Exploring the themes of mistrust, anonymity, and terrorism in Matt Reeves' The Batman (2022)
When this film was announced, it was met with a fair share of scrutiny. Who needs another Batman movie? How many versions can be rung out of one comic? And casting Robert Pattinson?? (Let the record show I was always very very into this casting.) Burton’s takes were darkly funny, Clooney’s and Val Kilmer's have become technicolor camp classics, and Nolan’s trilogy was so acclaimed for its straightforward and serious approach to Gotham that to resurrect it was to fall victim to a cursed fate (sorry Ben Affleck :/). Compared to Marvel’s unparalleled universe-building, DC appeared to be shooting darts with a blindfold on, hoping something would stick. Matt Reeves’ The Batman proves otherwise. Since its early March release, his dark film noir approach has met with great critical and commercial acclaim, cementing adaptations of Batman as important pillars of our cultural consciousness akin to Shakespeare and Jane Austen. Each iteration speaks to contemporary values and anxieties, finding unexplored layers in its source.
The Batman is a murder mystery centrifuged with elements of mob drama and horror as the titular character is sucked into solving the crimes of a serial killer and unearthing a political conspiracy. This variety is punctuated by leaps from intense, heavy techno to romantic crescendos to unsettlingly jagged strings to “Something in the Way '' by Nirvana. Frequent rain pours down in sheets and we rarely see daylight. The audience stalks a violent, dirty, and barren city as voyeuristically as its heroes and villains. This Gotham may be the darkest we’ve seen yet, echoing the brutality and fear rising at the end of Joker (2019). Joker was aware of incel culture and how one person’s loneliness could radicalize a mob, but the Batman premiered to a world ravaged by a pandemic, with major cities like New York facing crime waves and poor leadership, and where social media-driven conspiracy theories and domestic terrorism have only increased public fear. In this new Gotham, there is no glitzy social life, no philanthropic parties with tuxedos and ball gowns attended by Bruce Wayne, only the Iceberg Lounge and its sleazy speakeasy 44 Below. This nightclub plays a central role in the film, as a hub for the mob, corrupt Gotham politicians, and the “drop” drug trade to converge. This is where Batman first meets the femme fatale Selina Kyle clad in dominatrix patent leather and one of her many wigs.
Somehow there is both humor and beauty in this world. There aren’t “jokes” as much as dry and macabre cleverness like a “thumb-drive” attached to a mutilated thumb left by the Riddler, the Penguin’s grandiose Italian-American mafioso accent (whaydyatawkinabOUT?), and the occasional quip. In emulating the film noir detective genre, some of the melodramatic dialogue edges on obvious, even comic but who is Batman if not an unapologetically brooding drama king? And why shouldn’t Catwoman quip like one of Old Hollywood’s best? There are also many moments where the Riddler’s insanity is so sincere (e.g. his Polaroid selfies in and out of his mask tapped to a cupboard) the body is compelled to break the tension with a laugh.
The beauty starts with hypnotizing cinematography and bleeds into the good looks of our leads, who have insane sexual chemistry and the jawlines to match. Their will-they-won’t-they magnetism feels genuine and although they spar, they also continuously come to each other’s aid. Batman also has loyal bonds with Gordon and Alfred, which ground him (and us) in an isolated world.
By casting Robert Pattinson, an actor known for experimental indie films, as the lead, Reeves was able to distance his hero from preconceived notions and allow new life to breathe into the bat suit. In fact, Pattinson was Reeves’ Batman before the actor even signed on for the project. is the macho, playboy Bruce Wayne and in his place is a grungy, moody young man who wears a strip of smudge eye black long after the cowl comes off. He is a quiet, cunning, and reclusive “nocturnal animal” (underlined in the journal!) with the pale complexion and tired eyes to prove it. He is somewhat new to this “project” but already absorbed to a point of no return. We first meet him in a gravely voiceover as scenes of Gotham on a rainy Halloween play before us. He unassumingly sulks through a crowd camouflaged in a hood, baseball cap, and bomber jacket. This is his other disguise: Bruce Wayne. His narration continues as vandals and robbers grow frightened at the Bat Signal glowing atop the clouds above. Then, the Batman treads forward in punky military books to fight a gang on a train platform. He’s muscular, tough, and barely verbal save for the “I am vengeance” line that will come back to haunt him. He is there to communicate with blows, to enact fear. The gang nor their captive recognize him upon arrival but he ensures that he won’t be forgotten.
