Fair Warning: Spoilers ahead for The Batman, do not proceed if you care to go into the movie blind.
If you want to see my non-spoiler thoughts on The Batman, I would recommend checking out my review at Geeks Under Grace. I was surprisingly on the more negative side of initial reviews but I suspect that part of that has to do with the hurricane of hype surrounding the release of a new Batman movie. We’ll see how it holds up over time.
In any case, I had a couple of spoiler thoughts coming out of the movie that I wanted to air my thoughts on. I’m not usually one for the WOKENESS-IS-DESTROYING-HOLLYWOOD discourse, and I’m not about to start doing that here. Plus doing so will make the discourse insufferable if it does. I don’t like that kind of film discourse. It’s usually just a label that’s designed to dismiss a movie and discourage people from patronizing it.
In this case, I wanted to talk about it just because the “woke” themes on display are clearly a part of the film’s authorial intent but they were also the part of the film that most floundered upon execution. Matt Reeves’s The Batman isn’t a great film. It’s not bad and it’s nowhere near the worst Batman film but it was ultimately less ambitious and thematically coherent than I wanted it to be. That said, I think there’s something worth discussing in regards to the themes. It has a lot of big ideas and allusions but doesn’t deliver on them.
Theme One: Hope
The biggest of these is Bruce Wayne’s story arc. Wayne starts the film as a disgruntled and unhappy loner. His primary motivation from the getgo is vengeance. He’s on a mission to clean up the streets to avenge the mysterious death of his parents.
By the end of the film, he realizes that this mission isn’t so clear-cut. His parents turn out to have been more complicated and flawed people and the legacy of their mistakes is tainted by the revelations of the plot. In the end, Batman transforms his mission from revenge to that of hope. He decides to be a literal and figurative light in the darkness and help the poor and downtrodden, letting go of his personal vendetta for the greater good.
It explores this in the relationship between Batman and Selena Kyle. Kyle is an angry, vengeful woman who wants to enact violence against those who have wronged her, be they class enemies or personal enemies. The film’s second act ends with a climax where the tension comes from whether Batman can stop her from murdering a crime boss who may have murdered Batman’s parents. This separation metaphorically starts here but ends in the film’s beautiful final shot where both characters physically part ways and drive in separate directions.
It calls to mind the ending of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, where (SPOILERS) Batman and the love of his life are forced to part in different directions because she went through the same avenge-my-father story arc Batman did but came out of it as a violent serial killer, too far gone for Batman to save her. In this case, the storytelling is less clear-cut and effective.
The film visualizes this with the profoundly beautiful image of Batman saving the poor citizens of Gotham from the wreckage of the stadium after it was destroyed in the final act. Whereas Batman started the film as a violent vengeful loner, he’s now a leader who can guide the people to safety (a partial allusion to Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns) He’s prioritizing their needs over his own psychological need for revenge, a theme also echoed in Riddler’s story.
Theme Two: Legacy
The way the film accomplishes though is by trying to take Bruce Wayne down a peg. It’s doing something similar to what Joker (2019) did in its portrayal of Thomas Wayne, taking him from the saintly martyred father we see in Batman (89) and Batman Begins and rubbing some dirt on the character. It’s very deliberately trying to make a point about the nature of motivation and how pride and selfishness are poor motivation for Batman.
The film’s approach to themes clearly has a lot to do with the way that Batman has become an easy target among progressive discourse. While Batman has no shortage of liberal and leftist fans, there is a small contingent of comic fans that try to highlight the way that Batman, as a character, would be problematic in a real-world context. He is, after all, a rich white billionaire who cures his mental anguish by roaming the streets and beating up poor and disenfranchised mooks. He spends billions of dollars on his vigilante career when he could sponsor charity programs for the homeless and poor.
By this logic, Batman is the living embodiment of everything wrong with toxic masculinity and capitalism. Truly, what problems in Gotham City couldn’t actually be solved with therapy and Medicare-for-all (said as sardonically as humanly possible)?
The movie addresses this directly with the subplot about Thomas Wayne having approached the mob for help with a journalist who wanted to leak dark secrets about the Wayne family, which resulted in that journalist being killed by the mob. The story point is revealed as a great revelation and horrific personal sin about the Wayne family that besmirches Bruce Wayne’s family name, a name that he previously stated he wanted to honor with his work as Batman.
This sends Bruce into a brief identity crisis which is resolved when he approaches Alfred and asks him why he was hidden from the truth about his heritage. Alfred then defends Thomas Wayne, saying that the guilt of his actions ate him up and that he tried to do the right thing, only to be struck down by a random act of violence on the street before he could admit what happened to the police.
Admittedly, this explanation feels weak. If the point of this story is about learning to put the needs of others over the needs of himself, Batman should have a deeper reason why he can’t follow in his father’s mission. The Alfred reveal is a half measure. It’s trying to protect the superficial surface of the Batman brand and placate fans who would dislike the idea of a Batman story that criticized the ideals and legacy of Batman and the Wayne family.
