And could he be better?
It’s a rainy Halloween night in Gotham City. Bruce Wayne, clad in obsidian black armour, emerges from the dark at a train station. The Batman stares down a group of thugs with skeleton face paint, who have just attacked an innocent citizen. The leader laughs. “Who are you supposed to be?” In return, he delivers twelve unforgiving thwacks to the man’s body and head. Then, leaning over him on the ground, in his deep, gravelly voice, the Batman finally answers his question: “I’m vengeance.” Huddled in a Reading Cinema in New Lynn, buried under popcorn and Malteasers, my buds and I giggle. Sure you are, Bruce-y boy.
That’s not to deny that I was pretty stoked exiting the theatre. Despite the bloated runtime, I’d enjoyed seeing a bit of Detective Batman, appreciated the visual splendour, and had a good laugh at some of the representations of familiar, campy villains. However, in the few days following my viewing of the film, my memory of it began to sour. I’m usually down to clown in a superhero universe, but I couldn’t help but feel that there was something icky under The Batman’s surface.. What is it about this hero that makes me feel so damn weird?
As the ninth live action adaptation of the DC comic book, The Batman has, generally, been received warmly by critics, especially in terms of the cinematography and leading performances. However, there’s often a dissatisfaction noted in the ending of the film—that nothing politically meaningful was really at stake. And that criticism starts to dig into my funny feelings about watching the billionaire Batman stalk around Gotham City enacting his ‘vengeance’ against the people in his community. Though The Batman is a big, blockbuster movie, it’s dealing with overtly political ideas. And that’s where my discomfort comes from; it’s not necessarily handling them particularly well.
Dr. Neal Curtis, a UoA expert in all superhero things, unpacks how this genre of storytelling presents the potential for productive political engagements, stating that the “whole point about superheroes and supervillains is that each one is a concept that you can explore.” Dr. Curtis clarifies that he is not the biggest fan of Matt Reeves’ adaptation. He states, plainly, that the problem for him is that The Batman “was so utterly miserable.” Continuing, he explains that it engages in the usual “sadistic violence, and it’s still locked in this Frank Miller-inspired version of the Batman.” Frank Miller, who started work with Batman comics in the late 80s, is known for creating a darker, grittier characterisation of the superhero. It is this version of Batman that inspired Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, and Neal suggests that Warner Bros. has been locked into that tone ever since.
That tone is incredibly nihilistic, constantly exaggerating that Gotham is too far gone, that the city’s soul is unrecoverable. As an extension of this defeatist tone, Dr. Curtis argues that these adaptations express an absolute “hatred for democracy.” The wider community in Gotham are shown to be either as “a chaotic threat, a mob, or they’re shown as dim-witted fans of the supervillain.” And in this world, where people have no real direction or ability to band together, “the only solution to the badness of the world is the billionaire, who steps in and creates order.”
The ‘billionaire as hero’ seems to be the nail in the political coffin of The Batman. It’s the source of tension that I was feeling after my first viewing. With rising living costs and the lack of activity from @HasBezosDecided, a moody billionaire is not a hero I want to follow and empathise with. While the film might take Bruce through a lesson of “vengeance is not the way” and show some interest in the way his money is a part of the corruption in Gotham, it still justifies his ‘philanthropy’ by portraying democratic participation as useless, and even foolish. The mayor elect is shot, due to her commitment to the people of Gotham. Batman is left to pick up the pieces and is, ultimately, solidified as a symbol of hope for the city. In our world, the billionaire is not someone who inspires hope for many.
It’s not like there’s nothing vaguely subversive in the film.There’s a small indictment of the way Catwoman is gazed upon, an engagement with corruption within politics, and Batman reaches an understanding of the power and damage of his wealth. Catwoman is used to make a criticism of white privilege, but the film refuses to support that statement or engage with it beyond a few lines of dialogue. The ending suggests some more complex exploration may come with its sequels and spinoffs. If rich boy Bruce Wayne continues to reckon with power and modifies his place within Gotham’s justice system, then maybe the political engagement could be more compelling. Dr. Curtis is firm in his wants for the future, explaining “culturally, politically, socially, we really need a pro-social Batman.”
For Dr. Curtis, there are other superhero stories that should be explored, that are more interested in the interactions between heroes and wider society. He points to the Superman “Grounded” arc, where the hero decides to walk amongst the people he feels a responsibility to, or to the Catwoman Dark Side of the Street comic, where she defends sex workers from danger. He also lists Robin and Batgirl as other characters with potential for allegorical exploration of more exciting social engagement. These stories are so different to the Frank Miller Dark Knight Batman, and could bring more exciting and interesting political allegory to Blockbuster releases. Dr. Curtis found The Batman boring in this respect, and realised during his watch that he “was going to have to suffer through yet another representation as brooding, rich, white man as victim.”
However, The Batman does not exist within a vacuum. Matt Reeves did not pull this movie together and dial its meanings straight into the audience’s brains. I don’t know if Reeves would have appreciated how much my friends and I laughed during the film. When I talk to Taeroa Harris-Peke, one of those giggling friends, he explains that The Batman is “goofy” and engaging with a lot of fan service for the younger audiences. He points to the campy villains and emo Bruce’s “make-up moment.” Taeroa also notes that we went into the movie with a particular mindset, having already revelled in the potential campness of the film and shared memes about the silliness to come. He digs into how our contexts meant we were laughing not just with the movie, but at it, explaining “[Bruce Wayne] chose to play fantasy, and dress up as a bat. Instead of actually making practical solutions. I think that’s why we were so, like, eat the fucking rich. They just want to live out their hero complex.”
In watching The Batman, we drew our own conclusions and started to find comedy in its representation of the billionaire hero. And, of course, we’re not the only audience to do so. TikTok is full of audiences fooling around with the subject matter, joking about Batman chasing down litterers in the Batmobile, or using the Nirvana theme to score minor inconveniences in everyday life. Dr. Curtis highlights that “any text allows for very divergent readings, and particularly quite dissenting, alternative, aberrant [interpretations],” and is unsurprised by the lighter, ironic engagements as “the emo Batman and emo Bruce Wayne are really open to lots of funny and creative readings.”
The latest WB Batman adaptation draws some strange conclusions about the hero’s role in justice. It starts to hint at some interesting productive engagement, but is ultimately too interested in a repetitive moral lesson for Bruce Wayne. These things don’t necessarily make it a bad film, or make anyone wrong for enjoying it, but it does make it a missed opportunity to explore a pro-social superhero story. Perhaps our own readings of the film, where we laugh at billionaire Bruce Wayne, and his melodramatic moping around the manor, are the most productive engagements to be found for the time being.