‘The Batman’ Is An Overstuffed, Punishingly Long Film Noir Whatsit

The Batman is longer than Pulp Fiction. It’s longer than Heat, it’s longer than The Godfather, it’s longer than 2001: A Space Odyssey. True, there have been some great movies that are longer — Apocalypse Now, Braveheart, The Godfather Part II — but one important distinction here is that none of those were about Batman. Most importantly, this one feels long.

You know that scene where the Joker sits in an interrogation room and describes his evil plans, and Batman punches the bulletproof glass and screams that he’s a madman? In The Batman, that scene (in this case featuring The Riddler, played by Paul Dano) takes place more than 90 minutes into the movie.

This bloat would be a lot easier to explain if The Batman was your typical lynchpin in an expanded universe, a movie responsible for staging meet-ups for 10 other superheroes while establishing storylines for three other villains — á la one of the Avengers movies, which I definitely wouldn’t want to sit through again either. But The Batman isn’t even part of the DCEU. This was supposed to be a weird, stand-alone take on Batman, like Joker (which lots of people hated but I mostly loved).

At times it does feel like Matt Reeves is attempting something admirably bold here, an angsty film noir that happens to have Batman in it, a Gotham-based Chinatown or a Seven (two movies 40 or 50 minutes shorter than The Batman, incidentally). Reeves’s Gotham certainly rains a lot. But for all its self-consciously hard-boiled pretensions, The Batman still manages to feel like 10 pounds of shit stuffed into a five-pound sock.

Your mileage, so it should go without saying, may vary. Just as in his Planet of the Apes movies (Reeves directed Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes and War For The Planet Of The Apes) there’s a lot to love about Reeves’ stylish compositions and obvious high level of craft. For me, it’s hard to get past the fact that Warner Brothers seems to have found the only blockbuster director with even less of a sense of humor than Christopher Nolan. And Reeves’ work seems to lack Nolan’s vulnerability. Tim Burton’s Batman movies were emo. Christian Bale growled and brooded. This version seems joyless, lacking any sense of playfulness that would’ve made the potboiler truly engaging.

We don’t have to watch Batman’s parents get murdered this time around, which I suppose is nice. Reeves, with a script co-written by Peter Craig (The Hunger Games, 12 Strong), skips straight to Bruce Wayne as a reclusive, brooding orphan, cooped up in a weird old house with his surrogate father, Alfred, played enjoyably here by Andy Serkis, who brings a chavvy muscularity to the role. The plot turns on the murder of Gotham City’s mayor by The Riddler, a Zodiac-esque serial killer who leaves cryptic ciphers addressed to Batman at the scenes of his crimes, as well as creepy vlogs where he screams into a voice modulator until it distorts.

The main thing setting him apart from all previous Batman villains is that he’s no fun at all. One of The Batman‘s recurring needle drops is Nirvana’s “Something In The Way.” It’s apt; The Batman is sort of the movie equivalent of “Something In The Way,” a Nirvana song for people whose favorite thing about Nirvana was Kurt’s depressive heroin hangovers.

The Riddler’s stated goal is to expose the corruption of Gotham City (which once again is a sort of New York but not New York), which is beset by corrupt officials and a powerful mafia, in the form of Carmine Falcone (John Turturro, in the Sam Giancana sunglasses he wore in Sugartime) and his lieutenant, The Penguin, played by Colin Farrell in make-up so extensive I didn’t know it was Farrell until I looked it up afterwards (The Batman has one character costumed like he’s in Dick Tracy and everyone else is in a regular movie). It’s a city in decline where politicians party with prostitutes and everyone is addicted to “drops” (I like to imagine that the full name of the drug is “Drops of Jupiter“).

Why the Riddler is so hung up on Batman in all this is a little unclear. As is why Reeves has chosen to combine 50s gangster references with 70s serial killer references utilizing 2020s social media, with side stories about insane asylums and orphanages. Where are we? When are we? Reeves seems to be going for a Chinatown/noir kind of a thing, but his references are all mixed up, and the plot feels like it’s moving in fast-forward. Batman and Alfred keep solving the Riddler’s ciphers almost instantly, revealing little. Round and round it goes, while Batman and Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz) pout at one another. Say what you will, they both have magnificent jawlines.

The Batman wants so badly to be hard boiled, to be “a vibe,” but it attempts to squeeze in so much that it feels frantic. Why is there so much plot? Why do we care about this Penguin at all? Reeves can’t seem to decide whether this is meant to be cartoonishly dark or actually dark, contemporary or retro, a stand-alone movie or tie-in. It seems to want to be everything all at once, everything except fun. That’s probably why it’s two hours and 56 minutes long.

It saves its big action set piece for a point well after the movie probably should’ve ended. The feeling that Reeves may have had a vision for a tight, spare Batman movie before he tried to incorporate every passing reference and studio note feels all but confirmed by the time we get to the post-credits scene. This scene is placed alllll the way at the end of the credits, mind you, past the color correction firms and logos for the film stock company and the names of the assistants to the Latvian second unit printer cartridge technicians, and ends up being easily the laziest, most irrelevant two-second epilogue ever tacked on. Coming on the heels of a three-hour Batman movie it felt almost vindictive. I almost respect it. If Matt Reeves was telling me to go fuck myself at least I’d know that someone was having fun.

‘The Batman’ is in theaters now. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.