As we spend more time with his two personas, we might notice how unsure of himself without the suit. He first goes to the Iceberg Lounge as the Batman, steeling his eyes at the door as he growls “know who I am?” They don’t let him in to see the Penguin so he uses force, getting in a major scuffle until the Penguin himself comes to break it up. When he enters the second time as Bruce, he repeats the line ''do you know who I am?” but can barely make eye contact with the twin bouncers. His hair slick with rain, he awkwardly staggers into Falcone’s luxurious den. In different instances, he understands when to be Bruce Wayne, the “Prince of the City:” to meet with his accountants; to attend the funeral for the Mayor, where he thinks the Riddler will strike; to probe Carmine Falcone about his parents’ secrets; to visit Alfred in the hospital. But he sees these rare public appearances as a burden. Unlike other Bruces we’ve seen, this one has no interest in developing a personal life. Every ounce of self is poured into the bat.
It’s important to note that this is “The Batman” not Batman, like in most other versions. This is a matter of semantics: what does placing an article in front of this notorious pop culture figure’s name do to our perception of him? The first time we see him referred to as “the Batman” is on the envelope left by the Riddler in the Mayor’s office. Before that, he is called a “masked vigilante” on the news (but considering the state of Gotham, this could be one of many), a “freak” and a “possible suspect” by GCPD officers. Then, when Bruce shows Alfred this first letter, Alfred asks if it “was left for the Batman?” not “this was left for you?” as though Batman is an entity other than Bruce. Only the Riddler calls him the Batman for the majority of the film until the final news broadcast when the chyron announces “The Batman” is helping the National Guard with evacuating Gotham. This development symbolizes how deeply impacted Batman is by his brushes with the Riddler (more on this later). Even Selina is never called “Catwoman” but does flirtatiously pair them together as “the bat and the cat” at the end right before they part ways. Not only does the lack of traditional monikkers show how green they are, but by playing with these characters’ ubiquity in the zeitgeist, the film stretches the themes of anonymity and identity even further.
His total identity saturation is symbolized by his willingness to endure physical pain. We never see him training like Bale’s Dark Knight but hear mention of Alfred teaching him how to fight, framing it as more of a survival tactic than self-exploration. Out of the bat suit, we can tell he isn’t as built as previous Batmans, though he is muscular. ( We have to give props to Rob’s pre-movie work-out routine.)His back is scarred, his right hand is wrapped in bloody gauze, he grunts in pain after his parachute catches on a subway structure, causing his soaring leap from the GCPD Tower to end with him face-down on the edge of an alley strewn with trash. He limps back into the shadows to recuperate. We see his fear right before he makes this daunting leap and understand he’s never tried this feat before. Underneath his bullet-proof, hyper-muscular shell, he is still human. This Batman also doesn’t care “what happens to [him]” which grows from Nihilistic snark to a real willingness to sacrifice his life for Gotham by the end of the film. Seeing a huge Gotham Square Garden monitor hanging by a frayed, sparking wire, he jumps onto it and cuts it down with his bat-knife, plummeting into the water below. Catwoman and Gordon peer below in shock before Batman pops up, gasping for air.
A common criticism for this Batman is that he has little interiority or development arc. He does read emotionally flat for the most part, but his initial flatness, if you must call it that, is part of his character. His grief and depression have forced him into an alternate, nocturnal reality where he dresses like a sexy bat and punches random criminals to feel better about living in this mental and physical hell. At the beginning of the film, he’s concerned with making the criminals of Gotham fear the possibility of him lurking just behind their shoulders. His encounters with Catwoman and the Riddler allow him to grow into a more compassionate and focused Batman. The former verges “hysterical woman,” hell-bent on avenging her roommate’s murder. She is as strong as she is sexy, which keeps her characterization from falling to pieces. She calls him out on his privilege, which only heightens the reckoning he is forced to have throughout the film, and is ultimately the more grounded one of the pair. As a foil for the Batman, her more personal, emotionally-charged approach to vengeance might need to be curbed but her fire adds a necessary balance to his ice. By helping her accept the murders of her own mother and roomate by her crime boss father rather than avenge, he also begins his own journey of acceptance. Their relationship expands from her “You don't even care what happens to me, do you?” to the final fight scenes when they both save each other from certain death. Batman's heart may not grow ten sizes by the end of the movie, but it’s slightly more open to expressing compassion. Before Alfred’s near-death experience, Bruce is borderline cruel to him with classic teen angst lines like “you’re not my father” and “why do you care?” But in the hospital he admits that although he is not afraid of death, he is afraid of losing the people he loves. He holds Alfred’s outstretched hand, finally understanding how much he has done to raise him and keep the Wayne legacy alive. His compassion builds incrementally to the film’s apocalyptic final scenes when he leads Gothamites to safety and assists the National Guard in rescuing them from the flood. The narration expresses a changed Batman who sees the good still left in Gotham, despite the city being at its worst.
