The Caped Crusader returns in the watchable but redundant The Batman

click to enlarge The Caped Crusader returns in the watchable but redundant The Batman
Robert Battinson and Zoe Catvitz

Does the world need another Batman movie? Plenty of fans of the iconic superhero would say yes, and the filmmakers behind the new feature film The Batman certainly do their best to convince audiences that the character deserves another big-screen showcase. At three hours long, The Batman is epic, serious and dark, signifying its own importance with every moody shot and portentous line delivery. Even if it never feels like an essential addition to Batman lore or the overcrowded superhero canon, it's still a mostly engrossing mystery with some strong performances.

Set in its own standalone world away from other recent DC Comics films (including those featuring different versions of Batman), The Batman stars Robert Pattinson as Bruce Wayne, the wealthy orphan who becomes the vigilante protector of Gotham City. Director and co-writer Matt Reeves wisely does away with retelling the origin story that nearly every viewer is likely familiar with, although he also plays with audiences' assumptions about Batman's background. Bruce's war against crime is still motivated by his parents' murder, but part of The Batman's mystery involves calling the purity of that motivation into question.

Either way, as The Batman begins, Bruce is already established as Gotham's local crime fighter, complete with the bright Bat-signal calling him to action, courtesy of police Lt. Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright). That signal calls Batman to the site of the murder of Gotham City's mayor, at the height of his re-election campaign. There are cryptic messages and codes found at the scene, some addressed to Batman himself, courtesy of a masked killer calling himself the Riddler (Paul Dano).

Reeves focuses on the detective side of Batman, setting up the movie as a murder mystery, as the Riddler takes out prominent figures in Gotham, exposing each of his victims as corrupt and criminal. Dano stays mostly offscreen until the third act, and his Riddler appears mainly via video messages, clad in a green full-face mask. With his elaborate murder tableaux, he more closely resembles horror villain Jigsaw than past versions of the Riddler played by the likes of Frank Gorshin and Jim Carrey, and The Batman comes a bit too close to the absurdity of the Saw movies, especially the most recent police corruption-focused installment.

Pattinson makes Bruce into a figure of grim determination, both as Batman and in his civilian life. There are no glimpses of Bruce's typical rich playboy persona; when he makes a rare public appearance, he looks deeply uncomfortable, and people remark on his reclusiveness. The only levity comes from Zoe Kravitz's Selina Kyle, a nightclub waitress and fellow vigilante who has her own reasons for investigating the Riddler's crimes. As with previous incarnations of Catwoman, she shares a sexually charged dynamic with Batman, alternately aiding him and thwarting him, and Kravitz brings a playfulness to the character in line with previous Catwomen from Eartha Kitt to Michelle Pfeiffer to Anne Hathaway.

Even Selina gets burdened with an extra tragic backstory, though, and Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig tie everyone's fates back to Gotham City crime boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro). Instead of colorful, outlandish costumed villains, the true enemy in The Batman is corruption itself, which fits with the noir tone that Reeves is aiming for. That allows The Batman to be a compelling hard-boiled mystery with a detective who just happens to wear a cape and cowl, although it also results in a movie that can be visually and narratively murky.

Overburdened with extraneous characters whose main function is to set up future movies and TV series, The Batman is a decent detective thriller that's still stuck being a modern superhero movie. ♦

Two and a Half Stars THE BATMAN
Rated PG-13
Directed by Matt Reeves
Starring Robert Pattinson, Jeffrey Wright, Zoe Kravitz

Backcountry Film Festival @ Garland Theater

Thu., Nov. 30, 6-9 p.m.
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