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In the early 2000s Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka penned a well-regarded comic series titled Gotham Central, a police procedural of the Homicide: Life on the Street variety, set in Batman’s perpetually crime-ridden Gotham City. The conceit was that it pitted a bunch of working-stiff cops against a colorful, gimmicky Rogues Gallery, with Batman making the occasional cameo as a smug nuisance. It was a fun premise, if unsustainable—populating the story with super villains necessitated perpetually escalating action set pieces, sacrificing the quotidian in the process. One arc involved C-grade Flash villain Doctor Alchemy consulting the police from the confines of a cell a la Hannibal Lecter, the problem being that The Silence of the Lambs is itself a stylized exaggeration of FBI profiling craft.

Telling small stories with big characters is no easy feat.   

Matt Reeves’s The Batman doesn’t appear to draw any direct inspiration from Gotham Central, but at a punishing 176 minutes suffers a similar problem. This latest iteration of the Caped Crusader is ostensibly a detective procedural in the vein of David Fincher’s twin serial killer epics Seven and Zodiac. The Riddler (Paul Dano) is on the loose, picking off Gotham’s corrupt public officials and taunting Batman (Robert Pattinson) with ominous ciphers. 

Batman keeps meticulous, handwritten notes documenting his mindset like John Doe in Seven, which, like Doe’s, veers into the grandiose and self-righteous. I like that Pattinson’s Batman is kind of a delusional asshole; Travis Bickle with the infinite resources to pursue his every quixotic whim (I also like that the film’s climax plays like a literalized riff on Travis’s ramblings about washing away the city’s “scum”). Batman’s journals are read aloud in voice-over narration as he prowls grungy rain-soaked streets, the film aspiring to Frank Miller but never quite reaching his memorably hard-boiled absurdism (beloved sample: “The wind rises, tearing dead leaves free. Frogs croak like a cartoon car alarm. Crickets pick up the chorus. A wolf howls. I know how he feels”). 

The Batman excels at aping the visual sensibilities of Seven/Zodiac, but being a big-budget superhero movie, is unable to maintain the relatively pared-down simplicity of a detective-oriented Batman, nor can it follow either of those films to their respectively bleak/anticlimactic conclusions. 

Enter Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz), a Robin-Hoodian burglar on a quest to rescue her missing roommate from scenery-chewing crime lords the Penguin (Colin Farrell) and Carmine Falcone (John Turturro). The Batman isn’t a sequel to any prior Batman movies, but is so overstuffed with callbacks and lore that it may as well be. Characters joylessly drone on about whose father did what to whom, or failed to do, or thought to have done only for subsequent exposition to suggest otherwise. 

This is partly a convention of noir fiction; detectives become lost in convoluted rat mazes of intrigue and corruption, tapping into this anxiety that the modern city is terrifyingly vast and unknowable. But Batman is a power fantasy, and so the city is fundamentally, comfortingly knowable, and all the riddles have solutions. 

There’s an instructive moment in Zodiac when Mark Ruffalo’s frustrated inspector storms out of a screening of Dirty Harry, a movie in which a Zodiac-like killer is gunned down by Clint Eastwood and his famed Magnum revolver. No pesky due process, just swift, viewer-satisfying retribution. The Batman takes the fantasy a step further, eschewing both the bureaucratic drudgery and lethal vigilante mob justice, thus letting the audience off the hook, and in doing so circumnavigates and undermines the thornier consequences its key reference points explored. 

The Batman (2022)

Runtime: 176 minutes

MAP Rating: PG-13

Streaming: N/A (currently in theaters)

Myles Mikulic holds a BA in Film and TV from Cal State University Northridge, an MA in History and Archival Studies from Claremont Graduate University, and is a History doctoral candidate at the same....