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The Batman Director Explains The Film’s End and Its Accidental Real-World Parallels

6 minute read

Warning: This story contains spoilers for The Batman

Though Matt Reeves and Peter Craig wrote the script for The Batman in 2017, well before the events of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, audiences would be forgiven for thinking the film’s climax is a direct reference to the attempted insurrection. “That was the way it had been written before,” Reeves tells TIME. “Over the course of those five years, from when we wrote the script until now, events transpired that made it seem even more timely, which was very strange.”

The parallels are so close—armed conspirators plan an attack on Gotham’s mayor using social media—that Reeves briefly considered changing the ending of the film. “I never ever would have set out to try and take something so current and say, ‘Hey, let’s just put it in a movie’ because that would seem really exploitive and really wrong,” he says. “Ultimately we felt that it was different enough. It’s not the same, but there are echoes of it.”

Read More: The New Batman Is Deeply Unsettling. The Director Says That’s the Point

At the beginning of the film, Batman (Robert Pattinson) leverages fear as a tool—to the point that even the people he saves are terrified of him. In a voiceover, Batman tells us he has spent two years running around the city calling himself “Vengeance,” when people ask his name. (People call him Batman, too, but Bruce Wayne tosses out the “Vengeance” line so much that Zoë Kravitz’s Catwoman begins to call him “Vengeance” as a nickname.)

At the end of the film, two revelations force Batman to reconsider whether he really wants to be a symbol of terror. First, Batman catches a serial killer called the Riddler (Paul Dano). The Riddler reveals that Batman has inspired him. They are both targeting Gotham’s corrupt; the Riddler is just willing to kill his targets, whereas Batman is not. Still, the idea that donning a mask has created more villains, not fewer, disturbs Bruce Wayne. He admits while writing in his journal that he has played vigilante trying to protect the streets of Gotham for two years, and crime has only gotten worse.

In the climax of the film, The Batman discovers too late that the Riddler plans to flood the city by setting off bombs at strategic locations. Many citizens, including mayoral hopeful Bella Reál (Jayme Lawson), head to a Madison Square Garden-esque arena in search of refuge.

The Batman then discovers the Riddler has amassed a violent, fringe following by using the internet to foment an uprising of the disenfranchised against Gotham’s elites. We see screenshots of chatrooms where the Riddler’s followers discuss what weapons to buy and how they will attack the mayoral candidate and her supporters in the arena. The screenshots look eerily similar to the social media posts made by Jan. 6 conspirators when they were planning the attacks: Some of the insurrectionists messaged about targeting female lawmakers like Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and particularly women of color, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The assassination attempt on Reál, a Black woman who is running on a message of hope, echoes the real-world assault.

By the time Batman arrives at the arena, the masked terrorists have already infiltrated the building, armed with sniper rifles and other guns. They begin shooting at members in the crowd from up in the rafters. When the Caped Crusader catches one of the shooters and asks, “Who are you?” the masked man replies, “I am Vengeance.”

Batman is visibly distraught. What really separates him from the men he is fighting?

He seems to have inspired the Riddler and the Riddler’s followers to take justice into their own hands. Worse still, The Riddler isn’t the only villain who has taken to the streets because of Batman’s antics. In a brief scene, an imprisoned Riddler commiserates over his failure to destroy Gotham with an unseen inmate. But the movie heavily hints from this mysterious figure’s laugh that he will become The Joker.

Hopefully, by the time Batman meets this new Joker, he will have learned that becoming a symbol of hope is just as potent, and less dangerous, than embodying fear.

“There’s a version of glorifying a kind of brutality of Batman that’s fascist,” says Reeves. “You could see that meme. And then there are other portrayals where you could see that he’s struggling in this very human way. So I wanted him to be forced to have an awakening … and confront what he’s doing.”

Reeves had to pause production of The Batman in London because of the pandemic. And even once filming resumed, news of the Jan. 6 attack perturbed his cast and crew. “Gotham is meant to be a heightened version of our world,” says Reeves. “But there were certain moments on set where we were like, ‘Wow, maybe the real world is worse than Gotham.’ We were pretty shaken by world events while filming.”

Batman eventually does save the day, leading the people of Gotham out of danger by holding a beacon of light. Up until this moment, The Batman is a dark movie—literally. It feels grim and claustrophobic. Most of the action of the film takes place at night, in dark night clubs, or inside the bat cave. One of the few brighter, daytime shots comes at the very end as Bruce helps rescue survivors from the arena the morning after the fight with the Riddler’s men. In that moment, it looks like Batman is considering evolving into a symbol of hope rather than fear.

Read the Review: The Batman Is Dark, Real Dark—Or So It Wants Us to Think

Whether intentionally or not, Reeves has made a movie that captures this particularly dark moment when a never-ending pandemic, fear of climate change, and war in Europe have contributed to a sense of doom. The end offers a glimmer of hope—which, depressingly, may be the least realistic part of the plot.

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com