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The Batman

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It’s cause for modest celebration that “The Batman” achieves, for much of its nearly three-hour running time, a baseline of artistry: it’s eminently sit-through-able. There’s a category of movie that used to be the Hollywood stock in trade, which a dear departed relative used to call “brain cleansers”—one kicks back, the time passes with some rooting interest, some excitement, some curiosity about what’s coming next. For its first two hours or so, “The Batman” largely fulfills the commitment to be engaging and clever; its deftly inventive director, Matt Reeves (who co-wrote the script with Peter Craig), conveys the impression of substance where it’s hardly to be found. The movie is good with an asterisk—an asterisk the size of the financial interests at stake in the franchise’s intellectual property. As free as Reeves may have been to make the film according to his lights, he displays an element of custodial, even fiduciary, responsibility. It may well win him favor with the studio, with the ticket-buying public, and with critics who calibrate their enthusiasm to box-office success, but it gets in the way of the kinds of transformative interpretations of the characters that would make the difference between a baseline movie and an authentically free and original one.

The Batman is a vigilante who works with the coöperation of the police, who project a bat-sign into the sky, with a bright light, as a call to him and a warning to evildoers who anticipate him swooping in. Yet, as he lands on a subway platform and lays low a gang of young miscreants, made up Joker-style, who are assaulting an Asian man, the victim is also struck with fear and pleads with the Batman not to hurt him. The Batman describes his uneasy role as an avenger—indeed, he says, as vengeance itself—in a voice-over that holds out hope that the superhero will be endowed with at least an average level of subjectivity and mental activity. No such luck: that voice-over might as well be a part of the explanatory press notes for all the insight it offers into the protagonist’s thoughts. Yet his haphazard thwarting of random street crime in the chaos of Gotham City gets sharply focussed on one criminal, the Riddler (Paul Dano), who, in the opening act of his crime spree, virtually summons him.

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