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The Batman Review: Mask Of The Fan Chasm

In 2005, Batman went darker than ever before. That was the year Christopher Nolan's "Batman Begins" hit theaters, and although it was obviously presaged (and influenced by) plenty of gritty, noirish, meditative Dark Knight comic book tales from the likes of Denny O'Neil and Frank Miller, Nolan leaned into two core themes that have since defined Gotham's hero: The villains must be plausible enough to seem real-world, and as often as possible, the point is driven home that being Batman ... well, kinda sucks.

Sure, if you still want your Adam West-style camp, it can be hunted down (the 2008-2011 cartoon "Batman: The Brave and the Bold" is a brightly colored, breezily underrated delight), but on the big screen fans have spent nearly 20 years with Christian Bale, Ben Affleck (aka Batfleck) and now Robert Pattinson (aka RBattz). We've watched them get their backs broken, brawl with Superman, stand by helplessly as love interests die, navigate post-apocalyptic wastelands, lose parents again and again, and brood ... so much brooding.

If you're into this sort of thing, it's a golden age of Batmen (and let's not forget "Titans" the TV series, where Bruce Wayne is portrayed by "Game of Thrones" actor Iain Glen as a miserable old man who lives only to torment Dick Grayson); if you aren't, Matt Reeves' "The Batman" advances this trend from feeling like a weighted blanket on top of you to the sensation of having an 18-wheeler parked on your chest. In essence, the movie is David Fincher's "Se7en," starring Batman; Gotham has never been more bleak.

The film begins with a voyeuristic, breathy scene as reminiscent of the opening sequence of "Halloween" as anything you've ever seen in a DC Comics film. This is the new Riddler stalking his prey — Gotham residents in power he sees as hypocrites — and a crime scene is soon to follow. It's Halloween night, and Batman and his loyal enabler Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) are soon on the scene, uncovering clues and being stared down by disapproving rank-and-file cops. Batman makes eye contact with the young son of the deceased; they share a moment.

It's funny that, no matter how "real" these Batman adaptations try to make themselves, certain silly hallmarks endure. The Riddler leaves cryptic clues for Batman, which he nearly always solves in mere seconds; when the World's Greatest Detective decides he must speak with the Penguin (an unrecognizable Colin Farrell), his not-so-secret hideout is a seedy nightclub called "The Iceberg Lounge." Somewhere, Frank Gorshin and Burgess Meredith are nodding in approval, even if their skills would never be allowed within a thousand miles of this Gotham.

At the Lounge he meets Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz, oozing sexy confidence), along with other seedy Gothamites who are regulars and/or proprietors including the District Attorney (a wonderfully slimy Peter Sarsgaard, like there's any other kind) and mobster Carmine Falcone (John Turturro). The noose is tightening around the necks of these and other characters as one body after another keeps surfacing, adorned in duct tape and ominous scrawled messages like "No More Lies."

All the hallmarks of the character are present: you'll see a Batmobile (although he seems to prefer his motorcycle), a batcave (although it seems much more literal than usual) and a grapple gun (employed in a great sequence with floor after floor of policemen firing at the caped crusader). But just as the theme of the Nolan films was "escalation," Batman fans have watched year after year go by with the hero not only upping his tech, but also getting increasingly broodier and more morose. At some point, a chasm has to develop between fans who want a darker Dark Knight, and those who want a Gotham where it can't rain all the time. While Pattinson does a fine job with a difficult task, at this rate, one can only assume the next Batman will have to be played by either Werner Herzog or Eeyore.

Back in black

There's a scene early on where Bruce Wayne removes the cowl, his face sweaty and stained by the streaking black paint he puts around his eyes before taking to the night streets as Batman. Pattinson looks like he's playing the Joker for a moment, and the visual is most certainly intentional, once again drawing comparisons between the Dark Knight and his most despised enemy. Pattinson's Batman feels like he's at the end of his rope; all his best intentions have come back to hurt him and Gotham is worse than ever. "I wish I could say I'm making a difference, but I'm not," he says in one of many sulky voiceovers. "The city is eating itself."

Pattinson looks better in the suit than any of his recent predecessors — his jawline is ideal, as are his contemplative gazes. His Batman is younger, more inexperienced, and makes far more mistakes than most viewers will expect. Some of his more athletic maneuvers result in him crashing to the ground; some of his always-confident answers turn out to be incorrect. He has a strange tendency to walk into crowded rooms with his full Batman suit on, an ill-advised move we've rarely seen before. These are perhaps the most compelling elements of this particular Batman — he has a lot of growing left to do.

Similarly, the supporting cast is impeccable. John Turturro has some great lines, and this coupled with his couldn't-be-more-different excellent work on the series "Severance" is a reminder of why he's still one of our finest character actors. Colin Farrell wavers between doing Robert De Niro and doing Robert De Niro as Al Capone in "The Untouchables," but he's so entertaining (and clearly having so much fun) that it's easily overlooked. Andy Serkis is solid as a tougher, more involved Alfred, Jeffrey Wright's Gordon is the heart of the movie, and Paul Dano is every bit as unsettling as you'd expect when they finally reveal him — which takes far too long, considering he's all over the film's advertising.

Another not-so-mysterious mystery is at the heart of this film, and unfortunately it is the film's greatest flaw. Reeves has said in interviews that he wanted to make a detective film that just so happened to star Batman, and because of that there are far fewer Easter eggs and fan service moments than modern superhero films (particularly Marvel movies) have conditioned audiences to expect. Don't even bother sitting through the end credits, for instance — the thing at the end feels more like the fulfilling of a contractual obligation that an attempt to entertain. The same goes for a strange, disjointed, Arkham-set scene that appears to set up a sequel.

Live to tape

But this "mystery," which perplexes Batman and leads to the near destruction of his city, is hardly engaging. It's a bit of a "Chinatown" ripoff, flavored with some "the sins of the fathers shall be visited upon he sons" cliches and supposed fears that somebody might know Batman's secret identity — or not, or maybe so. It beats you over the head to the point where you won't care, and Batman seems to feel the same way. All this is amplified by the Riddler's supposed charismatic, largely anonymous orchestration of an uprising of faceless, disaffected Gotham rebels — exactly the same note Nolan hit with Bane in "The Dark Knight Rises" and Todd Phillips hit in "Joker," both superior movies.

Riddle me this: is it possible to love the new Batman while simultaneously thinking "The Batman" is weak sauce? Pattinson brings elements to the character — both in and out of his suit — that we haven't seen since the heyday of Michael Keaton. He doesn't look like a hero, doesn't seem comfortable with the privilege Bruce Wayne typically possesses (he delivers the line "Do you know who I am?" as if he can't believe he need to force himself to say it), and seems at times like a kid in way over his head. He follows Selina around like a puppy dog, relates to Alfred like a teenager, and gets mocked for referring to himself as "vengeance," as if somebody uncovered awkward pictures from his high school goth phase.

Ultimately, the greatest public service this new Dark Knight might be serving is rescuing Gotham from the Ben Affleck version of Batman. Thankfully, Pattinson wields complexity, nuance, and an imminent watchability like devices from his utility belt, replacing Affleck's preferred arsenal of monotony and looking like he'd rather be in line at the DMV. If the next RBattz movie leaned more towards a Keaton-esque blending of the pensive and the playful, it could be a far more winning formula.

Combined with all these great new takes on Catwoman, Riddler, Penguin, Gordon, and more, this might become another series whose second film is the best one. "The Batman" is a movie that wants to be shrouded in mystery, but its principle one is how a film can create such a compelling Batman while seeming so disinterested in the character.