Of course, “The Batman” begins on Halloween.
It’s alluring and obvious, tense and over the top — a microcosm for the film’s thrilling yet fraught sensibilities. Heavy and laborious breaths follow the camera’s humid gaze as it pins down a mysterious, masked observer. There’s a feral look in the man’s eye, kindling a mood of distrust: A chill pricks the spine as it becomes clear this person is not the hero. The ominous voyeur gazes at Gotham’s seemingly well-to-do mayor Don Mitchell Jr. (Rupert Penry-Jones), and the fog suddenly clears — he’s going to kill him.
Though the eponymous vigilante is absent, the opening sequence of “The Batman” frames its mise en scene. Gotham is gritty and austere, riddled with corruption and estranged from order. Truth hides in trick mirrors like skeletons in closets, and no one’s hands are completely clean.
The mayor’s murder is only the beginning. A twisted, cunning serial killer known as the Riddler (Paul Dano) is picking off Gotham’s powerful elite one by one, exposing systemic corruption and leaving a trail of cryptic messages addressed only to “The Batman.”
Robert Pattinson stars as the tortured Bruce Wayne, a guarded recluse with deep pockets and deep-seated trauma who spends his nights fighting crime as the titular masked vigilante. As the Riddler’s body count grows, Batman teams up with the upstanding police commissioner James Gordan, played by a pinched Jeffrey Wright.
The unlikely alliance ensnares the pair in a web of betrayal and smokescreens, and the caustic city sprawls as Batman searches for answers. A schmaltzy John Turturro slinks as mob boss Carmine Falcone, while Colin Farrell lumbers as the Penguin. Batman’s best company, however, is with Selina Kyle, played by a delightfully devilish Zoë Kravitz.
Though Pattinson settles into Bruce Wayne more comfortably than he does Batman, the superhero’s scenes with Selina sparkle, alight with chemistry. Selina’s transformation into Catwoman serves as a refreshing counterpoint to Bruce Wayne’s barbed Hamlet routine.
Director Matt Reeves revels in grime and grit. “The Batman” gives the Dark Knight his own “Joker” treatment, striving for severity and estranged from daylight and levity. The 2022 film takes a cue from Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” in its insistence to be taken seriously. Yet, “The Batman” exudes a kind of turgid gravitas that’s unbothered, or perhaps unaware, of its proximity to self-parody — “They think I’m hiding in the shadows,” Pattinson hisses, “but I am the shadows.”
Comparison weakens “The Batman,” curdling it to feel second-rate and ephemeral; it’s ironic given the film’s presumptive title that purports to represent the definitive Batman myth. In reality, however, Reeves’ movie cuts corners. It succumbs to the typified filmmaking that hollows out superhero flicks — heavy-handed exposition, a shoehorned romance, a bloated runtime and a rushed third act. Despite the artistic ambition, brawn triumphs over brain.
The emphasis on content over form isn’t necessarily detrimental, however, and it certainly isn’t boring. Pattinson broods and batters his way through the film’s fast-moving plot for nearly three hours, a disarming runtime electrified by stunts, suspense and surprises.
While the prickly sense of tension is a consistent strength in the film, “The Batman” makes a habit of giving itself away too soon. Rather than keeping its cards close to its chest, the film gets overzealous and punctures its own mystique. Moments of revelation fizzle in execution from Batman’s debut entrance to the Riddler’s punny endgame, and the suspense flattens.
“The Batman” heralds a new age of caped crusaders. Cinematographer Greig Fraser ensures that stars hide their fires and cloaks the film in literal and figurative darkness. Despite its immersive mood, bombastic action and Pattinson’s best grimace, “The Batman” struggles to untangle itself from its predecessors, stumbling as it tries to stand on its own two feet.