Batman films have always been a good gauge of the West’s big social problems of the day.
This was explicit in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, grounded in a post-9/11 America that defined itself with fear and paranoia.
But the Dark Knight films were made more than a decade ago, with the final instalment, The Dark Knight Rises, released in 2012. Nolan’s brand of fear is specific to the Bush era and its politics – fear of the foreign with Ra’s al Ghul and his League of Assassins, fear of anarchy with the Joker, fear of socialist revolution with Bane.
We’re shown villains whose motives are noble – to fix Gotham’s problems, to root out corruption – but their means of doing so lies outside of what is socially acceptable.
In contast, Nolan’s Batman represents a capitalist order and upholds the systems that enable this order. Batman breaks the rules, but only to do what the incompetent police in Gotham are not doing. Batman’s aim is justified because he maintains the status quo.
A lot has changed since then. The pandemic and natural disasters all over the world have laid bare a great global socio-economic divide. Movements like Black Lives Matter have forced us to scrutinise our own institutions and their role in the cycle of poverty.
We no longer trust billionaires the way previous Batman adaptations have trusted Bruce Wayne, after seeing how people like Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg exploit their workers and customers for their own benefit. These billionaires are investing their vast fortunes in Mars and the Metaverse rather than in fixing actual real world problems.
So how does the latest attempt at the caped crusader, The Batman, directed by Matt Reeves, tackle how we see the world today?
Reeves’ take on Batman is different. The comics have always depicted Batman as a detective, but that aspect of his mythology has been missing from his film adaptations, until now. Reeves finally puts the noir back into the character.
In fact, Batman spends much less time punching up bad guys – usually petty criminals who come from low-income backgrounds – and more time solving riddles.
In this film, the riddles and mystery that Batman has to uncover reveal the Wayne family’s tainted past, and how their own brand of corruption and exploitation has led to many of the problems Gotham faces today.
When Bruce is forced to confront his privilege, we are given a Batman who isn’t defined by his parents’ death, but by how lucky he is – despite his suffering. Through Batman, we learn that his brand of vigilantism is not the answer to today’s problems.
This is a very different Bruce Wayne to the one you’ve seen before. He’s a billionaire, yes, but he doesn’t make a show of his wealth the way he did in The Dark Knight, or other iterations from Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher.
Instead, you see his wealth in his big, Victorian-style house, in which he seems out of place, walking around in ratty T-shirts and sunglasses. He is soft spoken and spends many of his scenes, both as Bruce Wayne and as the Batman, not speaking. He’s even forced to confront his own privilege.
Unfortunately, Reeves doesn’t double down on this message. The corrupted family legacy Bruce is forced to confront turns out to be a misunderstanding, a red herring put forth by crime lord Carmine Falcone.
By positioning Bruce’s father as nothing more than a good man who made mistakes, all of the lessons Bruce had to learn about himself become void, and everything the audience has learnt about people like Bruce Wayne are now irrelevant.
The Riddler is the perfect foil to the Batman. Edward Nashton’s backstory mirrors Batman’s perfectly; in fact, they both lost their parents mere months apart.
The difference here, though, is that Bruce’s father was responsible for Edward’s father’s death – he ordered a hit on the journalist when he was spreading unsavoury information about him – and the Wayne family maintained Edward’s awful upbringing in the orphanage they owned. He claims his skin had been chewed on by rats at night, and he watched infants freeze to death.
Riddler’s entire mission is to kill the people he deems responsible for his fate. None of the men he murders over the course of the movie are people you’re meant to sympathise with – a mayor, district attorney, and a group of cops, all corrupt and responsible for making Gotham unsafe and exploiting its residents for their own pleasure.
As the audience, you find yourself rooting for him and hoping Batman won’t solve the complex series of riddles he’s set out.
The final target is Bruce Wayne, because he wants him to answer for the sins of his father, serving for a perfect parallel to the issues of generational wealth and poverty presented throughout the film. The villain starts to look more like a hero.
Just like with the hero, though, things descend into absurdity in the final act. When the Riddler gets caught, he mobilises a group of domestic terrorists to bomb and flood Gotham, driving everyone to seek safety in the city’s main stadium, and then proceed to shoot at them.
This includes shooting at the city’s new mayor who, throughout the film, has run in opposition to the wealthy, corrupt elite. It places him in the comfortable stereotype of a violent thug who would put innocent lives at risk. And because Thomas Wayne never intended to kill Edward’s father, his entire crusade was for naught. This level of violence is no longer justified; therefore, neither is the Riddler’s cause.
Reeves tackles social disparity with much more nuance and sensitivity than Nolan, until it is time to finally tackle the root of the problem. Instead of the moral ambiguity the start of the film promised, we see Batman taking the moral high ground, saving the new mayor and the rest of Gotham’s citizens from the flood that the Riddler questionably wanted to cause.
Bruce later writes in his journal that he has to be a force for hope rather than vengeance – Batman’s usual motive in most of his adaptions, and at the start of the film.
But Gotham and its great social divide – and by extension, the whole world – need far more than just hope to solve its problems.