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“The Batman” and “Ultrasound,” Reviewed

I’m gonna wash Batman right outa my hair. That was my plan, at any rate, after watching as much of “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” (2021) as I could take; even the most loyal fans of the Caped Crusader must have wondered, over the decades, if the crusading would ever end. Is there not a lingering suspicion that this most enigmatic of superheroes might merely, in fact, be the dullest? How much dramatic juice remains to be squeezed from Bruce Wayne, the chumless billionaire, brooding over his man cave and his gaggle of gizmos? The catalog of squeezers runs from Adam West to Ben Affleck, taking in actors as skilled as Michael Keaton, George Clooney, and Christian Bale. Now Robert Pattinson joins the list.

The film in question, directed by Matt Reeves, is called “The Batman,” the big news being that the principal character has acquired not only a new car, a new motorbike, and a new butler but also — holy grammarians! —A definite article. This guy isn’t just any old Batman; he is the Batman, and you should be wary of cheap imitations. (Any word, you may ask, from the Robin? Nothing. Not a tweet.) In another unusual development, this Batman has developed bruise-like circles around his eyes, which, when combined with his gnomic mottoes, such as “I ‘ m vengeance, ”and his preference for unarmed combat over lethal weapons, give the distinct, though surely unintended, impression that we are watching the latest adventures of Kung Fu Panda.

And the plot? Same as it ever was. Rich kid, orphaned in his youth, vows to clean up the dirty metropolis — a mission that he shares, incidentally, with Travis Bickle, in “Taxi Driver” (1976), the difference being that Travis is not too proud to crack a smile . Notice that the cleaning is never literal; although the streets of Gotham, in “The Batman,” are squalid and strewn with trash, not once is it proposed that Bruce might care to divert the Wayne family wealth into sanitation or garbage collection. “It’s a big city,” he says, a little plaintively. “I can’t be everywhere.” No, but what is solved by confronting a lone band of subway muggers and giving them a thoroughly good hiding, as our hero does in an early scene? Even if he sends them off to bed without their supper, how much safer will Gotham really be? One could argue that the hard work of everyday governance makes for stale viewing (though admirers of “Parks and Recreation” would disagree), yet there are times in “The Batman” when a short disquisition on, say, steam-based graffiti removal would come as a relief.

If the job of the Bat is to round up the rats, then the director needs to supply high-quality vermin. Hence the baddies who thronged Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy, and hence, likewise, the cast that has been convened by Reeves. We have John Turturro as a mob boss; Peter Sarsgaard, at his most sleepy-sleazy, as the local DA; Colin Farrell, larded with prosthetics, as the Penguin; and Paul Dano as the Riddler, a villain so mystifying that he leaves a question mark in the froth atop his cappuccino di lui. The opposing team includes Jeffrey Wright as James Gordon, a rare incorruptible cop, and, hovering in the middle, Zoë Kravitz as Selina Kyle — jewel thief, part-time Catwoman, and, fitfully, the movie’s voice of social conscience. She derides the sins of “white privileged assholes” and, in the closing stretch, suggests that she and the Batman “knock off some CEO hedge-fund types.” She adds, “It’s going to be fun.”

Leaving aside the question of whether Bruce Wayne, who is chalk white and super-privileged, has himself invested in hedge funds, and how they may have bankrolled his sterling defense of the law, one has to ask: what is this “fun” of which Selina speaks? It’s certainly not a concept that “The Batman,” dropsical with self-importance, and setting a bold new standard in joylessness, has much use for. Reeves bows down to the atmospheric laws that now govern American gothic — namely, that the darker and wetter a film becomes, and the growlier the vocal pitch of its characters, the more seriously we must take it. Thus, the highlight of the action, a car chase, has to be set at night and soaked in rain. To be fair, I did enjoy the sight of one vehicle emerging from a fireball in pursuit of another, yet somehow, thanks to the frenzied editing and the hammer blows of the musical score, I saw it coming. For an altogether more surprising combustion of the senses, check out “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015). That has great balls of fire.

