by Reagan Jackson
It’s been two years since most of us have had movie theater popcorn. That fact, in and of itself, is enough to explain why The Batman made $254 million on its opening weekend. Also — given that we are on the verge of war and in year two of a global pandemic — it’s a great time to watch a superhero movie. However, this was not exactly the movie I think anyone hoped it would be.
Spoiler alert: This review is for people who have already seen the movie, will never see it, or generally don’t mind knowing what happens. I can’t exactly spoil this movie, because there have been so many versions of Batman — from the comic to the cartoon to the TV show to movie after movie (Lego and live-action) — that you probably know the plot from the trailers. From Adam West to Christian Bale, this is a story that has been retold every few years for decades.
With stories like this, it’s less about the plot and more about specific choices. Fans go into this experience wondering how this set of actors will interpret their characters and how this version of the story will resonate with this moment in real life. There are a lot of things in this movie that do resonate: dire poverty, corrupt politicians and police, increased crime, and a sense of chaos (like how all of our lives took a left turn in 2020 and went off the map into uncharted territory).
But we look to heroes like Batman because they are the light in the dark. When you see the floodlight with the bat hovering over Gotham’s skyline, you know some shit is going down, but also that there is hope and help on the way. In this movie, you will not find the simplicity of a “good versus evil” battle where good gets knocked around a little but then pulls out a Rocky-esque win in the end. You know there is something wrong when Catwoman’s moral compass seems more aligned than Batman’s, but I’m skipping ahead.
Though every Batman movie is somewhat dark, literally (it’s rarely daytime in Gotham City) and psychologically (I mean, bats are nocturnal … “facing the darkness within” is a key theme), this specific film has a dark, true-crime feel to it. The movie begins with a gruesome murder and a cryptic note addressed to the Batman from the Riddler, played by Paul Dano. In previous iterations, directors have leaned into the theatrical flourishes and whimsy that evoke the more comic-book-like feel. This Riddler is a far cry from Jim Carrey’s whimsical interpretation. This is more like Silence of the Lambs meets Law & Order.
From there, we’re re-introduced to our familiar friends. There is Catwoman, played by the stunningly beautiful Zoë Kravitz (but if you’re asking who played it best, the answer is always going to be Eartha Kitt); Gotham’s only honest cop, Jim Gordon, played by Jeffrey Wright; the Penguin, played by Colin Farrell; and mob boss Carmine Falcone, played by John Turturro.
Robert Pattinson is the pale and broody billionaire Bruce Wayne, who is as irritatingly monosyllabic as he is a total know-it-all, most likely to read ancient Aramaic and do the Times crossword puzzle in ink. Except, he kind of forgets to be Bruce and spends the majority of the movie skulking around in the rubber bat suit looking angry and calling himself “Vengeance” while ignoring his day job and his butler Alfred’s (Andy Serkis) heavy-handed reminders that in order to fund the whole superhero side gig, business must be attended. Mostly, he just shows up to the Riddler’s crime scenes to solve riddles and take shit from corrupt cops who think he’s disturbed.
His riddle chasing sends him to the Iceberg Lounge, Penguin’s club, where he assaults some bouncers and runs into Catwoman, who is solving a mystery of her own, trying to find her missing friend. She agrees to help him infiltrate the club within the club where all the mobsters hang out, because in that moment, it aligns with her interests. But, true to the classic Cat and Bat dynamic, the alliance is tentative. What’s different in this version is that Batman is the one who ends up taking things too far. From there, it’s a muddle of follow the money, crooked politicians, and white saviorism ruining the city, mixed with more Wayne family secrets and a Catwoman origin story reveal that was interesting, but not especially essential to the plot.
During the course of the first two and a half hours of this movie, Batman only manages to save one person, and even that guy was looking at him like, “Are you gonna kick my ass too … can I go now?” Never have I experienced a Batman this deep in his own existential crises. I was left wondering if year two of the pandemic was really the best time for us to have a clinically depressed Batman working through his daddy issues while the city is eating itself.
During a rare appearance from Bruce Wayne for the mayor’s funeral, Bella Real (played by Jayme Lawson and who ends up being the mayor-elect after the Riddler murders her predecessor) corners Wayne to challenge him about his lack of philanthropy.
