Matt Reeves’ “The Batman” is a welcome change of pace from the recent cosmic mega-crossover status quo of recent Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC Extended Universe superhero offerings. Instead of fighting invading purple space aliens or gallivanting about the “multiverse,” Reeves’ titular caped hero is solidly embedded in the grim-dark city of Gotham, and all its gothic muck. Robert Pattinson plays a pouty, taciturn Batman/Bruce Wayne, while the snickering, nerdy everyman-with-a-grudge Riddler (Paul Dano), nods back to Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in “The Joker” (2019) — the wildly successful nonsuper-superhero film that serves as this movie’s most direct inspiration.
Like that “Joker,” this newest “The Batman” attempts to turn its atmospheric slouch into a nuanced political perspective.
Like that “Joker,” this newest “The Batman” attempts to turn its atmospheric slouch into a nuanced political perspective, painted in shades of (dark) gray. It presents a corrupt establishment and an unhinged violent anti-establishment facing off amidst the corpses and broken dreams of ordinary Gothamites. In the end though, and somewhat inevitably, the movie embraces vague hope and centrist change. Our leaders and elites can save us. Which seems an especially odd moral for a movie with such cynical, broody protagonists — at least in their more appealing moments.
The movie starts as a murder mystery. The mayor of Gotham (Rupert Penry-Jones) is killed in the middle of a re-election campaign by the mysterious Riddler, who leaves obscure greeting cards behind him for Batman to find. As clues and casualties multiply, Batman and his police contact, Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), begin to uncover a complex web of corruption that starts with organized crime and drugs and reaches the highest levels of Gotham’s power structure, from police to the prosecutor’s office and beyond.
The boilerplate corruption plot becomes, surprisingly, a somewhat nuanced anti-capitalist critique. As all Batman fans know, Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed by a gunman when he was a child, causing him to become obsessed with fighting crime as the Batman. Bruce’s father, Thomas, is generally treated in Batman lore as a sainted figure, but this film isn’t so sure that any person — and especially any billionaire — can be that pure.
Even Bruce’s foundational trauma is cast into doubt. The Riddler astutely points out that being an orphan when you’re extremely wealthy is significantly different from being an orphan in a run-down, impoverished orphanage. Gotham is unequal, and Bruce gallivanting around as a bat just emphasizes how many resources he has.
The Riddler’s anti-establishment analysis is on point, but his methods leave something to be desired. It’s not just the murders and the elaborate, irritating clues. He’s also connected to extremist movements and gun fetishists. The evocation of white nationalist and right-wing militias isn’t made explicit, but it feels obvious enough.
Gotham, then, is caught between completely untrustworthy mainstream leaders and a populist resistance shot through with fascism. That probably will look familiar to a fair number of viewers.
So what other options are there? Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz) offers the most intriguing answer. Selina works as a server at a club run by crime boss Penguin (Colin Farrell) and frequented by Carmine Falcone (John Turturro). The film flirts with identifying her as queer and as a sex-worker; she’s poor, marginalized and (when she pulls on her skintight Catwoman costume) a thief. She’s also thoroughly disinterested in the justice system and in elections. Instead, she focuses on mutual aid. Her friend (and possibly more than friend) is caught up in the plot, and Selina is determined to get her out.
Mutual aid here isn’t a personal passion project — it’s political, as Selina makes clear. In an intense encounter with Batman on a rooftop, Selina argues that Batman’s focus on high-level murders of politicians is misguided. The powerful don’t need superheroes on their side. But Selina herself, and potentially Batman, are the only ones who will stand up for the less well connected. Selina doesn’t want to save the establishment or join extremists in blowing it up. Instead, she believes the weirdos and freaks (including Batman) can make the world a better place by looking out for one another.
Some superhero narratives, like the television show “Doom Patrol,” pursue this approach. The big tentpole movies generally don’t.
Some superhero narratives, like the television show “Doom Patrol,” pursue this approach. The big tentpole movies generally don’t, though. And this one ultimately is no exception. Batman has a good bit of sexual tension with Selina and comes to respect and trust her. But he and the film don’t embrace her vision.
Instead, the movie obligatorily assures us that some cops (like Jim Gordon!) and some politicians are good and uncorrupt and fight for all of us. Batman himself decides he has to care less about vengeance and more about hope. Political reform is on the horizon — but for real this time.
The shrugging retreat to bland shibboleths is mirrored in the film’s sadly inevitable three-hour runtime. There’s lots of gratuitous footage: Batman beating up thugs, Batman in a car chase. And why is the Penguin in this movie anyway? The film would have been significantly less bloated, and significantly better, if cut by a third. But a superhero film these days isn’t considered important unless it crushes your bladder in a vice.
This film definitely wants to be considered important. And so we have the car chase and the bladder crushing and the hero who embraces law and order and politics as usual, no matter how futile and corrupt those politics are shown to be. “The Batman” has some stylish trappings and some interesting ideas. But under the mask, we’ve seen it all before.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer and critic in Chicago.