The darkness in “The Batman” is pervasive and literal. Gotham City in the week after Halloween, when this long chapter unfolds, sees about as much sunshine as northern Finland in mid-December. The ambience of urban demoralization extends to the light bulbs, which flicker weakly in the gloom. Bats, cats, penguins and other resident creatures are mostly nocturnal. The relentless rain isn’t the kind that washes the scum off the streets, but the kind that makes a bad mood worse.
The Batman — not just any Batman! — is less the enemy of this state of things than its avatar. On television in the 1960s, Batman was playful. Later, in the Keaton-Clooney-Kilmer era of the ’80s and ’90s, he was a bit of a playboy. In the 21st century, through Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy and after, onscreen incarnations of the character have been purged of any trace of joy, mischief or camp. We know him as a brooding avenger, though not an Avenger, which is a whole different brand of corporate I.P.
But a modern superhero is only as authentic as his latest identity crisis. Both the Batman (Robert Pattinson) and “The Batman” itself struggle with the vigilante legacy that has dominated the post-Nolan DC cinematic universe. “I am vengeance,” our hero intones as he swoops down to deal with some minor bad guys. He doesn’t seem happy about it. He’s grouchy and dyspeptic in his costume, and mopey and floppy in his Bruce Wayne mufti. Having fed on Gotham’s violence and cruelty for years, he now finds that the diet may not agree with him.
For nearly three hours, “The Batman,” directed by Matt Reeves from a script he wrote with Peter Craig, navigates a familiar environment of crime, corruption and demoralization in search of something different. Batman’s frustration arises most obviously from the intractability of Gotham’s dysfunction. Two years after the city’s biggest crime boss was brought down, the streets are still seething and the social fabric is full of holes. Drug addicts (known as “dropheads”) and gangs of hooligans roam the alleys and train platforms, while predatory gangsters and crooked politicians party in the V.I.P. rooms.
This isn’t only a bum deal for the citizens of Gotham. It’s a sign of imaginative exhaustion. Fourteen years after “The Dark Knight,” the franchise and its satellites (including “Joker”) have been mired in a stance of authoritarian self-pity that feels less like an allegorical response to the real world than a lazy aesthetic habit.
That’s where “The Batman” begins, but — thank goodness — it isn’t necessarily Reeves’s comfort zone. In his contributions to the “Planet of the Apes” cycle (he directed the second and third installments, “Dawn” and “War”), he demonstrated an eye for ethical nuance and political complexity unusual in modern-day blockbuster filmmaking.
Glimmers of that humanism are visible in the murk (the low-light cinematography is by Greig Fraser), but for Reeves the path out of nihilism is through it. A masked serial killer (eventually revealed as Paul Dano) is stalking Gotham’s leaders — including the mayor and the district attorney (Peter Sarsgaard) — leaving behind encoded messages and greeting cards for Batman. His signature is a question mark, which even a casual comic-book fan knows is the sign of the Riddler.
Upholding a genre cliché, he sees himself less as Batman’s nemesis than as his secret sharer, using more extreme means to accomplish similar ends arising from parallel motives. The Riddler exposes the connections between Gotham’s power structure and its underworld, links that seem to have eluded the Caped Crusader and Lieutenant James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), his ally in the police department. The mythology of the Wayne family — in particular the martyrdom of young Bruce’s parents — is held up to revisionist scrutiny. What if we’re wrong about Batman? What if he’s wrong about himself?
These are potentially interesting questions, but it takes “The Batman” a very long time to arrive at them. Luckily, there are some diversions in the meantime, most notably the arrival of Zoë Kravitz’s Catwoman, also known as Selina Kyle. Like the Riddler, Catwoman is Batman’s self-appointed vigilante colleague, seeking payback on behalf of women who have been exploited, abused and killed by members of Gotham’s criminal and official elite. The prickly alliance that arises between these masked, pointy-eared cosplayers adds a much-needed element of romance with a just-perceptible hint of kink. Maybe there will be a place for fun in the DC universe.
But not just yet. Don’t get me wrong. There are things to enjoy here, in addition to Kravitz’s nimble work: John Turturro, hammy and slimy as a top mobster; Colin Farrell, almost unrecognizable as the oleaginous Penguin; Andy Serkis as Alfred; a crackerjack car chase; Michael Giacchino’s eerie score.
The problem isn’t just that the action pauses for long bouts of exposition, as long-past events are chewed over by one character after another. Or that Pattinson, in and out of the Batsuit, is almost as much of a cipher as any of the Riddler’s scribblings. It’s the ponderous seriousness that hangs over the movie like last week’s weather — the fog of white-savior grievance that has shrouded Gotham and the Batman for as long as many of us can remember.
“The Batman” tries to shake that off — or rather, as I’ve suggested, to work through it. Maybe it shouldn’t have been so difficult, and maybe the slog of this film will serve a therapeutic or liberatory end. Let’s hope. I can’t say I had a good time, but I did end up somewhere I didn’t expect to be: looking forward to the next chapter.
Rated PG-13. Grim and occasionally gruesome. Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes. In theaters.