The last several decades of Batman comics and recent film adaptations such as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight have steered the Caped Crusader firmly away from campier interpretations and returned the character to his roots as the grounded noir detective first envisioned by his creators, Bob Kane and Bill Finger. Director Matt Reeves continues this trend in The Batman, a film that holds up a mirror to our own real-world society, and shows us that the glass has gone grimy.
Gotham City is the apogee of American urban dysfunction; a dirty and gloomy warren of narrow avenues and sinister alleyways, overshadowed by brooding neo-Gothic spires and half-finished high rises plastered with garish advertisements. This bleak cityscape is a disturbing and effective metaphor for all the ugliness, cruelty, and corruption in our fallen world. Gotham’s elite citizens are as filthy as the city itself, morally corrupt and spiritually dead, concerned only with maintaining a firm grip on the levers of power.
In an age when it seems like there’s a new public scandal every week, this all seems depressingly familiar. Distrust—even contempt—for leaders and institutions (be they civic, cultural, or religious) seems normative in everyday discourse. We have become accustomed to assuming the worst about people. The sins and failings (past or present) of public officials and ordinary people can be scrutinized and debated in the ruthless arena of social media. Scapegoating has become a kind of vicious sport. Rumormongering and conspiracy theories run rampant, making it hard to know what to believe amid the riot of unreliable and often contradictory information.
Enter the Riddler. Terrifyingly embodied by Paul Dano as a kind of amalgam of such real-life serial killers as Zodiac, he is erratic, obsessive, and shockingly violent, but also calculating and guileful—a true supervillain. He is almost the perfect avatar for this skeptical and cynical zeitgeist. Although clearly a man suffering from severe mental illness induced by horrific childhood trauma, the Riddler is nevertheless an intelligent and cunning master of information warfare. Like a demented parody of a social media influencer, he uses the internet to stage theatrical and grisly public executions of corrupt officials. Like-minded followers flock to his cause, calling for vengeance with the refrain of “No More Lies!”
Robert Pattinson proves himself equal to the challenge of following Christian Bale as the Batman—the reclusive billionaire Bruce Wayne—who is forced to a crisis point and must confront the lies that have shielded him from ugly episodes in his own family history. As the Riddler leaks evidence that seems to implicate Bruce’s murdered father as a participating member of Gotham’s cabal of crooked politicians and mobsters, we are convinced that we behold an utterly traumatized human being. Demoralized by this revelation, Bruce begins to lose faith in himself, and the foundation of his mission and identity as the Batman seems to collapse before his eyes.
Although a stark and unflinching exploration of corruption and violence in all of its darkness, The Batman never descends into cynicism or despair. In fact, the film ends on a powerful note of hope, leaving open the possibility for redemption, both of individuals and institutions, a reminder that “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom. 5:20).
Bruce learns that, while his father was indeed a flawed man, he was not the monstrous caricature portrayed by the Riddler. As for Gotham, the city undergoes its own painful transformation. The Riddler demolishes the city’s breakwaters, unleashing a flood that he hopes will cleanse the city of the greedy and corrupt sinners he so despises. But instead, this disaster acts as a kind of baptism, a spiritual rebirth. The citizens are galvanized into acts of charity and courage and the city arises from the floodwaters to a new dawn of life and hope. Batman also finds himself transformed from an avenging vigilante into an icon of heroism and selfless sacrifice.