Darkness, Hope, and ‘The Batman’

Another year, another Batman reboot.

I kid, of course. It’s been five years since we’ve seen the Bat on the big screen, with Ben Affleck’s version appearing in the disastrous 2017 Justice League movie that I think we’d all just like to forget. Since that particular outing left a bad taste in the mouth (and with previous appearances not faring much better), it’s safe to say that we’ve been in dire need for a return to the prestige that The Dark Knight established for the character nearly fifteen years ago now.

The Batman, director Matt Reeves’ new reboot of the franchise hit theaters this past weekend, and all reviews seem to point a real return to form for the caped crusader. The film has been hailed as a triumph, a superhero film in a class of its own against the standard Marvel fare that dominates the box office these days. It’s been described as “grim and gritty,” with many opinions describing the film as the darkest, bleakest, most mature and credible take on the property to date.

And, having seen the film, that’s certainly true. This is the grimiest, ugliest, most crime-ridden version of Gotham city we’ve seen onscreen thus far. Christopher Nolan’s Gotham in The Dark Knight was basically just Chicago, and Tim Burton’s version of the city was a gothic fever dream. The Batman seamlessly merges the two interpretations, giving us a grounded, realistic city that feels alive and breathing, while at the same time dripping with sinister, noir undertones that give the setting an air of foreboding and dread. There is no weather in this Gotham City other than rain and overcast clouds. Sunlight only appears for about two hours a day. The streets are littered with garbage and the walls are plastered with graffiti and gang signs. It’s the most comic-accurate version of Gotham we’ve ever gotten, simply by virtue of being an absolute hellhole.

The characters themselves reflect this harsh, unfriendly landscape. Cops and politicians are dirtier than the streets themselves. The citizens are downtrodden and jaded. The villains here aren’t the colorful, larger-than-life lunatics from the comics, nor are they the theatrical, self-aggrandizing scene-stealers than we’ve seen in previous adaptations. The Riddler, our featured psycho de jour, is a far cry from the spandex-wearing, gleefully maniacal Jim Carrey take on the character that we saw in Batman Forever. He’s more serial killer than supervillain, wearing his inspiration from the likes of David Fincher’s Zodiac quite literally on his sleeve, with his trademark question mark insignia this time flanked by the hashmarks from a sniper scope. He’s a villain for the Q-Anon age, posting his insane ravings to online forums and gathering a small legion of like-minded, radical followers. This is a version of the Riddler that would feel right at home in Se7en, taunting the police at every crime scene as the bodies of Gotham’s most guilty and most corrupt begin the pile up.

A harsher Gotham demands a more brutal Batman, and Robert Pattinson’s interpretation certainly delivers on that promise. In the entire history of the character’s depictions in film, The Batman is the first time an adaptation has really nailed the fact that Batman is supposed to be terrifying. He lives in darkness, emerging from the shadows like a demon straight from hell. He paces slowly, methodically, his heavy boots pounding the ground as he approaches his victims more like a horror movie slasher than a superhero. And he fights like a whirlwind, fists pounding with brutal, calculated ferocity. He’s vengeance, he’s the night, and he’s exactly what this version of Gotham and its menagerie of criminals and killers needs to oppose it.

This is a Batman driven by rage and by violence. There is no playboy Bruce Wayne persona. This version of the character is a grunge idol, backed by Nirvana, Kurt Cobain’s moody vocals droning in the distance as the score blares its imposing main motif to announce The Batman’s presence. He’s angry, he’s depressed, he’s completely and utterly miserable. He’s everything you’d expect from a man who dresses up as an armored bat and punches the mentally ill in dark alleyways at night, equal parts bare-knuckle street brawler and hard-boiled neo-noir detective.

All of this to say that yes, The Batman is a dark film.

But I think it’s also incredibly reductive to define this film by its darkness, which is precisely what I’ve seen most critical opinions doing in the days since the movie was released. Everything I’ve read has hammered home the point that this is a film that wallows in its own misery, painting the bleakest picture of the titular hero that we’ve ever seen before.