Having once sat through a Dutch film of Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves,” and survived, I consider myself no stranger to cinematic fatigue. Clocking in at nearly three hours, however, “The Batman” is designed to try the patience of the toughest fan. What’s weird, despite the narrative expanse, is how much of the story feels rushed. When Anne Hathaway played Selina Kyle, in “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012), her thievery of lei was a pleasure, whereas almost the only thing stolen by the new Selina is a passport; similarly, when the Riddler leaves a cypher at a crime scene, the solution is arrived at in haste, with minimal thrills — far fewer than David Fincher provided in “Zodiac” (2007), a puzzle-stuffed movie that took full advantage of its running time. You begin to wonder what the point of “The Batman” is, beyond the sustaining of its gloomy mood.

For most Batmaniacs, I guess, the point will be a simple one: a chance to fix their gaze on Robert Pattinson — on his gaze, that is, smoldering under his mask. Now and then, he doffs it, showing his naked despondency and allowing his hair to fall artfully across his brow di lui, as if he once failed an audition for a boy band and never got over the disappointment. Such is the media’s obsession with Pattinson, since he left the “Twilight” zone, that this new role is naturally seen as crowning his career by him; for an actor who has worked with David Cronenberg, the Safdie brothers, and Claire Denis, though, portraying the Batman is not a coronation. It’s a comedown.

Pattinson’s allure, before which I am as helpless as anyone else, springs from the fact that, in keeping with his godlike exterior, he is a light knight as well as a dark one; what he brought to Nolan’s “Tenet,” in 2020, was not just fine tailoring but a casual comic élan. (“Don’t be so dramatic, ”He said, when planning a plane crash.)“ The Batman, ”to its shame, and to the deep detriment of its leading man, turns out the light. It demands that the hero be nothing but dramatic, all the time. “They think I am hiding in the shadows,” he declares. “I am the shadows.” Hogwash. What the Batman cannot admit is that, were a nice day ever to dawn in Gotham, he would be revealed for what he is: a fantasist, too old for his teen-age doominess, with zero social life, a suit of armor that makes it impossible to go to the bathroom, and not enough to do.

More nocturnal trouble, and more rain. Under stormy conditions, at the start of Rob Schroeder’s “Ultrasound,” a motorist named Glen (Vincent Kartheiser) gets a flat tire. He seeks aid at the nearest dwelling — the home of Art (Bob Stephenson) and his young wife di lui, Cyndi (Chelsea Lopez), who kindly offer Glen a bed. To be precise: Art, who claims to have failed as a husband, offers his own bed to Glen, with Cyndi in it. Art will sleep elsewhere.

As you watch the opening of the film, plus the scene in which Art shows up at Glen’s apartment to announce that Cyndi is pregnant, you get a pretty firm idea of ​​this sad-sack tale. Just one of those domestic downers, right? Wrong. There is so much more here, wriggling around in the sack. Who, for example, is the red-headed woman who, with neither warning nor introduction, rehearses a passage of dialogue that we then hear on the lips of Cyndi? An actress, perhaps? Could this be a meta-theatrical fable of some sort? Wrong again. The redhead is Shannon (Breeda Wool), and she’s employed in an experimental laboratory. There she observes Cyndi, who wears a cap covered in electrodes, and Glen, who for some reason is now in a wheelchair. “It’ll all make sense as we go along, I promise,” Shannon says. Wrong and wronger.

“Ultrasound” is adapted by Conor Stechschulte from his own four-volume graphic novel, and it’s the kind of brain bender that, like “The Shining” (1980) and “Barton Fink” (1991), persuades you that a hotel corridor is the most worrying place in the world. Set beside “The Batman,” Schroeder’s film offers an alternative path for modern gothic: not heavy underfoot but twisty and looping, with no hint of a moral quest. The electronic score, by Zak Engel, deceives rather than bombards the ear, using chirrups, clicks, and skirls. As in Gotham, you detect the hand of fate, but who is dealing that hand is another matter. My money is on Art, who, in a scarily gauged performance from Stephenson, begins as a cuckold, overweight and under-happy, and winds up as a grinning magician with a frilled shirt and a talent for extreme hypnosis. He happens to resemble the Wizard of Oz, but here’s the thing: Art is really a very good wizard. He’s just a very bad man. ♦

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