The Batman Is Dark, Real Dark—Or So It Wants Us to Think

8 minute read

Warning: This review includes spoilers about The Batman.

Now, it’s probably official. Batman can never again be fun, or have fun. He’s the gloomiest of superheroes, haunted by a traumatic past, doomed to skulk around a filthy, lawless Gotham that, at least in the somber vision of Matt Reeves’ The Batman, is an obvious metaphor for 2020s America. The Batman’s America is a place where nutso fringe theorists fully armed with automatic weapons can gun down a Black woman mayoral candidate just because they don’t like the direction the country is going in. In this way, a movie based on a comic-book character will help us face our own darkness.

Or will it?

The semi-nihilistic yet vaguely hopeful vision of The Batman is what makes it like so many other superhero movies of the past 10 years or so, not what sets it apart. It does have some advantages over the others: Reeves is a relatively thoughtful, careful filmmaker, and the DC universe he’s working in may offer more freedom than the Marvel woodchipper that directors like Taika Waititi and Chloé Zhao have endured, a kind of processing plant that presses their vision into a particle-board-like consistency with the other movies in the franchise.

The Batman is a moderately well-made film, with some appealing performances, most notably from its star, Robert Pattinson, and from its cryptically glamorous Catwoman, Zoë Kravitz. And it looks like a movie, which used to be something you didn’t even have to say: The Batman may be dark, literally—its doomy, underlit ambience comes courtesy of cinematographer Greig Fraser—but at least it’s pleasurably cinematic, a picture that creeps to the edges of the big screen with an operatic flourish. Reeves doesn’t just throw his ideas onto that screen: he’s attuned to how they hit, and if the movie, a bat-hair short of three hours long, features at least three too many endings, Reeves still keeps the story from falling into sluggishness. (I’m among a minority that believes his 2010 Let Me In is better—more bruising, and more poetic—than the 2008 Swedish film, Let the Right One In, it’s based on.)

The plot goes something like this: Gotham is in a bad way, a dirty, lawless metropolis on the verge of a mayoral race that at least offers some hope for change. Pattinson’s the Batman, so special he gets his own definite article, appears in the city as needed, which is often, summoned by that yellow tattoo in the night-clouded sky that’s never referred to as the Bat Signal, though we all know that’s what it is. (“We have a signal now, for when I’m needed,” he explains in a gravelly, whispered voice-over, as if this information weren’t already burned into our pop-culture data banks.) Early on, the incumbent mayor is murdered in a particularly grisly way (largely off-screen, at least) by a mouth breather in a creepy leather mask, his little piggy eyes peering through grimy eyeglasses; the murder weapon is some sort of ugly spadelike tool. It’s Halloween night, and the mayor’s young son, just back from trick-or-treating, is the one to find the body. (Insert the phrase “echo of Batman’s own past” here.) The killer, who will go on to commit more of these murders, likes to leave little billets-doux for the hero he knows will always show up. These notes are written in riddle form—“What does a liar do when he’s dead?”—that stump everyone but the dour, brainy Batman. Jeffrey Wright’s James Gordon stands by appreciatively, doing everything but muttering “Damn!” whenever his decorously masked friend and colleague solves one of these puzzles.

The criminal is the Riddler, played by Paul Dano. An unrecognizable Colin Farrell also shows up as Oswald Cobblepot, otherwise know as The Penguin, though there’s little that would delineate him as such. (Prudishly, Warner Bros. wouldn’t allow Farrell to brandish a cigar.) John Turturro appears as a corrupt mob boss with a link to Bruce Wayne’s dead father. Perhaps, Batman/Bruce Wayne thinks, his own father wasn’t the sterling citizen he’d believed him to be. He’s tortured by ominous doubts, as any modern Batman must be.

At a certain point, Kravitz’s Selina Kyle/Catwoman enters the picture, bringing with her a whiff of tough romance and sexual allure, a rarity in superhero films. (This is a movie that at least allows for the existence of the sexual impulse.) And her penchant for taking in strays prompts the movie’s best line, and perhaps its finest little throwaway scene. As Batman steps into her apartment, a trio of felines windmill around his feet. He waits one beat, then two, and says, “You got a lot of cats.” For a small moment, the gods of wit smile upon Gotham.

But it can’t last. The Batman emerges from a movie universe, now becoming ubiquitous, where a phony funereal worldview is the only thing that can confer depth. You could argue that Batman painted his bat cave black a long time ago, in the late 1980s, with the work of Frank Miller and Alan Moore. That was a time when comic-book writers and artists were still yearning for respectability; these people did some great work, but we now see that they were perhaps too influential.

Because now, almost all we ever get from comic-book franchise movies—even from the best of them, a category into which The Batman may fall—is a sort of appliquéd melancholia, such that darkness barely has meaning. From Thanos, with his jeweled glove of power and Earth-destroying vengeance, to Joker, the troubled trickster whose lifelong pain provides a convenient excuse for his murderous deeds, to The Batman’s Riddler, a forlorn forever-orphan who feels betrayed by the system: in the most facile way, all of these characters wave evil in our faces like a smelly handkerchief, as if it were a scent we’d simply failed to pick up before.

The Batman, despite its virtues and pleasures—and despite the presence of Pattinson, who brings as much soul to the movie as an almost completely masked character can bring—falls into this trap. The movie’s Gotham is, as always, a semi-New York, but a New York that’s perpetually having its worst night: the streets are swept with bitter rain. Subway evildoers skulk about, looking for unsuspecting victims—it’s notable that the mark a group of these thugs seize upon is an Asian man, a grim reflection of recent events on New York’s real-life streets. A possible message lurking beneath the surface of The Batman is that Gotham—or America—is in its most sinister age. Ostensibly that makes The Batman a film that dares to face up to the worst of human nature.

But is packing some new bleak stuffing into an already established template really an act of reckoning? Batman is arguably the most brooding superhero, though it hasn’t always been that way. The idea of Batman being fun, or even having fun, is now beyond the scope of our pinched imagination. The goofy intentional innocence of Adam West as the drugged-via-orange-juice Caped Crusader, circa 1966, shaking a tail feather with a redheaded vixen on the dance floor, is now almost poignant. Three years after the assassination of JFK, just after the country stepped into a war many young Americans didn’t want, in a nation waging a civil rights struggle that was long overdue, West defied the bleak mood of the time by bringing a meme to life—the Batman dance, or “the Batusi”—that almost every person who has seen a GIF now knows. The Batman dance is silly—and inventive and wonderful—just as that series was.

But perhaps we feel there’s nothing left to invent. To discuss movies adapted from comic books in any meaningful way has become impossible. No matter what you say, your wings are pinned between the two posts of “You’re shallow—you only want fun,” and “Come on, it’s just entertainment.” It’s an end game of infinity we can’t seem to win. And that’s the big bummer of The Batman.

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