April 28, 2022

Film

Matt Reeves’s blockbuster is the best Batman film yet

By Russell Marks
Image of Robert Pattinson in The Batman. Photo © Jonathan Olley / Warner Bros. / Courtesy Everett Collection

Robert Pattinson in The Batman. Photo © Jonathan Olley / Warner Bros. / Courtesy Everett Collection

Concentrated on Robert Pattinson’s psychologically coherent caped crusader, ‘The Batman’ is a cautionary tale about state failure

Batman fans all have their favourite 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 following a wave of Batmania, during which that ubiquitous black-and-gold logo was seen on T-shirts, billboards and bus stops the world over. For others it’s Christian Bale’s portrayal in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy. And some still can’t go past the late Adam West and his Batusi from the 1966 television series. But for many adult fans who can’t maintain the superhero genre’s black-and-white sense of morality in a complex modern world, Batman ends up being a nostalgic indulgence – and a mostly disappointing one.

The latest iteration, simply titled The Batman, has certainly disappointed some. “The movie’s solid dramatic architecture is essentially uninhabited,” writes Richard Brody, the New Yorker’s film critic. “The Batman is a cinematic house populated only by phantoms with no trace of a complex mental life.” It’s a curious critique. The Batman works less as a superhero film – though Robert Pattinson running around in cape and cowl certainly qualifies it as that – than as traditional noir, exploring four characters’ responses to endemic corruption in a decayed, neoliberalised city, based on their class positions within it. But there are plenty who disagree with Brody, and for them The Batman has emerged as one of the standout films of the year. I’d go as far as to suggest 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 written by Reeves and Peter Craig (who salvaged it from an original treatment by Ben Affleck, surely almost nobody’s favourite Batman), The Batman joins its titular character about two years into his caped crusade to save Gotham City from the criminal element. Wealthy scion Bruce Wayne has traditionally been portrayed as a millionaire playboy by day, but not here: Pattinson’s Bruce drips with the trauma of his society parents’ double murder. He’s isolated and unhinged, emotionally stunted and narcissistic, with a childlike sense of morality. But he’s rich enough to have transformed his deluded fantasy into reality, complete with expert training in combat and crime detection. Pattinson’s is the most psychologically coherent Batman yet.

For the first time on screen, we see others – thugs, cops, victims – react something like the way we might react to a guy dressed in bat-armour outside of a theme park. Yet somehow, he has managed to convince a sincere police lieutenant, James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright – the first black actor to play the role), of his bona fides. Lacking Bruce’s wealth and extreme trauma, Gordon took a more conventional path and joined the police force. We get the sense that he would have had few problems identifying completely 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 quash corruption is what impels him toward Batman has been suggested before, most notably in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy and in the Gotham TV series, though rarely as believably as here. Gordon is one of The Batman’s two audience surrogates, and he makes the choices we hope we’d make in similar situations.

The other audience surrogate is Selina Kyle, the alter ego of Catwoman, played here by Zoë Kravitz. Since Catwoman’s first appearance in Batman #1 (1940), she’s occupied an ambiguous position in Batman lore, oscillating between villain, antihero and an enduring love interest for the Dark Knight. Reeves and Craig manage to bring these complicated strands together better than anyone before them, and the will-they-won’t-they romance between Catwoman and Batman has never made more psychological sense than here. Selina was born into Gotham’s margins, her mother one of countless disposable bar girls in a mobster-owned nightclub. Having grown up with no social safety net, Selina has learned to look after herself. She and Batman bond through their shared experience of trauma, while each looks to the other as a potential saviour. Selina also provides a clever insight into the male gaze when Batman bullies her into wearing his cornea-cam contact lenses to get him “inside” the club, now managed by an ambitious mobster nicknamed the Penguin.

But The Batman’s supervillain is not the Penguin but the Riddler, this time without 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 implicates the abusive neoliberal state in the creation of warped minds and terroristic destruction. Gotham sympathised with the wealthy orphan Bruce Wayne, but it abandoned orphans from less economically privileged classes who should have been looked after by the state. This kind of state absence is also broadly the story of Todd Phillips’s Joker (2019), though that film offered not much more than a nihilistic justification for the kind of mass violence now frequently perpetrated by marginalised, enraged young men. But if Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker was criticised 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. Its films have emerged alongside the neoliberal revolution in (anti-)democratic governance, and have been obvious beneficiaries of it. Black Panther earned praise for its “progressive” representation of technologically advanced African heroes, but the story is ultimately conservative: it pits African against African and says little about the structures of colonialism. It is firmly of a genre in which movies that cost more than the entire budgets of small nations turn megaprofits from selling the notion 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 Western democracies, is individualistic, nihilistic and nationalistic. Joker was its apotheosis. This is where The Batman begins, with Bat-clad Bruce stalking around in the shadows saying ridiculous things like “I’m vengeance”.

But that’s not where the film ends. The Batman’s plot unfolds against a mayoral election campaign in which an idealistic young African-American woman, Bella Reál (Jayme Lawson), goes up against the corrupt incumbent. The city’s powerbrokers aren’t overly concerned at Reál’s pending victory: they’ve long been using an endowment made two decades ago by Bruce Wayne’s father, a “Gotham Renewal” fund, to line their own pockets and retain control over the city’s institutions. It’s this corruption that the narcissistic Riddler aims to expose by unleashing chaos and spectacular destruction. And it’s through investigating the Riddler’s clues – and through some transformative relationships – that Bruce Wayne begins at last to heal, and to see beyond his trauma-induced but ultimately selfish need for personal vengeance. Uncharacteristically for a superhero film, The Batman ends on a hopeful note, with a hint of democratic and institutional renewal. In doing so, the film begins to confront the big question inherent in the superhero genre: why don’t these unambiguously good folk, with their extraordinary abilities, ever get tough on the causes – rather than the symptoms – of crime?

Of course, The Batman remains a blockbuster whose revenue has almost quadrupled its already obscene budget. But it appears at an apposite moment, in the middle of a strongman dictator’s invasion of Ukraine, ahead of the United States’ Congressional elections in November and, for Australians, during a federal election campaign fought between the two major parties that together have stewarded the neoliberal revolution here.

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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