Film blog: The Batman
Updated: May 16, 2022
It elevates a lie into a general social principle; into the principle of organisation, of our social and political life. As if our societies can remain stable, can function, only if based on a lie. As if telling the truth … means destruction and disintegration of the social order.
When a new iteration of Batman was released this month, promising the truest to-film depiction of the nihilistic grit and horror of the comics, the comparisons to Nolan’s trilogy were always going to be centre stage. Director Christopher Nolan’s Batman films shattered box-office records, won Oscars, bridged the gap between serious Hollywood and the pages of a comic like no other superhero film before, and often raised interesting and sometimes controversial points around things like truth, security, anarchy, and revolution. In the quote, everyone’s favourite Hegelian philosopher come meme lord Slavoj Žižek pokes aptly at the moral crux of what is considered the best of Nolan’s trilogy: The Dark Knight. At the end of The Dark Knight, Batman and Commissioner Gordon decide that a lie is needed to sustain Gotham’s stability after the terror wrought by the Joker. Batman takes full responsibility for the crimes of the murderous District Attorney Harvey Dent, ensuring Dent remains a hero for Gotham, and that faith is restored in the city’s legal and political institutions.
In the sequel The Dark Knight Rises, anarchist-terrorist Bane steals a copy of Commissioner Gordon’s speech in which the truth about Dent is revealed, using it as a match to light the powder keg in his city-wide coup. Luring the police into a collapsed tunnel, arresting en masse the rich and powerful to be exiled or murdered via show trials, and sealing the city’s island off, Bane’s new regime and the parallels drawn to Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and the French Reign of Terror show how society crumbles when foundational myths are exposed.
Matt Reeves’s The Batman again focuses on the relationship between Batman, law enforcement, and criminal life, but is different in that it features a young Batman who when reckoning with the corruption of Gotham’s public life finds himself in-between police and legal allyship, and; especially when realising his family’s potential complicity in it all, investigating and challenging the corruption of Gotham himself. Unlike The Dark Knight, in which Batman actively conspires with Gordon and the policing establishment to cover up Dent’s crimes, in The Batman he investigates Gotham’s with little corroboration from the corrupted police, almost inadvertently working in tandem with the Riddler and his clues to uncover the city’s darkest secrets.
The concoction of atmosphere by Reeves almost mirrors this narrative focus on laying bare the underbelly of the city; nothing is left to the imagination, from the dark rainy side streets in which the faint cries of police sirens are perpetually heard, to the sinister and seedy Iceberg Lounge in which political and mafia elites fraternise and plot, the unambiguous feeling of horror and danger the film creates is all-encompassing, and almost wraps itself around you like a shroud of fog.
Compare this to the depiction of Gotham in Nolan’s trilogy, which, from taking the audience to the glitz and glamour of high-rise parties attended by Wayne and Dent, to Wayne’s sleek skyscraper and high-tech bat cave as he’s guided through the latest gadgets by Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox, doesn’t commit to the same almost cartoonish narrative and cinematographic darkness inhibited by The Batman; instead preferring the social realism of mirroring a typical real-life American city like New York or Chicago where The Dark Knight was filmed. Compare this to Reeves’s Gotham, which owes more of a debt to the comics of Frank Miller and the films of Tim Burton in its what critic Mark Kermode called “squinting through the rearview mirror through rain in the dark” aesthetic. It calls to mind Charles Bukowski's sordid depiction of humanity’s gradual decline and end in his poem Dinosauria, We:
Born into this
Into hospitals which are so expensive that it's cheaper to die
Into lawyers who charge so much that it's cheaper to plead guilty
Into a country where the jails are full and the madhouses closed
Into a place where the masses elevate fools into rich heroes
Reeves's Gotham is this semi-apocalyptic world in which the prevailing social and economic order has failed; in which politicians are exposed to be slovenly and explicitly corrupt, violent and powerful crime syndicates control large portions of society and lurk around every street corner, civic institutions of health and welfare have failed and left the city's most vulnerable; such as the Riddler and his torrid time in the neglected Wayne Manor orphanage, to rot, and perhaps most importantly: it’s constantly raining.
