzzle, which is every bit as fascinating and compelling as the film’s other merits, the antagonist Riddler.
Superhero and other big films have found a new obsession with creating villains that mirror the heroes. The results have ranged from stunning (The Dark Knight) to embarrassing (No Time to Die). The Batman’s writers, Reeves and Peter Craig, also enter this overused terrain, but they do so with enough caution and smarts. Unlike Christopher Nolan’s Joker, the Riddler, till a large extent, is not objectively repulsive. He’s also in a strange way Batman’s ally, for he bumps off people who have harmed the city and its denizens, implicitly warning the superhero detective of the long winding road ahead.
Like Batman, Riddler is an orphan (and him being one isn’t a gimmick, for it is the reason behind his killings). When Riddler explains his motivations and upbringing – Paul Dano, the master of searing vulnerabilities, is superb – it is difficult to not empathise. Riddler also does something rare in the ambit of an American superhero franchise: He makes the hero not just doubt himself but also his family, his childhood – in essence his whole identity. Batman makes many sweeping declarations about the state of the world, but what if the villain was in his home all along?
But a distinct lack of moderation hurts The Batman. The first is of course its three-hour long runtime (many Hollywood films of late are getting longer and longer and without enough good reasons). Several sequences overstay their welcome, long after they have established their tenor and essence. Take, for instance, the confrontation scene between Riddler and Batman. It starts off on a superb note, baring the villain’s motivations, backstory, and the true soul of Gotham. But then, it simply does not… end. Or that bit where Batman is chasing Penguin (Colin Farrell). It again ticks all the right boxes, but it doesn’t know when to cut. Such flab makes for a strange viewing experience: scenes that are both good and bad.
A lot of it is tied to how the DC franchise sees itself. Unlike Marvel movies, which are often funny and silly, the DC films are fixated on being ‘serious’ and ‘meaningful’. It’s begun to feel like a shtick. The Batman isn’t as transgressive when compared to the other epic DC misfires, but it does falter enough on its own. The sense of near-complete bleakness (continuing for three long hours) makes the film tedious. But more importantly, Reeves relies on stale expressions – such as rain, flickering sodium vapor lamps, dim lighting – to depict a hopeless world. (This choice works well to begin with, as noted above, but its monotonous nature does the movie more harm than good.) There’s so little humour or other significant tonal variations – and so much of cheesy voiceover (“this city is eating itself. Maybe it’s beyond saving. But I have to try.”) – that you want to tell the makers to relax.
Even its political messaging is muddled. At the start of the film, Mitchell, a proponent of the welfare “safety net”, is exposed as the bad guy, and his opponent, a Black woman, calls him a “rich scum sucker”. Most Hollywood films deride the welfare state to slyly push the agenda of free-market capitalism (which makes sense in this universe, as its hyper-individual superhero is the poster child of such a system). But The Batman also wants to participate in the current conversation about the moneyed elites (who are largely created by destroying the “safety net”), and so it ends up being neither here nor there. Some of its final sobering realisations, such as the futility of vengeance, have been done in so many movies – and done so well that it doesn’t elicit much meaningful response.
There’s enough sincerity in The Batman, however, it makes you believe that the makers are not treating the genre as a ginormous cash cow – a refreshing departure from other similar attempts – and yet it doesn’t fulfil so many of its promises. That’s the most frustrating thing about the film. It sometimes feels like its own villain.
This review was first published on The Wire.