Ever since Frank Miller revitalized the shopworn Batman character in 1986 with his four-issue comic book series The Dark Knight Returns, filmmakers of various stripes have tried to replicate its brooding, nihilistic tone. Tim Burton was first out of the gate but his 1989 Batman now seems as cartoonish as Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy, released a year later. Christopher Nolan's trilogy certainly set the franchise back on course although his trademark polish lacked the noirish grit of the Miller comics. I passed on the Zack Snyder/Ben Affleck Batman outings, but now we have Matt Reeves's coal-black, rain-drenched The Batman. It may be the closest thing to Miller's 1986 comics, but it's far from perfect.
Robert Pattinson now steps into the Batboots after doing enough wacko indie dramas to convince audiences that he's not just the vampire toyboy from Twilight. I have no doubts about the actor's chops, but I never quite bought him as either Batman or Bruce Wayne. Although Pattinson is reportedly 6'1", there's something small and fragile about him: when his Batman towers over a roomful of policemen, I kept wondering, "How high did the costume department have to make his platform boots?" In short, he fails to intimidate. In his Bruce Wayne guise – maybe just 20% of his screen time – Pattinson's boyishness is especially apparent, in spite of or perhaps because of his floppy emo hair. It's suggested that his Wayne is about 30 years old and not the billionaire playboy of previous iterations but a gloomy loner. (Ample use of Nirvana's "Something in the Way" drives this point home.) Within the world of the film, this approach makes sense. But "Patt-man" just didn't work for me.
No matter: character development takes a backseat to plot here, with Batman and Commissioner Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) teaming up to catch a taunting serial killer who calls himself Riddler (Paul Dano). Although Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz) and Penguin (Colin Farrell, unrecognizable under makeup) factor into the plot somewhat, The Batman is mostly just a riff on David Fincher's Se7en, albeit with a grander finale.
I didn't hate this film. It's too long and it takes itself way too seriously – Reeves seems unaware how silly the Caped Crusader looks as he pushes his way through a crowded nightclub or studies a crime scene with a bunch of cops – but its visuals are stunning. You can thank Australian cinematographer Greig Fraser for much of that. After his work on Dune and this film, he is poised to become the new Roger Deakins. And let's not forget the score by the dependable Michael Giacchino, showing a bit of nerve by reducing The Batman's main theme to just four bombastic notes, even if it's overly redolent of John Williams's "Emperor's March" from The Empire Strikes Back.
Despite its stylishness, The Batman is sort of irrelevant. Minus a deeper message or a galvanizing performance like Heath Ledger's in The Dark Knight, it feels like just another installment in a never-ending franchise. A scene at the end, featuring the naturally terrifying actor Barry Keoghan, promises better things to come. We'll see.