Theme Three: Change
The progressive resentment of Batman’s symbolic journey though doesn’t stop with Batman’s self-loathing. The movie dramatizes the public resentment of the Wayne family in the character of Selena Kyle, a poor woman struggling to find her way in the real world who has to live with the horrific real-life consequences of crime by watching her friends die. At the halfway point of the film, she meets with Batman and gives a speech to him about why Bruce Wayne (she doesn’t know he’s Batman) is a rich white privileged jerk.
Riddler later agrees with the sentiment, chewing Bruce Wayne out for getting sympathy from the public as an orphan despite the fact that poor orphans suffer in squalor and poverty while he grew up in a mansion.
So the film presents Batman as a rich, privileged white man whose primary motivation is misplaced. What does it offer as an alternative to this status quo? Change.
Change in the form of a young progressive politician of color who we see in the opening scene of the film campaigning against the old mayor of Gotham. Her only stated political goal is to bring change to Gotham and to roll back the city’s revitalization initiative, implicitly gentrifying the city and not actually helping the poor, in favor of social programs.
Who opposes her? Riddler does. As we see, Riddler’s grand reveal in the final act is that he’s running a militia of heavily armed anti-government terrorists who fetishize weapons and believe change is pointless.
The subtext isn’t overtly stated but you can see it in the way that the film codifies them. It’s not hard to map the implicit contemporary racial and political subtext onto these story points. The young politician echos the rise of young real-life progressive politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Riddler’s terrorists are coded as right-wing domestic terrorists.
Bruce Wayne’s story arc reflects this. He’s learning to stand as a symbol of hope repudiates the implicit white privilege and wealth of his character. He saves the young politician and starts to believe that real change is possible.
Again though, these themes don’t go far enough to feel overt. He hasn’t stopped being a rich white man. He hasn’t given up his wealth or renounced the Wayne family name. The class consciousness and anti-whiteness are so much puffery and bloviating.
More to the point though, they actually serve as a weird counterpoint to The Dark Knight‘s exploration of these same themes. Harvey Dent’s character arc as the “white knight” turned “two-face” is all about the way human nature and goodness are corrupted by fear. The only real substantive difference between these characters is that one character is a white man who stands for change and the other is a black woman who stands for change.
Unless The Batman 2 follows a similar story structure, there are some serious critical race theory-esc assumptions bubbling up under the core assumptions of these characters. Why wouldn’t power and fear in a city as corrupt and broken as Gotham City corrupt one politician but it will corrupt another based solely on their skin color? Steve McQueen explored this theme excellently in Widows, depicting Chicago’s black AND white politicians as selfish and corrupt monsters who say they want change but really want money, but I can’t imagine Warner Brothers is brave enough to make a character who symbolizes change capable of making mistakes or failing. The narrative of change and progress can’t be besmirched.
I could go on but these ideas feel muddled. At one point, Batman finds himself an antagonist of the Gotham City Police Department and I was certain that the film was going to turn into an anti-cop narrative about why the police can’t be trusted. It doesn’t do that though. Batman and Commissioner Gordan are allies in the next scene. The police corruption subplot is barely more radical than you’d get out of something like The Untouchables.
These themes mentioned above might sound cohesive but there’s an apprehensiveness under the film’s skin that makes them limp. The ideas are all half-formed, uncommitted, and don’t blossom within the film. If this wanted to be a film about exploring a new vision of Batman that fights for social change and the people, it’s ineffective at embracing that vision.
If anything, these themes feel like acknowledgments of progressive complaints more than an authentic expression of them. Giving Catwoman a speech about white privilege feels cheap. Making Bruce Wayne into a petulant rich kid who doesn’t understand the world feels cheap. But neither idea is reflected in the actual plot, which is just another bog-standard Batman crime detective story, and not a particularly good detective story at that.
Good detective stories, ala a recent film like Death on the Nile, give you all the clues and motivations you need that it’s possible for a viewer to understand what is happening and potentially guess what really happened. The viewer feels like the answer is on the tip of their tongue the entire time. A bad mystery, ala BBC’s Sherlock, ultimately just serves as a character study in the superhuman mental capacity of its central character. It wants to impress you by showing how cool its character is.
And Batman is cool, no question about that, but a small-scale noir Batman thriller needs to function like a noir thriller. The themes of The Batman ultimately don’t gell very well with the traditional Batman story. Batman stories aren’t about change. They’re about the eternal fight of justice and Batman’s own psychological exploration of it. They’re about the eternal fight of order and chaos and the struggle that comes from refusing to allow yourself to cross the moral lines you’re tested with.
The nominally “woke” elements all just feel tacked on. I don’t want to accuse the film of being woke, if only because the film is just too muddled to say that it really is trying to be a socially progressive Batman. It doesn’t accomplish the task of being “woke”. Matt Reeves holds back too much, doesn’t let the themes breathe and as a result, the themes are not fully realized.
All I can say is that it’s a decent Batman film that has a handful of progressive cliches, assumptions, and dog whistles in it. The diversity casting and white privilege talk didn’t serve any purpose. That’s not the worst thing in the world. Considering the hilarious woke nonsense that Warner Brothers has pulled with their CW shows, it’s hard to say this is a terrible offender. The whole production though feels undercooked.