Over the past three decades, the DC Comics character Batman has made it to the silver screen with various actors in the title role (live action and animation alike). There were also two Batman serial films in the 1940s and a feature film in 1966. While only the late Heath Ledger has picked up an acting Oscar for his role as the Joker, ordinarily the actors cast in the title role have brought something new to this decades-old character. Indeed, the story of young Bruce Wayne orphaned after both parents die in a dimly lit street mugging has been told many times over in blockbuster films.
In Matt Reeves’ film “The Batman,” that memory of Bruce watching his parents die still lingers. While other adaptations might bring us through the years of training and brooding that brings Batman into existence, this film begins with the Dark Knight already established in his early years of crimefighting and portrayed by a very glum Robert Pattinson. The police are wary of his presence at crime scenes, aided primarily by the “one good cop” in Gotham, James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright).
The criminal underworld is still largely mobsters with guns and graft and not the increasingly colorful psychopaths we more readily associate with Batman’s rogues. Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) is the de facto power of Gotham with years of corrupt politicians bowing to him. Oswald Cobblepot (a near-unrecognizable Colin Farrell) waddles through scenes as a Falcone lieutenant, yet it is still not time for the Penguin to come into his full power.
By not ladening the film so heavily with the gimmick criminals, Matt Reeves’ film moves back to the time just after Bruce Wayne became a recluse from high society and began his relentless journey to rid Gotham of the criminals who scarred his psyche. At the film’s beginning, we see what effect the first year or two has had on the underworld, with petty thugs pausing in their crime to see the famous spotlight illuminate the night sky. They are no longer the rulers of Gotham’s shadows. As one criminal encounters Batman, the crook learns Batman’s sense of mission: “I am Vengeance.”
This line is the mission statement for Pattinson’s Batman. He is single-minded in his work, and in the first half of the nearly three-hour film, the Batman comes out of the shadows, his heavy footfall beginning the terror within a criminal before the Batman looms into view. While earlier filmmakers have emphasized the Batman’s ability to move quickly and disappear in the slightest moment of distraction (even when talking to his ally Jim Gordon), this Batman wants you to know he is on the prowl.
The film follows the Batman’s investigation into a string of high-profile murders, each accompanied by a greeting card addressed to the Batman and a riddle that gives a clue about the next victim’s identity. Once casting details became public, the Riddler struck people as an odd choice of Bat-villain, yet the character works well as this Batman’s foe, for the Riddler is also on a type of vengeance journey, causing terror and weaponizing social media to increase the hysteria and anxiety.
Zoë Kravitz portrays Selina Kyle, not named Catwoman on screen, yet with the requisite cat-filled apartment and an ability to move through action scenes that matches what familiar fans expect. Selina is also victimized by Gotham, orphaned as well by the violent undertow of the city. She sees through Batman’s brooding, asking if he is “just hideously scarred” underneath his cowl, not necessarily referring to a physical marring.
Periodically, Batman encounters the young son of Gotham’s mayor (the first high-profile victim). Looking at the child, Batman lingers for a moment before moving on, yet each time the film returns to this child, one also begins to see a change in Batman himself.
During the events of the film, he realizes that his relentless search for vengeance has its shadow side. Each time he encounters the child, it seems to draw out empathy, something that a strict adherence to vengeance would resist or deny.
In the film’s last act, these encounters with Selina and the mayor’s son have worked their way past the armor long encasing Bruce Wayne. He realizes that his focus needs to change if Gotham is truly to begin to change.
While the Batman mythology revolves around demented yet broken villains bedeviling Gotham streets and frequently the nightmares of its populace, this film by Matt Reeves sets up interesting questions about recovering from trauma and learning to live in a way that works more toward tikkun olam, the repairing of the world, more than meeting violence only with more violence.
The Riddler lives for vengeance, too. We see his scars have turned to grievance and violence as his plan unfurls. After The Batman stops the Riddler, Gotham is in even worse shape than before. The film’s ending sets up multiple possibilities for a sequel.
But who will Robert Pattinson be playing next in the lead role?
Will we see more of The Batman or the slow emergence of Bruce Wayne?
Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot is associate executive minister, American Baptist Churches of New York State.
Photo by Sajjad Ahmadi on Unsplash