What is 'The Batman' Really Getting At? Maybe We Need to Reflect
by Alex Billington
April 5, 2022
"I wish I could say I'm making a difference, but I don't know." Is he making a positive difference or making everything worse? I've seen Matt Reeves' dark, gritty Gotham City noir thriller The Batman three times already. I've been thinking plenty about the movie over the last few weeks, but specifically about the plot, all three hours of it. What does it mean, what is the script trying to say? What is it really getting at? It's a story about the first years of DC's iconic superhero Batman, yes, but it's also deeper than that. By the third time I watched, there were a few key scenes that really stuck out to me that I didn't necessarily pick up on the first times around. On the surface, The Batman is about his "early years" in Gotham City as he's figuring himself out, trying to make sense of the crime in Gotham City, and whether or not he's helping stop all the crime as a masked vigilante. Similar to The Daily Bugle always hating Spider-Man, at the start most of the city seems to be against him, seeing him as a menace more than a hero. Which is an important lesson for him to learn.
Going in to see The Batman, one of the questions on my mind was: what is Matt Reeves doing different this time? We've seen so many different iterations of Batman on the big screen (from West to Keaton to Clooney to Bale) along with animated versions on the small screen. I am a huge fan of Matt Reeves, I think he's one of the best "big movie" filmmakers working right now, crafting spectacular big screen cinema that is built on emotions and nuance, and he knows how to tell a good story in addition to giving us jaw-dropping visuals. Reeves co-wrote the screenplay with Peter Craig (The Town, Hunger Games: Mockingjay 1 & 2, 12 Strong, Blood Father, The Unforgivable, Top Gun: Maverick) and I know they are both smart writers who want to add more to this than tell another "here's that one guy who lost his parents and is now trying to defend his city from criminals" story. The core of this, linked to the zeitgeist, seems to be: is he making a difference? I want to take that question and apply it to the real world we're living in: are we really making a difference?
[Spoilers ahead - of course!] The scene that got me the most my third time around was at the end of the movie when Batman goes to Arkham to confront The Riddler. We've been following Paul Dano's Riddler as he toys with Gotham. He's been murdering some of the most corrupt and powerful politicians in the city, which is seriously bothering Batman – it seems he sort of understands and sympathizes with Riddler's goal (to clean up the city) but he doesn't agree with his methods of achieving that goal. The big reveal just before this moment is that Riddler's final "victim" is Bruce, son of Thomas Wayne, who's apparently more corrupt than we all thought. At this point of the movie going into this meeting at Arkham, Batman's biggest concern is that Riddler knows who he is. As with many superheroes, they're afraid of being "found out" because their identity being revealed will make everything fall apart, while putting their family and everyone else around them at great risk. That's all Batman cares about at this moment; he's sweating bullets thinking he knows.
But then the other shoe drops. Riddler slips up in the tête-à-tête and says "we" at one point, and Batman's anxiety about his identity instantly morphs into a realization that he's missed what has really been going on all along: Riddler is actually inspired by "The Batman" and he thinks they are working together. Riddler thinks they're in this together, working as two masked vigilantes taking out the trash of Gotham. But one is a serial killer, the other is not. And this hits Batman hard. He denies this claim and it upsets Riddler, who starts to scream and yell as he loses focus on the conversation at hand. This is a major moment because it ties together everything else going on in the plot up until that point. The Batman's real question throughout the movie is whether or not he's making a difference, and up until then he thought he was doing good. Now he realizes he isn't – this villain is his creation from his own actions running around as a vigilante. He needs to change his ways or risk plunging Gotham even further into darkness. The darkness in which he thrives in.
This ties in with other scenes throughout the movie where many of the criminals he's supposed to be taking out (either by using force or sending them to jail) seem to be riding the fine line between being inspired by Batman and afraid of him. When I realized this is what is going on with the plot in The Batman, it made me reconsider everything else in the movie. Sure – on the surface it's about Bruce's identity, crime in Gotham, corruption, politics and how they relate to citizens, how to make a city better, vigilantes, and so on. But it's also about this question of whether Bruce's "experiment" is making things better or making things worse. At one point he's seen scribbling data in a journal tracking his progress in Year 2, meaning this is a long-term project and he's trying to understand how he can help. Since we've seen Batman in so many movies before, we assume he's already at this point. Almost every other Batman movie made so far begins with him as an established superhero in Gotham, not a bad guy but an anonymous good guy. Even Nolan's Batman Begins skips over this for the most part. Now we have to grapple with the question of if he is truly helping, or not.
