There are many things Russia is missing right now. A sane leader, the right to protest, reliable broadcasting and, now, access to social media – to name a few. But what about cinema? Warner Brothers took the decision last week to halt the release of The Batman in Russia as a response to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, leaving Russian audiences disappointed. Whether or not this is an effective response to the war is questionable, but the question I intend to answer is a simple one: are Russian audiences really missing out? For my money, The Batman does exactly what it says on the tin: it adds yet another layer to this continually reinvented story and does so with style and substance, but no originality.

Right time. Wrong Film

In many ways, it feels as though audiences around the world have been rooting for Matt Reeve’s reboot to succeed — loyal fans and newbies alike. A result of the artistic drought of the pandemic? Or perhaps, the deeply troubling political climate we find ourselves in? If this film has arrived at the right time, it is because we seem desperate to be reminded of simpler times.

I won’t try and convince you that I am a DC comics expert – I’m not. My knowledge of Batman is limited mostly to the Christopher Nolan films that I grew up with, plus a few flickering memories of those which came before. I’m also unashamed to admit that at the 2016 midnight IMAX screening of the deeply flawed Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, I may or may not have fallen asleep somewhere around 2 a.m. Regardless, this iconic man in black has a place in our society and I was just as excited as my fellow popcorn munchers to watch our favourite vampiric teen heart-throb, R. Patz, transform into the broody, gothic, endlessly impressive superhero. And he doesn’t disappoint.

Reeves sets the tone of this three-hour marathon from the first scene. Dark evenings, unexplained murders of powerful men, eery renditions of ‘Ave Maria’, and rain. Lots of rain. So much rain that I’m curious to know whether it ever doesn’t rain in Gotham? I can say with absolute certainty that daylight doesn’t exist there. In many ways, the film sets itself up like any other ‘whodunnit’ which is, for the most part, what this film really is, only the murders happen to take place in Gotham and the meddlesome but instinctively talented detective happens to be Batman. The very idea of it being ‘a Batman film’ feels, at times, incidental. This set-up has both pros and cons. On the one hand, it brings an element of realism to this comic story (a trend begun by Christopher Nolan), allowing comic-book novices to enjoy the ride in the same way they would any crime drama. However, I felt notably less invested in the ‘world’ of this superhero film than ever before. The realism just doesn’t resonate with the imagination to make it really believable. In fact, as the gruelling three hours came to an end, I was unable to get one question out of my head: Why would anyone want to live in Gotham? Call me unimaginative, but if a film of that length is going to revolve around preventing the apocalyptic collapse of a beloved city, then you’ve got to convince audiences why that city is worth saving. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why Batman didn’t just follow suit behind Catwoman and move on to greener pastures.

More EastEnders than Hamlet

The central plot of The Batman was engaging at the best of times, but I generally found myself indifferent towards it. The film follows the cat-and-mouse (or rat, in this case) chase between Batman and the Riddler, played masterfully by Paul Dano whose character trajectory is by far one of the most transfixing aspects of this film. He brutally murders his victims — Gotham’s most powerful and corrupt citizens — leaving them encircled by riddles and puzzles with romantic clues for Batman to find. We are thrust into the Riddler’s game from the onset with the murder of the Mayor, who leaves behind an orphaned son — a sentimental trope that unites Bruce Wayne and the Riddler as two orphaned boys searching for their place in the world. The film’s strongest scene culminates in the final confrontation between the two in which, after a laughable number of references to ‘unmasking the truth’, we are led to believe that the Riddler is about to unmask Batman’s true identity in a Hannah Montana inspired showdown. He doesn’t, which is a genuine surprise and by far one of the strongest scenes as we witness the Riddler become unhinged and begin to orchestrate his apocalyptic explosion of Gotham.

Pattinson’s Batman hits all the marks. He puts his stamp on the role with a unique stillness, gravitas, and a jawline that could cut through ice. Some may say that he could have taken more risks, but I respect his choices. His Bruce Wayne, however, is a confusing character. Reeves clearly wanted to steer as far away as possible from the unlikeable playboy billionaire adopted by Affleck and Bale, but he has gone too far the other way this time. Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne is so predictable that it almost inspires a nervous chuckle from audience members as he recites his sentimental one-liners. He is isolated, pale and drenched in dark eye shadow. For the most part, he reeks of a pitiful, moody teenager that makes the character one-dimensional. The problem with trying to turn Bruce Wayne into a Hamlet-inspired figure, avenging his Father’s death (not a spoiler), is that this script isn’t Shakespeare, not even close. Look no further than at the particularly cringe-worthy scene between Wayne and Alfred Pennyworth, which is filled with clichés and Wayne shouting ‘you’re not my father!’ making this more EastEnders than Hamlet. Their relationship is, however, a compelling one and we truly feel Wayne’s desperation as he races to save Alfred from becoming the Riddler’s next victim.

The Trouble with Superhero Movies

Zoë Kravitz does what she can with her role and injects it with a tender blend of vulnerability and charisma. Her feline ways have a softness of touch that make her moments of fierceness all the more biting — especially as she confronts her own daddy issues with the perverse Falcone. But mere glimmers of ‘girl power’ fail to transform this underdeveloped character into any kind of feminist equal to her male counterpart. She remains in Batman’s shadow. The vagueness of Selina’s relationship with Annika was equally frustrating — are we expected to believe from one reference to her ‘baby’ that they were more than friends? I look forward to the day when we see queer stories explored in the superhero world without treading so carefully.

The Batman is well-executed but my critical preoccupation lies with the bigger picture: what does this film actually offer? More importantly, does it say anything meaningful about the world we live in and the people in it? I couldn’t tell you. There is base-level commentary of the evils of powerful, ‘white, privileged assholes’, but add anything challenging or nuanced to conversations on race, class and power it does not. I guess that’s always a pitfall when trying to turn superhero films into something echoing realism.

Being generous: The Batman is a familiarly gripping apocalyptic spectacle, with strong performances and stunning cinematography aplenty. Being stingy: The Batman is an unoriginal and unnecessary reboot of an out-of-touch, hyper-masculine fantasy tale. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

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