The Batman — like an increasing number of aspirationally prestigious, pick-me superhero movies — desperately wants to prove it’s not like all the other superhero movies.
Sure, it’s yet another multi-million dollar blockbuster remake of a popular comic book IP already rebooted less than a decade ago, set in a universe “reinvented” nearly every other fiscal quarter. So, to justify its own existence, The Batman hopes to be an elevation of the genre into capital ‘C’ Cinema with Serious Themes that speak to Our Times.
Yet in its cacophony of self-importance, The Batman only capitalizes on the unique power of superhero movies that can seem to stand for something, while actually standing for nothing. On-trend with 2019’s Joker, director/co-writer Matt Reeves’ Gotham aims to be the darkest and grittiest of them yet by drawing on the grim politics of today. But instead of saying anything of substance, both only exploit the painful social ills we’re living through for the sake of grim set dressing.
Themes around classism, dire wealth inequality, widespread police corruption (complete with cops who flood low-income communities with illegal drugs, a subplot ripped right from the IRL 1980s Drug War), institutional government failures, and violence against sex workers are shoe-horned in throughout. Then toward the end, the Riddler summons now-familiar images of mass shootings, white male privilege, Qanon-style social media conspiracies, and white nationalist political terrorism. Closing with triggering images of bombings around
Madison Gotham Square Garden and even a catastrophically flooded American city that descends into so-called “looting,” there appears to be no source of collective trauma this movie is unwilling to mine.
But just like Joker, The Batman evokes this litany of very real-world suffering to conclude with a big shrug about it all. Actually, if you try to follow the meaning behind any one of its IRL parallels, you just end up with a whole lotta yikes.
That’s not an accident, either. It’s by design. As of now, no tentpole DC movie (and most Marvel titles, either) appear willing to take a stance on any of the divisive issues they raise for this appearance of relevancy. Why would they, since that risks alienating a vocal subset of their fan base, which the studio must pander to or at least placate for maximum return on investment?
The Batman evokes this litany of very real-world suffering to conclude with a big shrug about it all.
Don’t get me wrong: There’s a lot of artistry worth praise in the new Robert Pattinson-led Batman. There’s even solid groundwork laid for a more radical rejection of the vigilante hero’s fascist underpinnings. But any hope for a transgressive Last Jedi-style interrogation of the underlying hypocrisy holding back this beloved IP is promptly abandoned in the final acts. The movie must, by necessity, return to a status quo of the same old Batman mythos we keep being force-fed again and again, even though it’s antithetical to the cultural shift needed to address the injustices raised by the movie.
And, listen, no one was demanding (or expecting) Batman to suddenly become “woke.” Superhero movies are by no means obligated to serve as timely morality tales. But The Batman explicitly tries to cash in on the clout of a vague progressivism that it sorely misrepresents.
Trauma porn doesn’t get a pass just because it’s wearing a cape.
And frankly, in 2022, I just don’t need the help of a bat-suited blockbuster to be bombarded by endless images of human suffering I can neither do anything about nor make sense of. Trauma porn doesn’t get a pass just because it’s wearing a cape. Worst of all, there’s a real danger in co-opting the aesthetic of social justice as a smokescreen to bolster the heroics of a character who ostensibly embodies an oligarchical American police state.
In conjunction with Joker‘s vacuous depiction of violent white male rage, The Batman does show that a playbook is developing for Oscar Bait-y superhero movies desperate to be taken seriously: One merely needs to gesture at the existence of important social issues in order to receive heaps of critical praise declaring it a triumphantly “different,” “of the moment,” “grounded,” and “diverse” pop-culture genre film.
Nevermind that, for all of Batman’s tortured self-reflection, the movie ends with no change to his outdated worldviews whatsoever — even after Selina stuns him with the revelation that impoverished people can be backed into criminality for survival. The extent of Bruce’s character development amounts to realizing that, sometimes, his fists should be used to hold the hands of innocent victims, whenever they’re not pummeling said criminals into submission with total impunity.
To be clear, Reeves rebuffs any perceived parallels between the movie’s climax and real-world events like the January 6 insurrection. He maintains that the script was written pretty much as-is five years ago. That mostly tracks, since risk-averse big-budget Hollywood studios aren’t wont to purposefully wade into such recent, polarizing political crises. But that’s exactly the problem with giving too much credit to superhero movies made by corporate machines that only feign concern for the marginalized when it’s profitable.
Credit: Warner Bros.
It’s the reason why Joker could only end inconclusively, with a psychotic episode that calls the movie’s entire reality into question, conveniently absolving both its protagonist and creator from repercussions for the shocking acts depicted. The ending leaves the movie’s true opinions on the sensitive topics raised (mental illness, gun violence, poverty, incels, uprisings over class inequality) entirely up to audience interpretation. It allows Joker to circumvent the need to make any actual value statements about the disabused white men it purports to be about.
Director Todd Phillips must say nothing meaningful about the controversial issues he alludes to, so the movie can simultaneously speak to a volatile male audience that feels unseen while also maintaining a “both sides” plausible deniability — all while raking in unearned critical applause for seeming daring enough to break from genre conventions. But the only artistic risk Joker takes is inviting comparison to the laundry list of far better films it mishmashes together (Taxi Driver, The King Of Comedy, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest).
