It’s a given that Batman is going to be dark and brooding, the way Hamlet is going to be (or not to be) indecisive or Nancy Drew inquisitive. He is the Dark Knight, after all. But in “The Batman,” the latest go-round for billionaire Bruce Wayne’s crime-fighting alter ego, the dude’s so dark as to be practically nocturnal.
The movie is available only in theaters. It officially opens Friday, with screenings at some venues as early as Wednesday night (speaking of nocturnal). It won’t start streaming, on HBO Max, until at least mid-April.
While it’s true that bats don’t like daylight, “The Batman” takes things so far we might as well be discussing Vampireman. It’s not just Robert Pattinson’s pallor in the title role or the gloom-filled supervillainy of the Riddler (Paul Dano) and the Penguin (Colin Farrell).
There isn’t a single scene in broad daylight — and there are an awful lot of scenes. Clocking in at just under three hours, “The Batman” is lugubriously long. And the four scenes not at night take place either at dusk or dawn. Oh, it also rains a lot. You’d think Gotham City was a stand-in for Seattle instead of New York.
Darkness and precipitation — we’ll return to brooding — help create an overall oppressiveness that’s central to Matt Reeves’s conception of both Batman and “The Batman.” Reeves directed and co-wrote the script, with Peter Craig. Underlit and overblown is a formidable combination, though not necessarily in the way Reeves intends.
The grandeur that Christopher Nolan was able to achieve in his “Dark Knight” trilogy here comes across as grim, glum ponderousness: solemn without being serious. The word for this effect, if you approve, is stately. If you don’t, then everything simply seems a half beat from parody. True, things never cross over the line. But considering how humorless the movie is, maybe that’s not altogether a good thing.
“The Batman” has lots of action — fights, murders, explosions, floods, the vroom-vrooming of not one but two motorcycles, Batman’s and one belonging to a rather pouty Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz). What the movie doesn’t have is a whole lot of energy. It’s strange that something which takes its title, in part, from a creature that flies should be so earthbound. “The Batman” doesn’t plod, but it sure lacks a spring in its cinematic step. An uninspired score by the usually inspired Michael Giacchino doesn’t help.
The movie is consistent in mood and look. That consistency may be a mistake, but it’s clearly intentional. Reeves has a solid track record: most notably “Cloverfield” (now there was a lively, agile movie) and the two most recent “Planet of the Apes” movies. He knows what he wants and he gets it. There is nothing haphazard or serendipitous about “The Batman.”
Which brings us to Pattinson and brooding. The obvious question to ask of any new Batman is how good is he. With Pattinson, it’s hard to say, since Reeves wants to restrict the performance to broodiness. There’s an irony to this, insofar as it was Pattinson’s dash and wit that made him the best thing in “Tenet,” directed by, yes, Christopher Nolan.
Pattinson is 35, but this incarnation of Bruce Wayne is meant to be 28 (it’s 20 years since the death of his parents). The character’s still figuring out what it means to be Batman. He’s just finishing up his Dark Knight internship. For one thing, this is a superhero who seems to enjoy violence a bit too much. “Fear is a tool,” Batman says in voice-over (a consciously noirish touch). When a mugging victim says to Batman after being rescued, “Please don’t hurt me,” you can see why the guy might worry.
Pattinson looks haunted throughout and intentionally tentative. There’s a narrowness to the performance that works but in a workmanlike sort of way. There’s nothing extravagant about Pattinson’s acting here, and if an actor can’t be extravagant kitted out in cape and cowl, when can he? Pattinson does display a very good stare, but stares are about the absence of emotional expression. That absence extends to his line readings. He speaks in a near-constant monotone. It’s like a dial tone with words. Close your eyes, and you could be hearing Clint Eastwood’s filed-down rasp: “Go ahead, make my Bat-day.” It’s probably just as well that Pattinson and Kravitz have such little chemistry. Otherwise their scenes would produce cognitive dissonance.
Inexpressive Dano’s Riddler is not. His standout performance continues the tradition of supervillains stealing the Batman show (e.g., Heath Ledger’s Joker, Tom Hardy’s Bane). This Riddler’s engine revs very high, which feels just right. Farrell is unrecognizable as the Penguin. In a weird way, this makes sense, as this is a fairly peripheral Penguin. Peter Sarsgaard snivels expertly as a corrupt district attorney. John Turturro is excellent as a mob boss. Andy Serkis, as Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s butler, and Jeffrey Wright, as Police Commissioner Gordon, are fine.
Batman’s darkness has a lot to do with his being such a compelling, and disturbing, character, since his virtuousness is bound up with a kind of moral nihilism. “The city’s eating itself,” we hear him say in voice-over, early in the movie. “Maybe it’s beyond saving. But I have to try.” The character remains true to “have to try,” but it’s the “beyond saving part” that the movie thrills to — and at some level maybe he does, too.
The tone throughout is relentlessly nightmarish. We hear in graphic detail a woman being strangled. Several elaborately baroque and sadistic murders are executed by the Riddler (apparently, his favorite movie is “Se7en”). The finale throws together social media, mass shootings, political assassination, and an allusion to climate change in a way that’s presumably meant to be topical and “relevant,” but instead feels exploitative and even uglier than the rest of the movie.
The ugliest thing about “The Batman” isn’t any of those things. It’s the movie’s rating. “The Batman” is part of a high-profile, big-budget franchise from a major studio/conglomerate, so, hey, it gets a PG-13. That’s just wrong. “The Batman” should be an R (see previous paragraph). Parents, hearing PG-13, might understandably think, “Oh, well, it’s a superhero movie. We can take our 10-year-old and what fun we’ll have.” Uh, no. Truly, the Motion Picture Association ought to be ashamed of itself, assuming such a thing were possible.
Directed by Matt Reeves. Written by Reeves and Peter Craig; based on characters created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. Starring Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Colin Farrell, Peter Sarsgaard, Andy Serkis, Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro. At Boston theaters, Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, Somerville, suburbs. 175 minutes. PG-13 (but it should be R, and rather a nasty R at that).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.