Matt Reeves’s The Batman, the latest cinematic exploration of Gotham City’s Dark Knight, is about a Batman who re-examines his mission. The movie emphasizes Batman’s skills as a detective, but the mysteries he solves force him to realize that he has to change his tactics; bringing wrath down on Gotham’s wrongdoers can only do so much—he has to symbolize something better. To heal Gotham City, the movie suggests, Batman will have to become more than a figure of vengeance: a figure of compassion and inspiration. Though the film is full of darkness and violence, it gestures toward a justice that goes beyond punishment, as Batman ultimately finds new ways to help his fellow citizens.
In Batman’s opening voiceover, he’s already questioning the limits of his intimidating persona. He’s been at this for two years, he says, without seeing crime rates drop or creating security for the scared children of Gotham who remind him of his own younger self. In a few effective sequences, we see Batman (a moody Robert Pattinson) from the perspective of the bad guys; they see a bogeyman who could come lurching out of any shadow, a creature of the night brimming with rage. Composer Michael Giacchino’s leitmotif for Batman conveys menace and gravitas, seeming almost to quote the Imperial March from Star Wars. Early in the action, Batman materializes from the darkness to rescue an unlucky civilian from a gang of toughs in clown makeup. After brutally pummeling one clown, Batman identifies himself: “I’m Vengeance.” The malefactors flee, and the rescued victim cowers. “Please, don’t hurt me!” he pleads with Batman, worried he’s fallen into the hands of some worse nocturnal monster. Clearly, embodying vengeance doesn’t lead to a less fearful Gotham.
The plot sees Halloween come to Gotham as Batman chases a killer, the Riddler (Paul Dano), who murders corrupt city officials and leaves taunting, Zodiac-style ciphers addressed to Batman himself. As he tries to untangle the Riddler’s game and the rotten power structure it’s revealing, Batman runs afoul of a criminal viceroy known as the Penguin (Colin Farrell under disfiguring makeup) and has a tense team-up with the alluring thief Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz).
Reeves pays his audience the compliment of assuming we are already familiar with the basics of Batman: He fights crime with fear-based vigilante tactics, he’s distrusted by most of the police force but has a working relationship with upright detective Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), he’s secretly billionaire orphan Bruce Wayne. Robert Pattinson’s Wayne is far from the bon vivant playboy persona adopted as a guise by other versions of Batman. This Bruce Wayne is a lank-haired recluse, building a Batmobile by hand in his sub-basement and resisting pleas from his loyal butler Alfred (Andy Serkis) to take an interest in his family’s charitable foundation.
Gotham City here is not just a crime-ridden city: It is a rain-slick, neo-noir urban purgatory, a dark fairy tale version of New York where the law’s reach stops short of the dockside fiefdoms of criminal princes like Carmine Falcone (played with wicked relish by John Turturro). One could reach for the phrase “gritty realism,” but it’s more like “gritty impressionism,” conveying a pervasive mood of seeping corruption. Gotham doesn’t so much have a criminal underbelly as a criminal undertow, a watery shadow-city always threatening to swamp its surface counterpart.
This setting could foster a cynical storyline. What’s the point of anything Batman does if the city’s rot runs so deep and so high? Yet the movie is not cynical; yes, the world Bruce has inherited is a mess of unpunished wickedness and victimized innocence. But he has responsibilities to this wounded world.
All the main players in the movie are responding to a tainted legacy of some sort. Selina’s working a score against Gotham’s top criminals that’s an attempt to wrest satisfaction from a nasty and negligent father. Jim Gordon grapples with his fear that he’s the only non-corrupt cop in the GCPD. And Bruce Wayne has to face up to the ways his father shaped the city, intentionally or not.
And what of the Riddler? He’s also reacting to corruption, but in the extreme manner of those maddened by ideology. His murders are baroque, but the underlying schema is like Batman’s, sans moral compunctions: The city’s lying leaders need to be unmasked and expunged. Paul Dano’s babyish features contrast with the way the Riddler commands our attention: with the disturbing videos and paramilitary mask of a homegrown terrorist radicalized on the internet. It’s the film’s most dramatic reinterpretation of a comic book character.
This Riddler doesn’t view himself as Batman’s opposite, but rather considers the Dark Knight a kindred spirit. And while many films use some hero-villain parallel as a trope, fewer have the hero explicitly choose to change for the better after recognizing a disturbing kinship with his foe. It’s when one of the Riddler’s own radicalized acolytes claims the mantle of “Vengeance” that Batman commits to a different path. In the end, it’s better to light a Bat-flare than to curse (or embrace) the darkness. In some of the movie’s final scenes, we see Batman as a torchbearer for a battered Gotham rising out of the deluge of its sins. He steps out of the shadows and can be seen by his fellow Gothamites for what he is: a wounded man trying to do right by them. By losing his persona as an inhuman minister of retribution, he becomes a more genuinely inspiring hero.
In the original comics, Batman was not a loner for long. The character debuted in 1939. By 1940, he had adopted an orphaned circus acrobat as his ward and sidekick, Robin. I have long wanted to see a Batman on the big screen who reaches that step of his journey, and grows from orphan to father, avenger to mentor. Perhaps strangely, despite its noir trappings and deeply dysfunctional Gotham, The Batman shows its protagonist growing toward that sea change in a way few other portrayals have.
Alexi Sargeant is a cultural critic, writer, and editor.
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