Sunday Pages: "The Batman"
A film by Matt Reeves
There are too many superhero movies, the genre is bloated and ridiculous and uses up way too much of the talent and money in Hollywood, and I will happily go to the grave without watching every last picture in the ponderous Marvel Comics Universe. But I’ve always had a soft spot for Batman. I grew up on the Adam West TV show. When I was little, I ran around my house with a towel for a cape. I played with Batman and Robin dolls. (This was the mid-70s, and I don’t think they were called “action figures” yet.) When I was five years old, I was Batman for Halloween, and I wore the costume for so long beforehand that it was ripped and torn by October 15th.
So with the world on fire, and horrors all around, I decided to take a break and go to the movies. I went to see Matt Reeves’ The Batman. Twice, in a 24-hour span. On Friday (with my son), and again on Saturday (with my wife), because it was that good.
I’m not going to include any obvious spoilers here, but if you’re planning to see the movie and want to go in cold, now’s the time to stop reading.
Batman is Bruce Wayne, and Bruce Wayne is Batman. In all of comics, no alter ego is more important. The trauma of the man behind the cowl begets the obsessions of the superhero he becomes. Batman’s origin story is not something to gloss over to get to the good stuff. The origin story is the story.
This is what we all know about Batman, heading into the cinema:
1/ Thomas and Martha Wayne were both murdered, shot to death in a robbery gone wrong, as young Bruce Wayne watched. Unable to forgive himself for not protecting his parents, Bruce becomes the Batman.
2/ His parents were loaded. All of that wealth now belongs to Bruce, and he uses it to fight crime.
3/ Thomas Wayne was a key figure in the history of Gotham City, a sort of New York gone bad—a city so rife with crime and corruption that its wealthiest, most renowned oligarch was gunned down in a back alley. (Bob Kane and Bill Finger, who created the character in May of 1939, a few months before the Nazis rolled into Poland, were from the Bronx.)
Each iteration of the Batman franchise must reckon with this origin story. The old TV show—which I love with every fiber of my being—more or less ignores it, in favor of camp. Michael Keaton shows a sort of bored dissatisfaction with the trappings of his wealth; his Bruce Wayne is funny but scattered, his ADHD a defense mechanism to prevent anyone from getting too close. Christian Bale is so focused on developing and outfitting his alter ego that he lets the rest of his life fall away. Ben Affleck broods, leaning into the “reclusive billionaire” aspect of the character. (“What’s your superpower?” Flash asks him, in Justice League. His joyless reply: “I’m rich.”) Will Arnett’s Lego Batman, meanwhile, is shallow and obnoxious and desperate for attention.
Robert Pattinson is 35, just three years younger than Keaton was in 1989, but there is enough of a boyish quality about him that he plays younger—younger than previous Bruce Waynes. (In the film, we see that Selena Kyle’s mother was born in 1976; if Catwoman is in her mid-20s, so is Batman.) What we are watching in Reeves’ film is a young man processing his grief about the violent murder of his parents. Bruce Wayne taps into his inner vigilante to save the day—but also, to save himself. In this way, The Batman has more in common with The Silence of the Lambs than previous Batman films: a serial killer is on the loose, the cops have no leads (or are unwilling to follow the leads they have), and so a young outsider whose father was a murder victim is brought in to help. Pattinson is perfect in this film, as he was in Tenet. My only complaint is that his casting as Batman takes him out of the running for the new James Bond reboot, because good lord, he’d be a perfect 007.
In the early comics, Batman is billed as “the World’s Greatest Detective.” DC stands for Detective Comics, after all. The Batman brings the Batman back to his roots. This film is a detective story, World’s Greatest Detective solving Riddler’s riddles.
One of the pleasures of The Batman is that none of the characters have superpowers. There are no epic battles involving magical hammers of the gods, like in the tedious MCU films. Batman has his fancy gizmos, for sure—chiefly a bat-suit that is impervious to bullets and fire—but at the end of the day he and Catwoman and the Riddler are just human beings, no different than the cops and the mopes with their delightfully old school outer borough accents (Colin Farrell’s Penguin FTW!). Superman movies tend to be a drag, because it’s no big shock when a superhero that much more powerful (and handsome) than everyone else saves the day. I mean, the dude can fly; of course he’s going to best Lex Luthor. But Batman? Any of us could be Batman.
Another good thing about the movie: the lines between good and evil and right and wrong are blurry. Early in the film, Batman saves a man from being beaten up on a deserted subway platform by a genuinely terrifying street gang. After dispatching the bad guys, our hero turns to the victim, who cowers on the cold ground. “Please,” the terrified man pleads, “don’t hurt me.” Even he isn’t confident this weird vigilante, who has just saved his hide, isn’t going to kill him. Likewise, Paul Dano’s incel Riddler (arguably the best performance in a movie loaded with superb performances) is systematically wiping out the city’s most corrupt leaders—the Gotham City equivalent of first knocking off Donald Trump, then Jared Kushner, then Bill Barr. In some ways, he is doing Batman’s work for him. Zoë Kravitz’s Catwoman is also morally ambiguous: part cat burglar, part hero. Heck, we’re not even sure mob boss Carmine Falcone—masterfully played by John Turturro—is 100 percent bad.
Gotham City really is that dark, that toxic, that corrupt. The subway cars are covered in graffiti. There is garbage everywhere. Rats abound. Cops and criminals operate in concert, looting the city’s coffers. The mayoral election will probably not change any of this, any more than Batman can. Gotham’s moral rot is hinted at in Tim Burton’s 1989 film, but that was too comic-book-y to generate real horror. This Gotham is a genuinely dark, scary, miserable place, where even the rare sunrises don’t give off adequate light.
There are moments in the film where the sheer numbers of the corrupt and villainous seem too daunting. However smart, however well-appointed, however determined, Batman, Catwoman, and James Gordon are three lonely people fighting an army. But when the Bat Signal goes up, Batman answers the call, because he must. He would not be able to live with himself otherwise.
It's hard not to read real-world events into movies like this. Cops and mobsters coming to business agreements. Confidential informants that if exposed would upend the balance of power. Q-like incels subverted by even darker forces. Meaningless elections. A district attorney who is “dirty.” Russian strippers who know too much. Graft on a vast scale. An oligarchy where a lucky few feast on stolen loot, while the rest of the people suffer. The Batman does not ignore any of this. It acknowledges the darkness, and, as Riddler suggests, tries to bring the rats into the light.
The city, Batman tells us at the beginning, is broken. “Maybe it can’t be saved,” he says. “But I have to try.”
Let that be our mantra.
Photo credits: Stills from The Batman. Batman & Catwoman; the Riddler.