T.S. Eliot ventured that a man might measure out his final days in afternoons and coffeespoons. Those of us in the 21st century's cheap seats could feasibly do likewise with Spider-Men and Bat-Men. The Batman, which will lop three more hours off your life (pre-film ads are back in a big way, one notes), hews to that established superhero trend that insists each new iteration of intellectual property be darker and grittier than the one before - some going, given that the Nolan Batmen led to one malcontent opening fire in a crowded movie theatre and pre-empted the real-life death of its chosen Joker. Just one reason for the abject suckiness of most modern multiplex movies has been their willingness to prey on and - in some extreme cases - actively mess with the mental equilibrium of anyone in their vicinity, much as there were certain One Direction songs written to exploit the insecurities of their target demographic. (Late capitalism for you: if you can't speak to the best of your audience, hone in on its weak spots.) If it's not the flimsy allusions to trauma (from an industry that has imprinted more actual trauma than most), it's the continual effort to deny us the satisfaction of a decisive happy ending - because everyone behind the scenes will be working overtime to resell us on a second or third movie two years down the line. What are all those teaser trailers if not carrots held up before a captive audience of donkeys? (The movies, when they come along, are often wielded as sticks.) It's not just that franchise filmmaking has warped storytelling in such a way as to deny us one of storytelling's fundamental pleasures; it's that we the audience cannot ever achieve catharsis or basic closure. No wonder everybody's unhappy nowadays. The Batman has presumably been titled The Batman because it's thought previous Batmen weren't good or lasting or serious enough; again, I wonder whether our bigger movies haven't just become projections of the insecurities of modern movie creatives, who fear they're not good or lasting or serious enough. Once upon a time, studio movies good and bad were sent out into the world with confidence enough to lift the audience out of the void for a couple of hours. These days, everything about them feels horribly temporary, even a superhero movie running roughly the length of The Ten Commandments. We've been set to wallowing in a very expensive, deeply neurotic mire.
Possibly my generation was spoiled by 1989's Batman, a summer pantomime for all the family during which Tim Burton took his source about as seriously as it needed taking. (When that franchise got darker and grittier, it arrived at the flagrant kink of 1992's Batman Returns: there was still a healthy measure of fun involved.) The Batman, by contrast, is heavy weather from the off: a twenty-minute prologue establishing and restating and frankly overemphasising the degree to which the rainlashed streets of this particular Gotham City have been overrun by murder and mayhem. Vast sections of the screen will be plunged into an inky darkness, from which sporadically loom drawn and sombre faces; given the modern multiplex's determination to keep some form of lighting on for health-and-safety reasons, you'll likely be hard-pushed to make out anything beyond basic shapes. Our new Batman is Robert Pattinson, and his voiceover goes straight in with the weary anomie ("this city is beyond saving"). This, at least, is an improvement on the diary entries we see him compiling in frenzied close-up, with their air of rejected Evanescence EP titles ("NOCTURNAL ANIMALS", "PUSH MYSELF"). Another of those honking blockbuster scores - an assault on any eardrums that survived The Zimmering of Dune: Part One - pauses only for a plaintive lament by... Nirvana. Even the Riddler's puns prove deathly. Again: it doesn't seem all that long ago that our pricier movies offered some form of escape from the stresses and strains of the present moment. Nowadays, egged on by those mirthless gasbags who are making so much of modern life flatly insufferable, we get clinically depressed comic-book fantasias, hellbent on making Threads or certain Bergman movies look like Romy and Michele's High School Reunion.
If escape is out of the picture - pleasure, too - then how about relief? The Batman at least spares us its hero's origin story, now so tattered from overuse that 2017's The Lego Batman Movie (still the century's best Batman movie) could poke amusing holes through it. The writer-director, Matt Reeves, made himself useful to his studio paymasters by finding new points of entry into potentially outmoded IP: using cameraphones to zhuzh up the monster movie in 2008's Cloverfield, revisiting the Planet of the Apes films from the simians' perspective. He does something comparable here, plugging the established Batman characters into one of those murder-mystery conspiracies that have returned to fashion in the wake of Knives Out and TV's Only Murders in the Building. Yet he's borrowed a lot to get his A plot going: the rain and cyphers are pure David Fincher, as many have noted, while Paul Dano's Riddler has a predilection for Saw-like torture devices (darker! grittier!) and a MAGA-like worldview that indirectly connects The Batman to the universe of 2019's Joker. On the sidelines, meanwhile, you keep catching glimpses of the latter-day event movie's baked-in thespwaste. Why trouble to glue Colin Farrell (as the Penguin) into so much latex that he resembles Elias Koteas, when you could just cast Elias Koteas? (It's another of the film's unnecessary agonies.) Zoë Kravitz's Catwoman scampers through a post-#MeToo subplot - investigating the myriad, yes, traumas wreaked on Gotham's women by its most powerful men - but rarely rises above the status of narrative sidepiece; even at three hours, the film affords her no room to swing. There's a flicker of respite in Reeves' conception of this Batman as a thinker as well as a doer - a figure more in line with such serial predecessors as Arsène Lupin and Fantômas than the stone-cold, heavily armoured sociopath Christian Bale essayed for Nolan. Pattinson, as washed out as he ever appeared in his last franchise (and with far dourer hair), plays the man behind the mask as benumbed but not insensate. Yet with each new grimace, I wondered where the Rob who seems such a giggle in interviews had gone. Why won't the movies put that guy on screen? Isn't that what a star system is for?
Everyone's basically operating within the confines of a three-hour migraine, a manifestation of that logistical headache Reeves took on upon taking delivery of this property. How do you reopen Wayne Manor to the general public, so soon after the generally revered Nolan films? How do you put all these characters back in play in such a way as to guarantee further instalments still? (This plot, inevitably, turns out to be another placeholder - more distraction to tide the fanboys over until the next unit of heavy superhero content drops like a stone off the Warners conveyor belt.) These big franchise movies have famously been no fun to shoot - one reason Pattinson has pursued the career trajectory he has over the past decade - and can't have got any easier to make with the addition of Covid protocols. To his credit, Reeves has managed to get much of that grind up on the screen here; The Batman turns out to be something like a whistleblower of a superhero movie, entirely (perhaps even honourably?) upfront about the miseries involved in its own manufacture. This is a film about a joyless, thankless task - the cleaning up of a city that is from the start beyond saving - which never feels like anything other than a joyless, thankless task, whether to make or to watch. The late-capitalist fatigue in its bones is palpable and keenly felt; for once with these things, it's not a put-on or a pose. Maybe it's my own weariness, but I couldn't take against it as I did the Nolan Batmen; at two hours or two hours 20 - a non-director's cut, which may be all these bloated follies need: just one rigorous production executive - this plot might even have started to take on some measure of urgency. It's still damning that all this energy and all these resources should have been spent on a film that at no point quickens the pulse - a deadening would appear the preferred effect - and which can in the end be boiled down to a single, sorry image: the grime-smeared remnants of an election poster bearing the slogan "For A Brighter Tomorrow". To appropriate Stuart Maconie's immortal one-line review of Robbie Williams' "Let Me Entertain You": in your own time, mate.
The Batman is now playing in cinemas nationwide.