Ultimately it's one of the most important questions in The Batman and one of the most important questions we also need to ask ourselves. In the first half of this movie, we're watching the story unfold from Batman's perspective – of course he's doing good, of course he's making a positive difference. He's helping the GCPD with these murders, he's literally saving good Gotham citizens from bad ones. This is the problem he must face as The Batman - he's so obsessed with his own vision, his own goal of achieving good in Gotham, he's missing the bigger picture. Which is that he's actually inspiring more criminals, he's actually encouraging more chaos, and he's directly responsible for more destruction in Gotham than any reparation. This scene with Riddler at Arkham wakes him up, and we get that epic finale wherein Batman finally understands he needs to change his ways. He needs to start saving people, he needs to be active in a positive way, instead of beating up bad guys and hiding in the darkness all the time. This is where we get that perfectly-shot scene of Batman igniting the flare and leading Gothamites into the light – he's on this same path of understanding.
This self-reflection and comprehensive self-awareness is also a part of Batman Begins, encapsulated in one of the iconic lines from that movie: "It's not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me." You may want to do good, you may be a good person beneath all the armor and make-up, but are you actions really, truly helping Gotham? Are they really building a better world? Maybe not. Which is a scary revelation to deal with. The Batman takes Bruce on a journey into the underbelly of Gotham where he gets so swept up in what's going on, so much of it is going over his head (all that political crime and corruption is still very much above him at this point in his career), that he doesn't understand his own place within all of it. It is thrilling to watch him meet Selina Kyle, who messes with his mind in other ways, and it is entertaining to watch him take on The Riddler and decipher his clues as a special kind of "private investigator" (with a lot of money), but the thread that ties everything together by the end is: Batman's big mistake is not doing enough real good for Gotham. He spends too much time beating up the bad guys, rather than saving the good guys.
If we extract this part of the plot from the movie and consider how it can be reflected in the real world – it's a remarkably poignant, timely concept that can be applied to so much of what's happening out there. Our we really bringing positive change to this world? Maybe from your perspective you think you're doing good, you think you're making a difference, but maybe it isn't? Maybe we're all so obsessed with our own brands and online presence that we don't know how to actually do things that make a positive difference. One example of this is the way news channels tend to focus on all the bad happening in the world (even if it's newsworthy it's still overwhelming), with only one or two smaller "positive" stories at the end of their broadcast. Another example of this is with the way everyone posts superficial platitudes ("thoughts and prayers!") and notes of encouragement while showing off donations & flags & videos on their profiles. But is this actually achieving change or is it all superficial just like Batman's mask & make-up. Bruce spent most of this movie worrying about his own identity before realizing that was wrong and that he wasn't really saving anyone in Gotham.
It may be a challenge for some to connect this cinematic story about a masked vigilante superhero fighting in a fictional city to the real world we all live in, but what is the point of movies if not to act as commentary and criticism? (In addition to escapism.) There are many bad things happening right now – between climate change and human rights issues and wars and economic woes. Many of us want to do good, and many of us think we are doing good. Much like Bruce at the start of The Batman, we're seeing our actions solely from our own perspective. It seems everything we're doing is the "right thing" and is helping save people. But if nothing being done is making a difference, if everything continues to get worse, maybe it's time to stop and reflect. We need a wake up call like Bruce had talking to The Riddler at Arkham, we need to rethink our self-satisfying methods and try something different. It's not a good feeling to realize you are inspiring the bad guys and/or making things worse, but it's vitally important to gain this perspective so we can learn how to really save more people; so we can figure out how to actually improve the world and make it a better place.
I always appreciate Hollywood blockbusters that offer us more intelligent ideas to consider than big budget escapism. And I think it's immensely valuable to consider whether the lessons within movies can be applied to our real world and/or challenge us to reflect on our own actions. Reeves' The Batman has left an impact on me – wondering whether all the good people are making a positive difference, or if we've lead ourselves deeper into the darkness. It's time to think about changing our methods and taking steps back into the light.