Shuffling out of the cinema after watching The Batman, I felt tired.
It’s not only because the film – the eighth Batman headliner since Tim Burton’s watershed 1989 Batman – is a whopping 176 minutes long. It’s not just that it’s filled with a barrage of fights, chases and explosions. It’s not merely that it’s grim and dour, with barely a single moment of levity. And it’s not even that Colin Farrell – playing the Penguin under scarred prosthetics – submits an extended, exhausting sketch-comedy impersonation of Robert De Niro.
The unbearable weariness from viewing The Batman is the culmination of gathering franchise fatigue, after two solid decades of universe-building, cross-promotion, callback and fan service.
It’s that funny feeling that sets in when you realise that the supposed standalone feature you’re watching isn’t going to be alone at all, that the multiplex is a place where no movie is an island. The burden of contemporary viewership is that you no longer give a one-off donation of two – or three – hours of your time; instead you’re signing up to a screen content subscription plan.
This new iteration of the caped crusader – starring Robert Pattinson and directed by Matt Reeves, last seen helming two artful Planet of the Apes movies – isn’t just a big-budget big-screen spectacle. It’s a foundational piece for a new spate of content, with two sequels and two spin-off television series in the works.
And this is only the first Batman appearance of the year. Andy Muschietti’s upcoming The Flash features a multiverse scenario that allows both Michael Keaton and “Sad Affleck” to reprise their respective Batmen. Keaton will also appear in Batgirl, a feature film that will go straight to streaming.
As the tentpole pictures that prop up the whole Hollywood circus, blockbuster films are difficult to parse critically at the best of times. Their worth isn’t measured in artistic merit but box-office receipts. Now, these films are pieces of huge IP puzzles presided over by vast conglomerates. The gobsmacking global numbers on Spider-Man: No Way Home – the sole post-Covid box office mega-success – mean that this is what the form is likely to be for the foreseeable future: huge movies recycling familiar franchises.
The Batman is aware it’s trading wholly in known commodities and kicks off accordingly. There’s no origin story, no introduction of the character, no need to establish his secret identity or relationships with old standbys Alfred (Andy Serkis) and Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright). And there’s no fetishistic recounting of the deaths of Bruce Wayne’s parents, a decision for which those who’ve seen too many pearls bouncing down stairs in slow motion will be grateful.
But what seems like storytelling economy turns out also to be informed by future content plans. The Batman is a reboot leaving room for its own prequelisation: a television series is in development that will explore this iteration of Batman’s beginnings.
The keyword for this rendering of the big black bat is “dark”. Reeves and Australian cinematographer Greig Fraser – fresh off an Oscar nomination for his work on Dune – render the picture in a radically limited colour palette, in which gradations of blacks – entirely free from clichéd steely blues – are contrasted with reds or the dull glow of orange lights.
Some of The Batman’s most striking sequences make vivid use of light blooming in darkness, such as a fight sequence in which pitch black is sporadically illuminated by bursts of automatic weapon fire, or a climactic scene where Batman lights a flare amid low-light chaos, leading Gothamites out of floodwaters – and the darkness – in borderline biblical fashion.
Here, Gotham lives up to its name: downtown is filled with looming Gothic architecture and Wayne Manor rather resembles a castle. Underneath the cowl, Pattinson is dressed as Goth Batman: black emo fringe hanging down over ghostly pallor, eyeliner so smudged it looks as if he’s wearing black metal corpse paint.
He’s a self-described “nocturnal animal”, an insomniac addicted to the thrill of night-time vigilantism. The Batman takes place entirely outside of office hours, with not a shot in broad daylight, let alone sunshine. Most of the time, it’s pouring rain. This Gotham is evidently inspired by the unnamed metropolis in David Fincher’s iconic 1995 serial-killer thriller Seven.
There’s a Seven influence in its villain, too. Paul Dano’s Riddler undertakes a series of moralising murders as an elaborate art-project lecture on decaying society, stringing investigating police and superheroes along with a host of clues, each more devilish than the last. Given The Riddler was last seen on big screens being played by prime ham Jim Carrey in 1995’s Batman Forever, Dano’s seething performance here is striking, expanding in both emotion and scope as we grow closer to the human lurking beneath the supervillain.
In comparison, Pattinson is sadly muted. Since forcibly ditching his teen heart-throb persona, Pattinson has delivered a host of gonzo performances in wild art movies, from his ridiculous outings for Australian director David Michôd (The Rover and The King) to acclaimed work in the Safdie brothers’ Good Time and Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse. Here, the unmasked Pattinson moves between glowering and frowning and, when dressed as Batman, mainly just punches people and growls the answer to riddles.
As Gordon, Wright is handed endless, thankless exposition dumps. Zoë Kravitz’s Catwoman, though only vaguely sketched as love interest, is a complicated character who you wish had more screentime. As a contrapuntal vigilante working both with and against the Batman, she’s there to raise questions about the morality of vengeance, with the film arguing that revenge isn’t a dish best served cold but an act that stains the soul.
Reeves would like this to be the grand takeaway from the film. The Batman introduces himself by proclaiming “I’m vengeance”, but slowly learns the limits of ultraviolence, the pitfalls of revenge and the foolishness of black-and-white morality.
But mere moments after the heroic climax of the movie – where Batman prioritises saving good people over killing bad people – there’s a cameo from the unnerving Irish actor Barry Keoghan as a mysterious, cackling Arkham Asylum prisoner who’s rumoured to be the latest iteration of The Joker.
Marvel at least saves this promotional stuff for credits scenes. Here, the teaser is stuck in before the emotional conclusion. Such a placement means that, at the end of three long hours, you’re unlikely to be leaving the cinema puzzling over the Riddler’s riddles or the ethics of vigilantism. The ultimate takeaway can only be: but wait, there’s more.
The Batman is showing in cinemas nationally.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 5, 2022 as "Hell of eternal recurrence".
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