The Batman plays into a classic hero-villain similarity trope, giving Riddler and Batman many parallels. They are both orphans, meticulous journal keepers, fringe vigilantes who use violence with the aim of making Gotham a better city, and lovers of puzzles. They have both been absorbed by their alias, which Riddler correctly suggests are more true to who they are than their real selves. He barely has a self to cling to anymore, without the prestige, wealth, and fatherly butler that pulls Bruce into some semblance of reality. When we see him arrested at a diner counter, he is as plain as any unassuming nerd-turned-psycho killer, and unidentifiable from his two licenses. We’re led to believe Riddler sniffed out the Falcone conspiracy from his mid-level job as a forensic accountant. It’s his totally unremarkable presence that allows him to see the key players in Gotham for what they are. This notion reverberates in the context of our modern day where violent commenters hide behind faceless screen-names.
Like Catwoman, the Riddler comments on Batman-as-Bruce’s privileged background, even questioning his complicity in the wreckage of the city. (It's unclear if or how he knows Batman is Bruce Wayne; maybe he’s the only Gothamite paying attention to strong jawlines.) Radicalized by a brutal childhood in the Wayne orphanage, where early addictions to” drops,” a threatening rat presence, and deadly drafts were commonplace, he always resented Bruce and his father for the empty promises of Renewal. Wayne Tower’s perch above the city has taken up residence in Batman’s mind; although he likes to think of himself as being one with the shadows, he misses a lot of important social infrastructure that his murderous counterpart doesn’t. In their singular conversation at Arkham, the Riddler suggests our hero might think the corrupt mayor, commissioner, and DA deserved their fate, which reframes the narrative. From a moralistic stand-point, these men certainly deserve consequences, and why shouldn’t they be as brutalized, if not more, than the random blue-collar criminals Batman tasers on the streets? Riddler may be a criminally insane domestic terrorist (bolstered by Dano’s alarming and brilliant peformance) but there is enough validity in his motives for the Batman to question his own. Riddler says the Batman “showed him what was possible,” horrifying him at the implication that he helped this “deranged” prisoner. Riddler’s borderline homoerotic admiration forces his caped counterpart to draw a line between fear monger and protector.
The Riddler stops making even a shred of sense when his plan to flood Gotham is revealed. This event truly separates and solidifies hero and villain. Throughout the movie, we see news broadcasts announcing Riddler’s crimes alongside self-recorded clips and developments in the conspiracy he is unearthing. We only really see what Batman sees (with some exceptions). Since his noble efforts are somewhat self-absorbed until the finale, the only time we get an idea of the Riddler’s growing fanbase is at the Mayor’s public memorial service. Outside, there is a protest where grubby, angry-looking Gothamites yell and hold up posters with the Riddler’s signature question mark cipher. Inside, Bruce is forced to confront the extreme class divide he conveniently avoids by taking on the Batman persona. It’s nearly too late, after Batman visits Riddler at Arkham, that he learns there’s one more piece of the puzzle to solve and returns to the apartment. Here, he finally comes to the horrific realization that Riddler has been leading the entirety of Gotham on a crumb trail to their own demise. While he may only have 500 followers (the singular bothersome detail of the entire plot), his live-streams garner millions of views. His call to arms trails off into a narration while a terrorist nightmare is already unfolding. Vigilante snipers, encouraged by the Riddler and the online community he fostered, are lying in wait to kill who? Everyone, starting with the new mayor-elect? The similarities to real American current events are even more bone-chilling than the Riddler’s repeated “Bruuuuuuuce Waaaayne” from behind an asylum door. Batman eventually takes them down, with the help of Catwoman and Gordon, but not without a solid and thrilling fight.
Riddle: What's the difference between a good vigilante and a bad one?
The Batman (2022) sees our hero learn exactly what that role means.
Real fans listen to my “Bruce Wayne’s Mega Mix” playlist on Spotify.