(THE) Layout Editor
Image courtesy of TheBatman.com.
Batman is a character with many faces. There’s been the shadowy deserved hero of The Dark Knight, the depressed (and depressing) post-divorce Ben Affleck, and the comically deadpan hero of the animated series. But perhaps no other adaptation portrays him in a less flattering light than Matt Reeves’ The Batman.
In Reeves’ 2022 adaptation, Batman (Robert Pattinson) is self-centered, childish, and awkward. He is a man so preoccupied with his own trauma that he neglects the moral purposes he ascribes to himself. He dismisses the value of putting his tremendous economic and social power to use in helping his city. Most damningly, he doesn’t appear to care about the people he saves so much as the people he hurts. Debatably, that’s why Gotham continues to be a cesspool of crime: Bruce Wayne, the person with arguably the most power to make a change, is less concerned with having a safe city than a city full of people to punch.
This is, of course, the entire point.
Reeves’ iteration of The Batman is a superhero movie by way of psychological thriller- think Caped Crusader by way of Se7en. This was a welcome change for me: as much as I do enjoy watching superheroes punch spaceships in the face, it does get a teeny bit boring after the tenth straight movie. In it, Batman’s confronted with the fact that he, you know, kind of sucks. The film does so by way of narrative foils. After all, Batman is hardly the only traumatized orphan in Gotham.
Enter the Riddler (Paul Dano). I’ve heard that Paul Dano had to go into therapy after this role. I couldn’t find any evidence of this but I wouldn’t be surprised; he’s a bit too real here. The Riddler has more in common with a domestic terrorist than a fun guy who wears a green suit. Like Batman, he was an orphan with a traumatic childhood- and like Batman, he wants revenge. But while Batman misplaces his anger onto random criminals, the Riddler, who grew up poor and not cushioned by Bruce’s privilege, understands that the actual issue is with the corruption that infests seemingly every part of Gotham’s criminal justice system. He kills cops, mayors, district attornies, and openly claims Batman as inspiration every step of the way.
But he’s not the only person that shakes Wayne’s conviction. Selina Kyle or Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz), his romantic interest, also illuminates some serious flaws in his worldview. Her mother was also killed as a result of the violent crime in this city. Unlike her counterparts, though, she doesn’t really want revenge; she just wants safety for her and her people.
Batman’s progression through the film is facilitated by his recognition of himself in the other- and his disgust at what is effectively his own twisted reflection. Through the Riddler’s macabre actions, Wayne realizes the shallowness and ineffectiveness of what he’s been doing, and the corruption of the systems in which he’d previously placed his trust. Through his relationship with Kyle, he begins to empathize with the suffering of the people he’s meant to be keeping safe. And through an exceptionally blunt intercession with mayoral candidate Bella Reál (yes, I know, the name is really subtle) (Jayme Lawson), he’s made to understand that he has more powerful resources than just violence. Due to this, the climax of the story isn’t him beating up the Riddler in cathartic comeuppance for his many crimes- the Riddler is actually already imprisoned by the time the climax starts. Rather, it’s reflective of Wayne’s character growth. The film ends with him helping the victims of the Riddler’s attack on Gotham, pledging to act as a force of hope instead of vengeance.
Aside from having an exceptionally well-constructed story, The Batman is just a really well made film, made by creators who seemed to deeply care about what they were doing. I’ve already touched on Dano’s performance, but Pattinson is also excellent here. The only reason the character’s really stomachable before his change of heart is because Pattinson plays him with a core of tortured desperation. The aesthetics of the film are also impressive (though from a practical level, it is kind of funny that Gotham is always in the midst of a torrential downpour).
But possibly most importantly, it’s reached both an audience of people who already love and understand the mythos of the character and also people like me, who started off pretty indifferent. I was helped a lot in writing this article by a comics fan that wishes to remain nameless; they are probably the only reason that this article is somewhat coherent. While some elements they enjoyed were ones I would have never been able to see- for example, allusions to more obscure comics characters like Hush and the Court of Owls- a lot of them were the same decisions that I enjoyed about the film. It’s that well-made!
That isn’t to say the film is flawless. The Batman’s greatest issue is that it has to weigh its famous (and occasionally ridiculous) origins with its more grounded ambitions. It has to straddle an awkward line. On one hand, it’s openly inspired by Taxi Driver and the Zodiac Killer; on the other, the studio wouldn’t let one of the characters smoke and the main character is named Batman.
But that juxtaposition is only really an issue if the audience’s perspective is unwilling to open up to a very novel- and in my opinion, very needed- take on the character. There will inevitably be comparisons drawn between this film and Christopher Nolan’s much-lauded Dark Knight trilogy; both of them have similar dark and gritty aesthetics, and both of them are prestige takes on the same character. However, where Nolan uses that aesthetic in service of libertarian post-9/11 cynicism, Reeves’ take is strikingly hopeful. The film acknowledges that the world is awful, that authorities meant to protect instead destroy, and that even the most idealistic among us are deeply, deeply flawed. It ends with Gotham in ruins. And yet, there is hope- when given the right direction, Batman changes for the better. He listens- he begins to care. He begins to help. Even if the story ended there, that would be triumph enough.