Focused on Robert Pattinson’s psychologically cohesive caped crusader, ‘The Batman’ is a cautionary tale of state failure
Batman fans all have their favorite iteration of the character introduced in Detective comics #27 more than eight decades ago. For some, it’s the Tim Burton/Michael Keaton version, which first appeared on the big screen in mid-1989 after a wave of Batmania, during which that ubiquitous black-and-gold logo was seen on T-shirts. -shirts, billboards and bus stops around the world. finished. For others, it’s the portrait of Christian Bale in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy. And some still can’t get past the late Adam West and his Batusi from the 1966 TV series. But for many adult fans who can’t maintain the superhero genre’s sense of black-and-white morality in a modern world complex, Batman ends up being a nostalgic – and mostly underwhelming – indulgence.
The latest iteration, simply titled The Batman, has certainly disappointed some. “The film’s solid dramatic architecture is essentially uninhabited,” writes Richard Brody, the New Yorkermovie critic. “The Batman is a cinematic house populated only by ghosts with no trace of a complex mental life. It is a curious criticism. The Batman works less like a superhero movie – although Robert Pattinson running around in a cape and cowl certainly qualifies it as that – than a traditional noir, exploring four characters’ responses to endemic corruption in a run-down, neoliberal city , according to their class positions within it. But there are many who disagree with Brody, and for them The Batman became one of the top films of the year. I’d go so far as to suggest that it’s the best Batman movie of all time and the most interesting entry into the superhero genre because it has the most to say about our own world.
Directed by Matt Reeves, with the script written by Reeves and Peter Craig (who picked it up from an original treatment by Ben Affleck, surely almost no one’s favorite Batman), The Batman rejoins its titular character about two years after his capped crusade to save Gotham City from the criminal element. Wealthy scion Bruce Wayne has traditionally been portrayed as a millionaire daytime playboy, but not here: Pattinson’s Bruce is dripping with the trauma of his society parents’ double murder. He is isolated and unbalanced, emotionally stunted and narcissistic, with a childish sense of morality. But he’s rich enough to have turned his illusory fantasy into reality, complete with expert training in combat and crime detection. Pattinson is the most psychologically coherent Batman to date.
For the first time on screen, we see others – thugs, cops, victims – reacting something like the way we might react to a guy in bat armor outside a theme park. Yet he managed to convince a sincere police lieutenant, James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright – the first black actor to play the role), of his good faith. Lacking Bruce’s wealth and extreme trauma, Gordon took a more conventional path and joined the police. We feel like he would have had little trouble completely identifying with the institution if he hadn’t learned of its corrupt core. But desperate times call for desperate measures. The idea that Gordon’s desire to undo the corruption is what drives him towards Batman has been suggested before, notably in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy and in the Gotham Television series, although rarely as believable as here. Gordon is one of The Batman‘s two audience surrogates, and he makes the choices we hope we would in similar situations.
The other audience surrogate is Selina Kyle, Catwoman’s alter ego, played here by Zoë Kravitz. Since Catwoman’s first appearance in Batman #1 (1940), she occupies an ambiguous position in Batman lore, oscillating between villain, anti-hero, and an enduring love for the Dark Knight. Reeves and Craig manage to pull these complicated strands together better than anyone before them, and the romance between Catwoman and Batman has never made more psychological sense than here. Selina was born on the fringes of Gotham, her mother one of countless disposable bar girls at a gangster-owned nightclub. Growing up without a social safety net, Selina learned to take care of herself. She and Batman bond through their shared experience of trauma, as each looks to each other as a potential savior. Selina also provides a clever insight into the male gaze when Batman forces her to wear his contact lenses to get him “in” to the club, now run by an ambitious mobster nicknamed the Penguin.
But The BatmanThe supervillain isn’t the Penguin but the Riddler, this time sans the eroteme-adorned green bodysuit we’ve seen on Frank Gorshin, John Astin, and Jim Carrey. Paul Dano’s Riddler is the scariest yet because the character involves the abusive neoliberal state in creating warped minds and terrorist destruction. Gotham sympathized with the wealthy orphan Bruce Wayne, but he abandoned the orphans of less economically privileged classes who should have been cared for by the state. This type of statelessness is also largely the story of Todd Phillips Joker (2019), though that film offered little more than a nihilistic vindication of the kind of mass violence now frequently perpetrated by marginalized, enraged young men. But if Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker has been criticized for its sympathetic portrayal of incel culture, Dano’s Riddler is much more obviously a cautionary tale about state failure.
Traditionally, the superhero genre is a right-wing genre. His films emerged alongside the neoliberal revolution of (anti-)democratic governance, and were clear beneficiaries of it. Black Panther won praise for its “progressive” portrayal of technologically advanced African heroes, but the story is ultimately conservative: it pits Africans against Africans and says little about the structures of colonialism. This is decidedly a genre in which films that cost more than the combined budgets of small nations make mega-profits selling the idea that the welfare state is dead and that we need strong men (and women, but especially men) to save us. The idea, like the revolution sweeping through Western democracies, is individualistic, nihilistic and nationalistic. Joker was its apotheosis. It’s here that The Batman begins, with bat-clad Bruce walking around in the shadows saying ridiculous things like “I’m the revenge.”
But that’s not where the movie ends. The BatmanThe plot of is set against a mayoral campaign in which an idealistic young African-American woman, Bella Reál (Jayme Lawson), takes on the corrupt incumbent. The city’s powerful aren’t too concerned about Reál’s impending victory: They’ve long used an endowment made two decades ago by Bruce Wayne’s father, a “Gotham Renewal” fund, to line their pockets and keep control over city institutions. It is this corruption that the narcissist Riddler aims to expose by unleashing chaos and spectacular destruction. And it’s by investigating the Riddler’s clues — and through some transformative relationships — that Bruce Wayne finally begins to heal and see beyond his trauma-induced but ultimately selfish need for personal revenge. Unlike a superhero movie, The Batman ends on a note of hope, with a hint of democratic and institutional renewal. In doing so, the film begins to grapple with the big question inherent in the superhero genre: why do these unquestionably good people, with their extraordinary abilities, never get tough on people? causes – rather than the symptoms – of the crime?
Sure, The Batman remains a blockbuster whose revenue nearly quadrupled its already obscene budget. But it comes at an opportune time, in the midst of a strong dictator’s invasion of Ukraine, before the United States Congressional elections in November and, for Australians, during a federal election campaign between the two major parties that together led the neoliberal revolution here.