The third act and climax of the film is also different and hints faintly at some different questions and outcomes for Gotham. Throughout the film the Riddler continues to pick off the city’s establishment in increasingly grotesque and creative ways, using the murders to create clues for Batman that reveal to him and the public the extent of corruption by the rich and powerful and their subservience to crime lord Falcone. Eventually, he is caught on his own terms, taken to the safety of Arkham to view his biblical flooding of Gotham on high alongside Batman, citing his influence on his dastardly crimes, and pushing Batman further into a moral quandary about what or who is good and evil in Gotham as they finally meet face to face.
Unlike The Dark Knight, in which stability is reasserted via Gordon and Batman’s lie and the Joker is rebuffed and arrested, in The Batman, it’s almost the opposite. The Riddler’s deeds have revealed to Gotham the extent of corruption, he has amassed a loyal following willing to wreak further havoc on the city, and the city itself has been flooded; with Batman's narration hinting at a power vacuum that will be swept up by the Penguin and his goons as Gotham’s public administration is weaker than ever before. Batman is also left reassessing his own personal philosophy rather than seeking lip service from Gotham’s depleted establishment, heroically saving people from the wreckage of the stadium in which the new mayor was addressing the city of the first time, and henceforth pledging his desire to abandon his cynical vengeance and provide hope for the people.
The crucial aspect then is what comes next, and while I was initially sceptical about a sequel and the franchise-ation of what I hoped would be a stand-alone story, the future of Gotham after its secrets have been exposed, its infrastructure devastated, and Batman on the cusp of philosophical renewal, are all exciting prospects. Will the new comically named mayor Bella Reál deliver ‘real’ change unabetted by organised crime interests? What will Batman’s new role be in reviving the city beyond pure vengeance? Will he continue to rely on a police force that is patently not fit for purpose? How will the remaining people of Gotham react to the exposure of its public institutions and will this cause some sort of social revolution?
Don't get me wrong: it shirks from true radicalism, especially regarding the Riddler and his ambiguous political aims and philosophy beyond exposing the city's endless corruption for its own sake, and Batman's continued reliance and faith in Commissioner Gordon as one shining diamond in a policing institution full of bad apples. As one online critic noted, the Riddler risks becoming a weak metaphorical enmesh of contemporary society's political pariahs; simultaneously a shoe in for incels, communists, the alt-right, digital terrorism, and a straight-up anarchist, failing to strike any real point about the rise in far-right terrorist extremism that has been on the rise in America for some years. A character with a more concrete and consistent political philosophy may have risked a film taking itself a little too seriously, but could also have made the subtle hints at societal allegory stronger and ultimately the film better. Alternatively, perhaps the character's deliberate flexible vagueness allows for a subtlety of metaphor, representing instead a more general populist disdain for the rich and powerful's increasing power and riches at a time when inequalities of wealth, income and opportunity become almost grotesque in their scale.
Whatever the intention, there is fertile ground for a politically and conceptually ambitious sequel that addresses these ideas, that doesn’t rehash Nolan’s quasi-conservative values that posited a strict and unerring dichotomy between the moral infallibility of Gotham’s legal, police, and political elites and the outright nihilistic and terroristic evil of Batman’s villains, but one which continues to tiptoe the line on Batman’s morality and how he goes about making Gotham a safer place or otherwise, asking the most pertinent questions at the heart one of the most often represented and contested characters in the history of popular culture. The film’s legacy and real quality is therefore resting on the development of this particular batverse into something bigger; with sequels and mini-series already being touted I hold my breath as to whether the net result will be something truly different and worth contending with, or just another footnote in the never-ending popularity and profitability of Hollywood’s superhero cash cow model.