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Nothing feels fresh in this grim retread of 'The Batman'

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. A new Batman movie opens in theaters this week. The highly anticipated film stars Robert Pattinson as the famous Gotham City vigilante and features Paul Dano as the Riddler, Colin Farrell as the Penguin and Zoe Kravitz as Catwoman. Our film critic, Justin Chang, says the three-hour crime epic plays more like a detective story than past Batman films. Here's his review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Batman has had his ups and downs with the movies over the years. He started off on a high note with the gothic wit of Tim Burton, but crashed and burned in the hands of Joel Schumacher. He soar to new heights with Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy, then took a nosedive with Zack Snyder's "Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice." Frankly, I wish the character would go away for a few years and take a well-earned bat nap. But that's not the Batman way, nor is it the way of a movie studio eager to keep milking one of its most successful comic book superheroes.

And so now we have "The Batman," a new movie clearly conceived in the somber, realistic "Dark Knight" mold - though, this one may be even darker. Michael Giacchino's score is as ominous as a death march. Greig Fraser's images immerse us in a rain-pelted Gotham City of thick, sometimes impenetrable shadows. And Robert Pattinson plays the young billionaire Bruce Wayne as the most troubled of souls. He's still deeply scarred by the murders of his parents decades ago, which is what drives him to don his bat suit every night and strike fear in the hearts of criminals everywhere.

As the film opens, Gotham City is being terrorized by the Riddler, a twisted puzzle master played by a convincingly unhinged Paul Dano. He fancies himself a kind of avenger, brutally murdering members of the city's social, political and financial elite and exposing their corruption. His first victim is Gotham's mayor. At the funeral, Bruce is approached by Bella Real, played by Jayme Lawson, who had been running against the mayor in the upcoming election. Bruce is quiet and withdrawn. It's as if Batman has drained him so completely that he can barely function in public anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BATMAN")

JAYME LAWSON: (As Bella Real) Mr. Wayne, you know, you really could be doing more for this city. Your family has a history of philanthropy, but as far as I can tell, you're not doing anything. If I'm elected, I want to change that. My God. I'm going to go pay my respects. Will you wait for me? I want to continue this.

CHANG: The Riddler has been leaving cryptic messages for Batman at each murder scene. Those clues lead him deep into the heart of Gotham's criminal underworld, ruled by mobsters like Carmine Falcone, played by John Turturro, and his associate Oz, better known as The Penguin. The Penguin is, of course, one of Batman's iconic nemeses, but as played by Colin Farrell, unrecognizable under bulging prosthetics, he's surprisingly underutilized. He's basically a mafia functionary who turns out to have dangerously close ties to the police department.

In this scene, Batman speaks with his close ally Lieutenant Gordon, well played by Jeffrey Wright, and informs him that one of his cops is working for The Penguin.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BATMAN")

ROBERT PATTINSON: (As Bruce Wayne/Batman) Who's the mustache with the broken nose?

JEFFREY WRIGHT: (As James Gordon) That's Kenzie (ph) - narcotics.

PATTINSON: (As Bruce Wayne/Batman) He's one of the guys I got into it with at the Iceberg Lounge.

WRIGHT: (As James Gordon) Are you saying Kenzie moonlights for The Penguin?

PATTINSON: (As Bruce Wayne/Batman) No, he moonlights as a cop.

CHANG: There are some impressive supporting performances from Andy Serkis as Bruce's loyal butler, Alfred, and Zoe Kravitz as the nimble thief Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman, who has her own mysterious designs on the Falcone crime ring. Kravitz and Pattinson and have a playful romantic chemistry in their scenes together, but like so much else in this movie, the Batman-Catwoman dynamic feels like an overly familiar note. That's par for the course in blockbuster filmmaking where popular characters get recycled every few years. But I had higher expectations for "The Batman," especially since Matt Reeves' previous movie, "War For The Planet Of The Apes," was one of the best Hollywood action epics to come along in some time.

Reeves and his co-writer, Peter Craig, have brought considerable craft and intelligence to bear on the story, which plays like a tribute to classic detective procedurals and also David Fincher's serial killer thrillers, like "Zodiac" and "Se7en." The filmmakers unfold their labyrinth of a plot with great patience - maybe too much patience at nearly three hours. But the problem with the movie isn't that it's too long or too somber. As a great admirer of Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy, I have no problem with pulp that takes itself seriously. But those films also crackled with ingenuity and verve, and the grimness of "The Batman" feels self-conscious and monotonous by comparison. Nothing in the story about the moral rot at the heart of Gotham City or the inner demons that Batman is wrestling with feels novel enough to justify the movie's long, slow burn.

There are a few gestures toward topicality, including an act of violence against an Asian man on a subway platform and a mass attack by a group of gun-toting extremists. At one point, Catwoman makes a cutting remark to Batman about the corruption of rich white men, and the movie seems to be confronting Bruce Wayne with not just his trauma, but also his privilege. I do hope Pattinson gets more notes to play when this "Batman" gets its inevitable sequel. He's a terrific actor, even in a movie that feels less like a recharge than a retread.

GROSS: Justin Chang is film critic for The L.A. Times. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about what it would mean for the U.S. and Europe if Russia gains control of Ukraine or destabilizes it on a major scale. My guest will be Michael Kimmage, who held the Ukraine portfolio in the State Department under John Kerry from 2014, soon after Russia annexed Crimea, through 2016. He worked on reform and political transformation in Ukraine after the people drove out the Russian-allied president, Viktor Yanukovych. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRIS THILE AND BRAD MEHLDAU'S "INDEPENDENCE DAY")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRIS THILE AND BRAD MEHLDAU'S "INDEPENDENCE DAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.