The Batman  Directed by Matt Reeves. Starring Robert Pattinson and Zoë Kravitz. Plugs: None. Nearest: Cottonwood Mall

The Batman —of course not to be confused with Batman or its many variation and incarnations— is set in a perpetually rainy, decaying, and gloomy Gotham City. Part police procedural and part political thriller, the plot involves a sadistic serial killer dispensing justice (or “justice”) according to his moral code amid the city’s upcoming election.

Along the way he leaves behind a trail of cryptic clues —so, of course, we know he’s The Riddler— about a master plan to rid the city of corruption. Shunned by the police who consider our hero to be a vigilante, Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman, played by Zoë Kravitz) soon shows up to help Batman solve the crime spree.

It’s obvious that director and co-writer Matt Reeves is fascinated by the idea of masks; most of the characters in the first few scenes are masked, and in fact we don’t see Bruce Wayne’s full face until an hour into the film. Masks are an interesting metaphor —and one I researched for my book Bad Clowns—  though the treatment in the film is a bit superficial (of course masks provide anonymity and empowerment, but what else?). The film wants to say more than it does about this and other tropes, ranging from class warfare (we’re reminded that Bruce Wayne is among the so-called one percent, despite his family’s legendary philanthropy); to the toxic effects of social media; to the idea that the sins of the father are visited upon the son; to the fine line between confronting evil and becoming it.

The film has eerie echoes of real-life, ranging from the beginning of the film (in which African Americans threaten an Asian-American man) to the end (in which The Riddler’s plan includes a violent election-day takeover).

This version of Batman is a bit more cerebral than other incarnations, less enamored of gadgets than critical analysis. This is a refreshing change, and in some ways a return to his roots as a crime-fighting detective (the character first appeared in the May 1939 issue of Detective Comics). As with Sherlock Holmes, the way he pieces clues together is part of his appeal, though unfortunately Reeves gilds the lily by having Batman “cleverly” solve often incoherent and nonsensical clues.

The Riddler has always been a Grade-B knockoff of The Joker —which is not to say he’s not a fine villain in his own right. He’s got riddles and ciphers, but most of them aren’t clever even by the script’s standards. For example, one of The Riddler’s puzzles involves something “being brought into the light.” This of course can be a metaphor for pretty much anything, from a secret being revealed to an object being exposed to literal sunlight (I suspected it was some sort of photosensitive explosive).

But no, we eventually find out that the riddle somehow improbably knew for a fact that Batman would appear and do something at a specific place and time, when upon reflection The Riddler couldn’t have known any of it. In another example, Batman just happens to have a random conversation with a random cop who just happens to identify a specific tool used by The Riddler, and Batman just happens to get the idea to use the tool right then and right where he’s standing, which just happens to reveal the Riddler’s master plan, which just happens to occur just as Batman pieces it all together. Had that tool/weapon been tagged into evidence and taken to the police station —as would have been done pretty much anywhere— or if the cop hadn’t been there, or if he hadn’t happened to have casually commented on that tool at that time, or if any number of other events and coincidences hadn’t perfectly aligned, then the third act of the film would not have occurred. I hate to ding a comic book film for such a cartoonish cascade of convenient contrivances, but it undermines the tone of the rest of the film, which is studiously dark and brooding. It’s hard to take the plot too seriously amid such scripted silliness.

Robert Pattinson is a serviceable actor but struggles to command the gravitas of others who have filled out the Batsuit. He delivers most of his lines in a studied low growl, including the genre cliches such as “fear is a tool” and “I gotta do this my way.” Fortunately he is surrounded by the likes of John Torturro, Colin Farrell and Paul Dano, who elevate their scenes. Andy Serkis makes a brief, thankless appearance as Alfred the butler, serving his brooding charge.

The Batman is reminiscent of many other, better films, including Se7en, Phone Booth, Falling Down, and Zodiac. The film would make a pretty good two-hour movie, but is unfortunately padded out to nearly three, only serving to highlight its overly mannered style.

Despite the plot holes and ponderous pace there is much to say for The Batman, from the visual effects to the cinematography. A middling entry into the venerable franchise, it is worth a watch.

Benjamin Radford

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