20-odd years into the age of superhero films, it’s hard to define what a superhero film is anymore. They don’t need powers, they don’t need supervillains, and they certainly don’t need to be the vacuous, bright kids fare naysayers (incorrectly) think they are. So is it a surprise that The Batman, the character’s third live-action iteration of the age, flexes genre muscles to take the caped crusader in a new direction? No, not at all, but you may be surprised at how badly the well-conceived pivot is executed.
Essentially, this is neo-noir Batman, where Bruce Wayne dons a mask to do some detective work while rage pummeling a few people (the mask does save him from lawsuits). The case involves the gruesome murders of Gotham’s elite, and Batman is brought in because the killer leaves notes addressed to him. The custom greeting cards give him riddles that, once solved, slowly bring long-hidden secrets into the dimness that passes for this film’s light.
It’s a genre that should fit the brooding figure at its center, especially since, as per usual, his theatrics only attract more theatrics, plunging Gotham further into chaos. Most serious Batman takes thrive on this conundrum, not just the question of whether Batman is a net good but whether Bruce Wayne is using the alter ego to work through his childhood scars, Gotham be damned. A city entrenched in evil and a man with little hope trying to solve one problem at a time? All that precedent should make the drift into noir relatively simple, but instead of easing into the change co-writer and director Matt Reeves overcorrects, as if fearing a gentler move will be missed by everyone he’s so desperate to impress.
The Batman is, quite simply, a ponderous bore, and not one that looks good in the meantime. It’s aesthetic style is dark (literally), with everything from conversations to action taking place in a haze. If you were hoping to revel in a more violent Batman, too bad, because you can’t see most of the sparse times he gets into a scrape, and the few you can are over-edited messes.
Dark is also an accurate description of the movies’ characterizations, particularly Batman himself, who plods through this movie weighed down by a bulky suit and his own self-obsession. So consumed by his role in the city, he barely has the mental space to solve the riddles (several are solved by others or simply aren’t solved at all, including one that tells him to look for an orphan in a mansion surrounded by slums, which Batman doesn’t immediately realize means Bruce Wayne).
I suppose this was intended to make him the brooding, sexy type, but it plays more as pathetic, as do most of the male characters. Worst among them is Batman’s main antagonist, Riddler, who declares himself a modern troll by livestreaming his rambling threats. The nonsensical videos, where he often lurks half out of frame in overly postured menace, immediately brought to mind a failed transphobe who popped up during a twitch stream I was lurking in, a sad little person who failed to ruin our time and was laughed out of the space.
What The Batman thinks it’s doing by contrasting the bulky menace of its hero with this sniveling villain is subverting ideas of masculine dominance and heroism, gender commentary that would work better if the film didn’t counterbalance it with a hateful disdain for women.
In its most detrimental overcorrection, The Batman creates its gritty, neo-noir city by continuously exploiting, abusing, and murdering women, crimes that the men not only aren’t concerned with solving but actively participate it, and not just the bad guys. Batman watches Selina Kyle change into a proto-Catwoman outfit in a skeevy shot that’s best described as peeping Tom-esque, and his treatment of her never gets better.
Kyle is the only one concerned about the murder of a young woman (her girlfriend? The movie is comically regressive in dangling this without confirming). She pursues leads doggedly, which at least gives her motivation independent of Batman, a thing this movie loves to gift to women before snatching it away. There’s a drinking game in with how often the plot bends over backward to stop women from achieving their goals, and for its two most prominent women, blocking them so Batman can take credit. The repetition would be comical if it wasn’t such an utterly depressing reflection of the way American films treat female characters, their secondary roles and the violence enacted on them so rote that it can slip by without comment, even from well-informed critics.
At the very least, this textbook example of the male gaze keeps The Batman from being a slog, if you’re the kind of person who laughs when horrified. I am, and I must admit that watching this film crumble under its own thuddingly asserted greatness often made me laugh out loud. I was laughing at it, not with it, though, which is about as good as you can hope for when taking in such an offensive mess.
Release: available in theaters March 4th
Director: Matt Reeves
Writers: Matt Reeves, Peter Craig
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano, John Turturro, Colin Farrell, Peter Sarsgaard, Barry Keoghan