Why so serious? Robert Pattinson's The Batman is a joyless slog
Director Matt Reeves serves up a solemn and self-pitying take on the caped crusader
Every generation gets the Batman it deserves.
The 60s brought us the Bang! Pow! pop art attitude of Adam West. Tim Burton gave us a Gotham both gothic and gorgeous with Michael Keaton's iconic take in 1989. In 2005 Christopher Nolan erased the excesses of the Joel Schumacher era with his terse, growling Dark Knight series.
But Batman may have finally met his match with Matt Reeves' ponderous and posturing take on the crime fighter.
The Batman stars Robert Pattinson as a young man trudging forward on his mission of vengeance.
Not quite an origin story, the film finds Batman in his second year on the job. Bruce Wayne is practically hollow, emptied out by grief over his dead parents, grimly focused on balancing the scales.
Noir ambitions fall short
Director and co-writer Reeves created a thrilling series with his two Planet of the Apes films, populated by intelligent beasts who wrestled with their all-too-human ambitions. But as Batman, Pattinson is little more than a cartoon.
In a dark and dingy Gotham where the sun never rises, the film is littered with hard-boiled dialogue, Batman whisper-muttering in his opening narration, "The city is eating itself, but I have to try."
In interviews, Reeves has hinted that his interpretation of Batman is more a film noir, more of a detective story than the typical comic book blockbuster.
Nolan, who directed The Dark Knight series, has also talked about the influence of noir in his work. Part of what Nolan admires about the genre is how characters reveal themselves by their actions.
The problem with this Batman is, he does more reacting than revealing. And for all the clues he's given, he's actually a dismal detective.
PG rating tempers Riddler's reign of terror
The main agent of action here is the Riddler, Paul Dano as a giggling masked maniac who is terrorizing Gotham's upper crust as he traps and murders them. With his cryptic notes and cargo jacket, the Riddler comes off as the Unabomber updated as a Twitch streamer.
Again, so much of this is about shock value rather than anything actually scary, since The Batman is handcuffed by its family-friendly PG rating, the result being something like a Saw movie made for Disney+.
As the body count builds, Batman joins forces with Lt. James Gordon — Jeffrey Wright as Gotham's one good cop who has a partnership of sorts with the mopey crime fighter.
While Wayne wears his trauma on his sleeve (next to his grappling hooks), there are other angels in Gotham.
Back from Planet of the Apes, Andy Serkis upgrades from Caesar the chimp to Alfred the butler. Unfortunately, Alfred's customary dry humour has been surgically removed in favour of a sad, solemn caretaker who worries about Wayne's fate.
Bat and Cat lack chemistry
Much like composer Michael Giacchino's moody music, the film is relentless, with a running time clocking in at just under three hours. To be frank, I didn't believe a second of it.
Zoë Kravitz plays Selina Kyle in a subtler take on Catwoman, an opportunist who burglarizes Gotham's seedy underbelly. While recent DC comics have enjoyed fleshing out the relationship between the Bat and the Cat, here the chemistry between Pattinson and Kravitz is positively inert.
Hidden under enough prosthetics to create Clayface, another Batman villain, Colin Farrell is unrecognizable as the crime lord Penguin. While he's one of the few characters who seems to be enjoying himself, with the Jersey accent, you have to wonder why Farrell was cast in the first place.
But that is this Batman, everything for effect but lacking logic.
Even Batman's new ride, here a growling beast of a muscle car with a glowing red engine and sleek tail fins. As the Penguin flees from a nightclub, Batman jumps in the car, revving the engine for maximum menace … only to idle calmly as the mobster makes his escape.
Surprisingly, the best of the rogue's gallery is John Turturro as Carmine Falcone, a crime boss who is simply amused by Batman. Turturro doesn't have any powers or flashy costumes, he's just an innately interesting presence who gives us a character both believable and threatening.
Under all the angst there are interesting, if underdeveloped ideas. The story scratches at the surface of the notion that Batman may be causing more problems than he solves and that his parents were less than perfect.
Dour knight needs a sliver of light
While Reeves has cited Taxi Driver and Chinatown as influences, The Batman has more in common with the similar tone of 2019's Joker.
They both tap into a toxic brew of frustration and self pity, substituting anger and aggression for actual character development. Those emotions have a powerful pull and I wouldn't be surprised if The Batman finds an enthusiastic audience just as Joker did.
In his tortured take on the master detective, what Reeves has forgotten is the sliver of light used to illuminate the best of film noir.
The private dicks and gumshoes never took themselves too seriously, and in a world still processing the horrors of the Second World War, their sardonic wit is what kept the darkness at bay. But instead of shining, this dour knight is a slog.
The Batman opens in theatres on March 4.