I don’t think that’s true at all, and if anything, speaks to a profound lack of understanding as to who Batman is or what he represents: Hope.

Batman as a character is a creature of vengeance, yes. He’s an instrument of darkness and uses fear as a weapon to punish Gotham’s monsters. But he does this not out of a desire to inflict pain or to reign terror on the city; he does it out of a profound sense of altruism. He’s fueled by pain, the pain from losing his parents to a senseless and random act of violence, and his vow to protect Gotham is, at its core, a vow to ensure that no one else has to experience that pain. Batman’s humanity defines him just as much as the manufactured theatricality he masks himself with, and The Batman understands this beautifully.

(Spoilers for the film’s final act below.)

At the climax of The Batman, we see the titular hero fighting desperately to stop a small militia of the Riddler’s most rabid and committed followers as they fire down from stadium rafters at the panicked civilians below, taking shelter from Gotham’s rapidly flooding streets. He manages to take down all of the armed assailants, brutally beating one within an inch of his life, before being stopped by a concerned Jim Gordon. As the gunman is being arrested, he parrots Batman’s own mantra of vengeance right back at him, sparking the realization that his now two-year-old crusade against crime from the shadows has inspired the wrong people. The Riddler has acted in such a violent and ruthless fashion because he sees that Batman does the same, albeit without ever fully taking a life.

The look in Batman’s eyes, under the cowl and the eyeliner that mask his true identity, is one of utter horror and disgust. Not at these men who just opened fire on a crowd of innocent civilians, but at himself, and the cycle of violence that he began the very first time he put on the cape. In that moment, he makes a decision, and internal course correction, and leaps out of the shadows and into the trapped and drowning crowd below. The darkness is then pierced by a blinding light as Batman strikes a flare. He’s no longer a part of inky black, hiding his presence in the dark, but rather a signal, guiding others to safety. We then see him begin to rescue citizens trapped by rubble and debris.

Through the entire film, we never see Batman as anything other than a source of fear. He is only seen once the sun goes down, under a moonless and cloudy Gotham night sky. Those he rescues shrink away from him with the same terror in their faces as those he inflicts his brutal sense of justice upon. He’s a symbol of retribution, not a savior. But in these final moments of the film, the sun rises. We see the Batman in the daylight. He guides the injured to safety, and helps paramedics secure payloads for medical evac. The wounded reach out to him for comfort, rather than recoil in panic and fear. In this moment, we realize as Bruce, not Batman, monologues over the hopeful score, that this is what the Batman is meant to be. Not a monstrous nocturnal avenger. Not a vicious urban legend, a boogeyman who stalked the streets and rooftops looking for a fight. Something more. A hero. Someone to inspire goodness in people, not hatred. The Riddler is this Batman’s wake-up call, that his methods have more in common with the criminals he despises than those on the right side of the law, good men like Gordon.

Batman stares towards the horizon, at the rising sun, towards the future. Despite the overbearing and, at times, overwhelming darkness of the previous two hours, The Batman ultimately ends on a hopeful note. This is not the “darkest” or “most gritty” Batman film ever made. In many ways, it’s the brightest, the most optimistic. And, as a result, the truest to the character’s core traits. For the first time, we have a Batman whose character arc is not an origin story in the traditional sense, showing his journey from frightened orphan to watchful protector. Rather, we see him rise from rageful spirit of the night to a genuine beacon of hope for Gotham. And I absolutely adore it.

I think the critics who have labeled The Batman as nothing more than a cavalcade of doom and gloom (albeit a well-made one at that) have missed what makes The Batman so genuinely special, as both a fan of Batman as a character and as a movie lover. We’ve seen enough cynical takes of heroism. We’ve seen the broody, nihilistic version of Batman. We’ve seen Batman as a loner, as a broken lost soul. It’s time we saw one with life in his veins again, with a drive to inspire and to rise above his tragic past. The Dark Knight may still be the superior movie on the whole, but The Batman is undeniably the better Batman story, and I can’t wait to see what else Matt Reeves and Robert Pattinson have in store for the character.

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