Mixed political signals are not a bug, but a feature of today’s gritty superhero movie “realism.”
Riddler’s Qanon parallels, for example, inadvertently send wildly irresponsible messages if you try to take them seriously. Unlike Joker, he’s at least the villain rather than the protagonist of The Batman. But the movie still pretty much validates his belief system.
In contrast to the ludicrous Qanon conspiracy theories of our reality, the Riddler’s internet-orchestrated unmasking of Gotham’s Satanic cabal of coastal elites is vindicated as totally factually correct. That’s a level of intellectual bankruptcy that movies with 85 percent Rotten Tomato scores just shouldn’t be allowed to get away with.
Also, a huge part of what makes the cult of Qanon so seductive is that it preys on a very legitimate sense that the ultra-wealthy are corrupting our social structures. The system really is rigged to screw over underprivileged people like the Riddler in order to line the pockets of greedy politicians and billionaires.
But you don’t need a Zodiac Killer anti-hero mastermind to piece together any elaborate secret puzzle to uncover some underground criminal collusion between the rich and powerful. They do it in broad daylight, right in front of our eyes, and legally. You can read about it in any reputable newspaper that covers corporate-backed political funding and lobbying.
Unlike Qanon or Riddler’s thrilling online game, the real truth is a far more boring answer to this most mundane of conspiratorial riddles: How do wealthy elites plot against the lower classes while herding them into complacency like mindless sheep? Capitalism. It’s just Uncle Sam-approved late-stage capitalism, folks.
Then there’s the blatant copaganda that’s completely incongruous with the real-world versions of Gotham’s mob-like police gang (reminiscent of the deputy gangs discovered in the Los Angeles Police Department that sparked new legislation).
Credit: Warner Bros.
Reeve’s Batman almost finds itself chanting “ACAB,” but then softens it with a “bad apples” strawman plotline that culminates in a heartfelt celebration of the many “good cops” who were apparently totally unaware and uninvolved in their department’s decades-long criminal operation. (I mean, how much of a “good cop” can we believe those boys in blue cuffing Falcone to even be if they never once suspected that the majority of their leadership was straight-up mob goons getting the police to do a super villain’s bidding?)
I also want to believe in the hopeful vision for Gotham proposed by new, progressive mayor Bella Reál, clearly coded as an AOC type who stands in opposition to the corrupt government systems that have failed to enact change. But her final mealy-mouthed plea to rebuild trust in our institutions sounds an awful lot like centrist urgings to get back to normal, and return to the status quo after a crisis clearly reveals how fundamentally broken those institutions are.
Her words only seem more radical because they’re spoken by a woman of color, instead of the crooked white guy she ousted, who’s a clearer visual representation of the systemic problems that remain embedded in American politics regardless of who’s in charge.
Similarly, Zoë Kravitz’s Catwoman can shame Batman all she wants for being a white rich dude with zero concept of how systemic injustice and oppression works. But the movie still requires audiences believe that Bruce and Bruce alone holds the power to deliver justice to Gotham’s streets.
Selina’s words fall on deaf bat ears because the script still needs her to act the role of supportive love interest who bends to his worldview, which advocates for something akin to reform rather than an abolishment of the carceral criminal justice system. Batman (and audiences) must forget the lived experiences that Selina (and her mom and Annika, and even the Riddler) tries to impress upon him.
The movie must also negate their salient criticism that the world only cares about the suffering of privileged white men since the studio needs us to keep buying into a franchise that only seems to care about the suffering of a privileged white man.
Most disappointing of all, the thematic foundation for a Batman movie that argues for defunding the police or at least interrogating the values of the American criminal justice system are right there.
It throws those fascinating threads out the window to instead celebrate Batman developing an even bigger white male savior complex.
No one embodies the ineffectuality of carceral policing more than Batman. He’s a vigilante who must work outside the law to even deliver his “justice” of filling the city’s prisons with folks that society failed to help — a super cop with endless funds who only inspires more bombastic super-villainy, neither lowering crime nor making Gotham any safer.
The movie comes this close to pointing out those cyclical failures, and even de-mythologizing the lie of benevolent philanthropic billionaires like Thomas Wayne. Then it throws those fascinating threads out the window to instead celebrate Batman developing an even bigger white male savior complex.
If you follow The Batman’s line of questioning too honestly (or with too much realism), you’d have to admit that the only way Bruce could “speak to our times” is if he shut the fuck up and let someone else talk. The Catwoman would’ve been a movie much more capable of addressing the hot-button issues that The Batman fundamentally cannot. But if you admit all that, then you’d potentially have yet another toxic DC fanboy revolt on your hands.
There are ways superhero movies and stories can be relevant to real-world issues and collective cultural traumas. Black Panther, for one, unequivocally demonstrates how impactful these foundational comic book heroes can be in furthering conversations around deep-seated social injustice. The difference, it seems, lies in a film that treats those wounds as a narrative foundation rather than trendy fodder for the #discourse.
With each new release, it’s getting harder to give DC the benefit of the doubt that they don’t know whose worldview their “elevated” comic book movies speak to most — and who they sideline in the process.