Batman and the Bitter Nobodies
Matt Reeve’s The Batman is a smash box office hit with a global opening of $259M. It beats all of the big Marvel films out of the park. It’s a brooding masterpiece of cinematography with star performances from Robert Pattinson (Batman), Zoë Kravitz (Catwoman), Paul Dano (The Riddler), John Turturro (Carmine Falcone), Andy Serkis (Alfred), Jeffrey Wright (Commissioner Gordon), Colin Farrell (The Penguin) and Doug Russell : ) It’s easily the best Batman movie ever, but it’s not the acting, plot twists, or doom-noir aesthetic that makes that true, it’s the zeitgeist-grabbing storyline and apocalyptic mood-music.
This is Frank Miller’s Dark Knight not Tim Burton’s cheeseball. This is a raw and intense film that disrupts the super-hero genre and plays with your heads notions about where and when you are, is it the Gorbals or the Bronx? Is it 1973 or some future dystopia? It has shades of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Glasgow’s City Cabs and more Goth than Bram Stoker. But Reeve’s/Pattinson’s Batman is a sensitive soul and carries his trauma like any self-respecting wee emo vigilante. This Bruce Wayne isn’t interested in his inheritance, and his gaff is more gothic than a Playboy mansion. It’s a departure from Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, unarguably darker, more real-world, more contemporary.
As Clarisee Loughrey writes: “Nolan’s trilogy, at times, seemed uncertain about how its rebuke of authoritarianism could sit side by side with a Batman heralded as the benevolent capitalist. Reeves’s Batman makes more sense: he’s a reclusive, traumatised man treated as a freak by the rest of society. And there’s a startling twist hidden within the folds of this noir narrative, one that rightfully probes the individualist politics of the vigilante figure.” The essential Batman trope: ‘is he a hero or a vigilante?’ is at the core of the story, and the ending will annoy purists allergic to (insert cliche) ‘centrist-liberal-hope’. But Pattinson doesn’t come easily to the gig, if he’s addicted to doofing up the bad guys in dark alleyways, broken-nosed doormen, and the Penguin’s mob, he also has to resist the considerable charms of cocktail waitress turned cat burglar Selina Kyle.
But if Glasgow almost steals the show from Gotham, Jeffrey Wright arguably steals the show from Zoë Kravitz, as the dynamic duo between Batman and Gordon highlights the film’s other main theme, that of a place where not just the city’s cops but an entire society is corrupt. This is a vision of filth and decay, entrenched power and exploitation that will be familiar to anyone. Leadership is synonymous with abject corruption and the top brass hang out at the mobster’s rave club taking hallucinogenics in the Iceberg Lounge.
If Pattinson channels Robert de Niro’s Travis Bickle, there’s also a lot of Alan Moore’s Walter Kovacs. In Taxi Driver and Watchmen, the rain soaks the city and the screen and this is true of Reeve’s Gotham (spoiler alert: this is significant). The Gotham deluge has Batman in repeat shots tromping through the puddles in his big Gothy Wellies and the constant sub-text is the Rorscharchian promise to “wash it all away”.
Unmask the Truth
But if The Batman is the dystopian cultural moment of the time, it’s also got some political heft in it that is maybe over-shadowed by the grimy brutal aesthetic and the Coolest Batmobile Ever.
The film takes on the whole post-truth political landscape, the sewer of conspiracy theory and the paranoid culture of post-Trumpian America (and post-Brexit Britain). The repeat triad of sloganeering from these hellholes is mirrored. For ‘Take Back Control’ we have ‘Unmask the Truth’ and ‘No More Lies’.
The Riddler’s followers are an algorithm of 4Chan, QAnon and the dregs of sado-populism with a dose of Incel vibe thrown in for good measure.
But the Vengeance to Hope trajectory is a warning shot to sacharine Remoaner Liberalism.
If the political messaging is seen as crude, it has its more nuanced moments. The idea of complicity (not just for The Batman) is riddled throughout, as os gthe idea of systemic corruption:
— ꪮꫀꪗ ꪜⅈꪮꪶꪖ (@joeypurple) March 6, 2022
— EGG BOY (@woolton15) March 6, 2022
Much has been made of the ‘detective’ element of the film and the 7even and Zodiac elements. But the cypher codes are not just a riddle they are a mirror of the toxic sub cultures and the political projects that nurtured them. In this sense the political message of the film, of race and gender and US gun culture and hypocrisy and elite failure and climate catastrophe and massive alienation and toxic masculinity … gets lost in the appreciation of the aesthetic.
It’s not all good. The motorbike race in the Necropolis is way too cheesy for the film it’s in and the Riddler’s flat-white ‘reveal’ moment would be better in The Barista then The Batman. The film doesn’t know how to end and is probably just the director glorying in its wonderfulness. The film points to the crisis of the Bitter Nobodies but doesn’t resolve much beyond a post-fash vigilante deciding to do more than kill them all.
Vengeance or Hope? I think we need both.
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