Centering on Robert Pattinson’s psychologically coherent caped crusader, The Batman is a cautionary tale of state failure
Batman fans all have their favorite version of the featured character detective comics #27 more than eight decades ago. For some, it’s the Tim Burton/Michael Keaton version that first hit the big screen in mid-1989 after a Batmania wave during which the ubiquitous black and gold logo was seen on T-shirts, billboards and bus shelters around the world was finished. For others, it’s Christian Bale’s portrayal 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 keep up the black-and-white sense of morality of the superhero genre in a complex modern world, Batman ends up being a nostalgic treat – and a mostly disappointing one.
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 Yorkerthe film critic. “The Batman is a cinematic house populated only by phantoms, without any trace of complex inner life.” It is a curious critique. The Batman works less as a superhero film – although Robert Pattinson, running around in a cloak and hood certainly qualifies it as such – than as a traditional noir that explores four characters’ reactions to the endemic corruption in a decaying, neoliberalized city based on their class positions within it . But there are many who disagree with Brody and for her The Batman has become one of the standout films of the year. I would even say that it’s the best Batman movie of all time and the most interesting entry in the superhero genre because it has the most to say about our own world.
Directed by Matt Reeves, with the screenplay by Reeves and Peter Craig (who rescued it from an original treatment of Ben Affleck, surely almost nobody’s favorite Batman), The Batman joins his titular character some two years into his crusade to save Gotham City from the criminal element. Wealthy offspring Bruce Wayne is traditionally portrayed as a multimillionaire playboy by day, but not here: Pattinson’s Bruce oozes from society with the trauma of his parents’ double murder. He is isolated and unhinged, emotionally atrophied and narcissistic, with a childlike sense of morality. But he’s wealthy enough to have turned his deluded fantasies into reality, complete with expert training in combat and crime detection. Pattinson’s is the most psychologically cohesive Batman yet.
For the first time on screen, we’re seeing others – thugs, cops, victims – react in a similar way weather might respond to a guy in bat gear outside a theme park. Yet somehow he managed to convince a straight-laced police lieutenant, James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright – the first black actor to play the role), of his credibility. Without Bruce’s wealth and extreme trauma, Gordon took a more conventional path and joined the police force. We have a feeling he would have had little trouble fully identifying with the institution had he not learned of its corrupt core. But desperate times call for desperate measures. The idea that Gordon’s desire to quell corruption is what drives him to Batman has been hinted at before, notably in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy and in the Gotham TV series, although rarely as believable as here. Gordon is one of them The Batmanis the audience’s two substitutes, and he makes the decisions we hope we would make in similar situations.
The other audience substitute is Selina Kyle, Catwoman’s alter ego, played here by Zoë Kravitz. Since Catwoman’s first appearance in Batman #1 (1940) she has occupied an ambiguous position in Batman lore, oscillating between villain, anti-hero and an abiding love interest for the Dark Knight. Reeves and Craig do a better job of pulling these intricate strands together than anyone before them, and the won’t-they-won’t-they romance between Catwoman and Batman has never made more psychological sense than it does here. Selina was born on the outskirts of Gotham, her mother was one of countless throwaway bar girls in a gangster-owned nightclub. Selina grew up without social security and has learned to take care of herself. She and Batman bond through their shared trauma experience, while each viewing the other as a potential savior. Selina also offers a clever glimpse into the male gaze as Batman urges her to wear his cornea cam contact lenses to get him “into” the club, now run by an aspiring gangster nicknamed Penguin.
but The BatmanThe supervillain of isn’t the Penguin but the Riddler, this time without the erotem-adorned green bodysuit we’ve seen on Frank Gorshin, John Astin and Jim Carrey. Paul Dano’s Riddler is the scariest yet, as the character implicates the abusive neoliberal state in the creation of distorted minds and terrorist destruction. Gotham sympathized with the wealthy orphan Bruce Wayne, but left orphans from less economically privileged classes who should have been cared for by the state. That sort of state absence is pretty much Todd Phillips’ story as well joker (2019), although this film offered little more than a nihilistic justification for the kind of mass violence often perpetrated by marginalized, angry young men today. But if Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker was criticized for its sympathetic depiction of incel culture, Dano’s Riddler is much more obviously a cautionary tale about government failure.
Traditionally, the superhero genre is a right-wing genre. His films were made parallel to the neoliberal revolution in (anti-)democratic governance and were obvious beneficiaries of it. Black Panther It deserves 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 fabric of colonialism. It clearly belongs to a genre where movies that cost more than the entire 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 mostly men) to save us The idea, like the revolution sweeping through western democracies, is individualistic, nihilistic and nationalistic. joker was his apotheosis. That’s where The Batman begins with bat-clad Bruce strutting about in the shadows saying ridiculous things like “I am revenge.”
But that’s not the end of the film. The Batman‘s plot unfolds against a mayoral race pitting an idealistic young African American woman, Bella Reál (Jayme Lawson), against the corrupt incumbent. City rulers aren’t too concerned about Reál’s impending victory: They’ve long used an endowment Bruce Wayne’s father made two decades ago, a “Gotham Renewal” fund, to line their own pockets and take control of to keep the institutions of the city. It is this corruption that the narcissistic Riddler seeks to uncover by unleashing chaos and spectacular destruction. And through investigating the Riddler’s clues – and through some transformative relationships – Bruce Wayne finally begins to heal and see beyond his trauma-induced but ultimately selfish need for personal revenge. Atypical for a superhero film, The Batman ends hopefully, with an air of democratic and institutional renewal. With that, the film begins to address the big question inherent in the superhero genre: why don’t these clearly good people with their extraordinary abilities ever go hard on them caused – rather than the symptoms – of crime?
Naturally, The Batman remains a blockbuster whose earnings have almost quadrupled its already obscene budget. But it comes at an opportune time, in the midst of a powerful dictator’s invasion of Ukraine, ahead of the United States congressional elections in November and, for Australians, during a federal election campaign being fought between the two major parties that together make up the government have led neoliberal revolution here.