“You know, you really could be doing more for this city,” she says, to which Wayne smirks, like, B#!$%, I’m Batman … you just don’t know, I’m doing the most. And he is doing a lot, but actually failing spectacularly to achieve any of his objectives. This Batman is always a few minutes too late. And I sat there incredulously thinking, “Wow, this popcorn is really good, and this movie is really bad.”
We’ve been here before. Not every Batman movie is a good movie (yes, Ben Affleck, I’m talking about you and that catastrophically awful Batman v Superman movie that my ex made me watch). As a kid, I was a cartoon aficionado. Batman was always one of my favorites, because despite being a billionaire equipped with all the privilege, fancy cars, toys, and Ivy League education that money could buy, Batman was distinctly human and vulnerable in a way that made him more relatable than, say, Superman, whose relationship to power always made me uncomfortable. I liked all the gray areas that Batman stories brought up, from the origin stories of heroes and villains to how people’s relationship to fear and money influenced their paths. I wanted to like these things in this movie too, but I found myself sympathizing too much with the criminally insane Riddler, who actually spent more time addressing crime and corruption than Batman did.
As the movie came to its disaster-filled conclusion — a literal flood to wash the city and most of its inhabitants away — Batman had his “aha” moment where he admitted that while “Vengeance” sounds like a cool tagline for when you are assaulting criminals, he actually needed to be bringing something more. It’s not until the end where he extends his hand and starts actually helping people, but it was definitely too little too late, and it felt like a cop-out. Bringing more than vengeance is a vague, unsatisfying promise. If they think I’m gonna watch a sequel, I’ll need more than popcorn and nostalgia to stoke my curiosity.
This movie made me think about a series of tweets written by Minnesota-based queer writer Sigrid Ellis. Though her words were written in August of 2017, they were recently reposted and never more relevant than now: “I heard a thing on a podcast this weekend, how Americans are really good at acute compassion but pretty bad at chronic empathy. We, without questions, haul strangers out of a raging flood, give blood, give food, give shelter. But we are lousy at legislating safe sustainable communities, at elder care, at accessible streets and buildings. It is the longtime work that makes disasters less damaging. But we don’t want to give to the needy, we want to save the endangered.”
Batman is so busy wanting to be a hero that he forgets to care. He uses all of his allies without taking into consideration their needs. He spends his money on his incredible car (the Batmobile is on point), bulletproof suit, and custom-made grappling hooks, but, to Bella Real’s point, he’s not giving in a way that will help the people in his city who need it the most. He is so isolated, so disconnected from the very people he claims to want to serve, that it’s easy to see how he lost his way.
What this brings up for me is about how change is really made. In all his years of crime fighting, in every iteration, though Batman is seen as a beacon of hope, he is not a symbol of change for exactly the reasons outlined in Ellis’ tweet. Batman is the Band-Aid. He’s the guy playing the perpetual game of whack-a-mole with an entertaining cast of villains. Whack … the Joker’s in Arkham. Up pops the Penguin. Whack … the Penguin is in Arkham. Cue Two-Face, Poison Ivy, Victor Freeze — the list goes on. Batman may win every battle, but he never wins. This movie illustrates perfectly why he keeps failing and, in general, why white saviorism has never actually been effective. It’s built on the false premise that a Band-Aid will be enough and that the problems are the wounds we see and not the systems that perpetually create the wounds.
I think every director of a Batman movie is hoping that they’ll show Batman in a different and more compelling way than others. What I’d like to see next is Batman learning how to community organize and Bruce Wayne investing in alternatives to policing and education reforms. Maybe we’d miss some of the pyrotechnics and awesome stunts, but really, it couldn’t have made this movie any worse.
Like Ellis said: “We don’t like being care workers, we want to be heroes. The world does not need more heroes. We need more care.” Batman … take note.
Reagan Jackson is an award-winning journalist, multi-genre writer, activist, artist, and international educator with an abiding love of justice, spirituality, and creating community. She is the co-executive director of Young Women Empowered and the co-founder of Blackout Healing. Find out more at www.reaganjackson.com.
📸 Featured Image: Is the pale, brooding billionaire Bruce Wayne the best solution for Gotham’s problems? Probably not. Illustration by Jiéyì Ludden 周杰意.
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