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Review: 'The Batman' imagines a dark knight, defective

Eric Webb
Austin 360

And now, a dramatic reenactment of “The Batman."

The shadows are dark. I should know. I am the shadows. In the darkness below — but also the darkness here, because as discussed, I am the shadows — nocturnal animals prowl. They understand only fear. I know fear, too. I am vengeance. In the shadows. Of which I am not afraid, because they are me. 

You know, we have fun. 

And yet, at least two of those lines are actual dialogue Robert Pattinson says in the high-camp monologues of “The Batman,” director Matt Reeves’ film franchise reboot. This is loving mockery, mostly, but the overwrought gargoyle schtick steps a little too close to the ledge, and that has to be noted. 

"The Batman" is in theaters this weekend. Like the hero's iconic bad guys have done for nearly a century, this movie almost pulls off the perfect crime — until it takes a bang-pow-zoom to the chin.

DC Comics’ big-screen outings have earned a reputation for inconsistent quality, but the hype for “The Batman” has been real. The trailers looked sick. Ben Affleck, who most recently played Batman on the big screen, languished in wrong-headed turkeys. Reeves has a good track record with dark entertainment, like the “Cloverfield” movies. And the casting seemed like divine appointment, especially vampire heartthrob turned serious dramatic weirdo Pattinson as Bruce Wayne and Zöe Kravitz, goddess of laid-back cool, as Catwoman. 

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"The Batman" finds a new Bruce Wayne in Robert Pattinson, who succeeds Ben Affleck as the caped crusader.

There’s good news: “The Batman” gives audiences a bold celebration of a beloved hero, luxuriating in the tights and fights, the gothic dream worlds and the detective yarns that have kept ol’ pointy ears in our hearts since 1939. 

In this Gotham City, Batman’s no urban legend, even if he’s still working out the kinks in his cape. He roughs up perps in the open air alongside police Lt. Jim Gordon (a director's best ringer, Jeffrey Wright), and the bat symbol is already a warning to the superstitious, cowardly lot. His war is one of lonely obsessions. Even with the cowl off, Bruce Wayne is a sullen recluse who barely bothers to wipe off the dark makeup around his eyes. You get the sense that he’d rather not even have to deal with trusty valet Alfred (Andy Serkis).

Batman’s usual routine of beating up gang members in clown paint is interrupted by a green-hooded serial killer (Paul Dano), whose increasingly elaborate murder traps always come with a riddle for the dark knight. As is often the case, something’s rotten in the city of Gotham. A nasty web of high-powered politicians and higher-powered mob bosses tangles Batman up with the tough-as-nails cat burglar Selina Kyle (Kravitz), who has her own interests to protect. Unless the bat and the cat can catch up with the man behind the riddles, Gotham’s going to come apart at the admittedly seamy seams.

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Zoe Kravitz as Selina Kyle and Robert Pattinson as Batman in the Matt Reeves-directed "The Batman."

“The Batman” might not earn that definitive article, but as a Batman, the film’s intentions for myth-refreshment dazzle. Pattinson is near perfect when left to his own brooding devices. The disheveled hair, smoky eyeshadow and clear trauma of this motorcycling take on Wayne playfully updates a character originally envisioned as someone who wears a smoking jacket in a home library.

The bottomless pit of grief inside Pattinson’s billionaire vengeance demon feels markedly different from Christian Bale’s hypercompetent, military surplus-loving badass, the most recently definitive take on the hero. (Sorry, Affleck.) There’s even a miniscule wink in the portrayal — not close to Adam West or even George Clooney levels, but enough to imagine that this Batman had internalized a music video by the Cure at a young age.

That willingness to play with the pop art of it all, even as it’s very much doing a modern, grim-and-gritty blockbuster thing, is the truest joy of “The Batman.” A neo-noir goth opera, Reeves’ story (co-written with Peter Craig) centers the gumshoe behind the mask, trying to stay one step ahead of the kind of criminal who would make for a great Netflix true-crime docuseries.

“The Batman” never apologizes for the fantasy of its source material, either. This is a world where it’s weird that a really intense guy in a tactical-grade Halloween costume steps behind police tape with a camera present, but it’s never treated with the kind of post-irony contempt a lesser creative team would deploy.

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The Riddler (Paul Dano) is a mystery man out to murder Gotham City power players in "The Batman."

Along with Pattinson, the promise of that casting is nearly fulfilled, too. Kravitz’s Selina is calmly grounded in her own hard-won capability, with an easy sensuality that’s much more satisfying than Eartha Kitt-style vamping would be. (No disrespect to the great Ms. Kitt, whose Catwoman is iconic in her own right.) The reliably creepy Dano has more fun than anyone, orgasmically yelping at his own cipher-centric antics.

With all the perfect tools in its utility belt, “The Batman” still can’t catch its own batarang upon return.

A big part of that is a near-three-hour run time. (Just four minutes shy! Why not give us four more minutes of Serkis’ Alfred doing puzzles?) At around the two-hour mark, you think, “Why does this need to be so long?” and then the plot, sensing your annoyance, folds completely under its ambitions. Yes, this is one of those movies that ends for about an hour, which is fun for no one, even the people onscreen dressed like circus performers.

Robert Pattinson's Bruce Wayne is a sullen recluse haunted by trauma in "The Batman."

The mystery frantically spins out of control. The central love story chickens out, too — though Pattinson and Kravitz are obviously incandescent, their disjointed flirtation can barely muster a rooftop kiss. 

Also stuffed into this Batmobile-as-clown car: a labyrinthine history of Gotham’s organized crime families. When will Hollywood learn that the mobsters are the least interesting parts of Batman’s rogue’s gallery? Their inclusion always feels like a sad stab at realism. Reeves uses the mafia angle to cram classic villain the Penguin into the mix, here played puzzlingly by Colin Farrell in Dick Tracy makeup and doing his own riff on Jared Leto as Paolo Gucci in “House of Gucci.”

Heck, we haven’t even talked about the Easter eggs for fans or the half-hearted overtures toward social responsibility — Catwoman says “white privilege” once, the Riddler makes some good points about class consciousness, and then we’re back to another monologue. And those bat-monologues aren’t winning any Pulitzers.

We’ll have to wonder if Bat-Affleck died in vain. Maybe it helps to remember that Bale's movies found their secret sauce in film No. 2. Perhaps yet, Pattinson's dark knight will have his ... 

… vengeance.

‘The Batman’

Grade: B-

Starring: Robert Pattinson, Zöe Kravitz, Paul Dano, Colin, Farrell, Jeffrey Wright

Director: Matt Reeves

Rated: PG-13 for some suggestive material, drug content, strong disturbing content, strong language, strong violent content

Running time: 2 hours, 56 minutes

Watch: In theaters