The World’s Best Detective Returns as an Emblem of Hope in a Dark World
A lot of people have speculated that movie theaters had become irrelevant in the age of streaming services and a global pandemic, but some major film productions have proven them wrong, not least of all The Batman. The latest iteration of the adventures of the caped vigilante stars Robert Pattinson and was directed by Matt Reeves. The film dropped in early March after a several month delay and scored big at box offices around the world.
This is the first standalone Batman movie since Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (2005-2012), starring Christian Bale. In that franchise, Batman and Bruce Wayne are vastly different entities. Wayne must keep up his persona as a playboy billionaire and philanthropist while donning the cape and mask at night, serving as Gotham’s “silent guardian,” and playing dumb about his nightly war against crime during his daily affairs. His double life is apparent.
Pattinson’s Batman, however, has little interest in sporting a Bruce Wayne identity, focusing all his attention instead on a murder mystery and the trail of clues left by the suspect, the sadistic serial killer known as “Riddler.” This film is a full-on slow burner detective story, and Batman, not Bruce Wayne, is its main character.
There’s much to praise about this movie. Its visual aesthetic is dark (naturally) with lots of reds and orange glares, set in a Gotham City that looks something like a futuristic New York City with the infrastructural chaos and decay of a 1970s inner metro. The place is crime ridden and corrupt to the core. The soundtrack, written by Michael Giacchino, is brooding and intense, and the scenes are suspenseful and well balanced with dialogue and cutting-edge action scenes.
The Riddler’s crimes, which target Gotham’s esteemed public figures, are twisted, creepy, and will chill the spines of even the most stalwart moviegoer. Batman must traverse Gotham’s dark underbelly to uncover the Riddler’s motive and future targets, and the quest hits closer to home the deeper he goes. The movie is layered with subplots and intriguing side characters, such as Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz), the Penguin (Colin Farrell), and Alfred Pennyworth (Andy Serkis). Aside from the Riddler, Batman’s detective journey leads him into the power-hungry mob and the dozens of corrupt government officials in service to it. But one central question hovers over the entire film: what does justice truly look like, and how is it different from vengeance?
Interestingly, the film’s cinematography suggests similarities and overlap in the way both Riddler and Batman operate. The opening scene is shot through Riddler’s perspective as he’s looking into the mayor’s mansion, plotting his first serial murder. A few minutes later, we get a similar scene, except this time it’s Batman spying in on Catwoman’s apartment through a pair of high-tech binoculars like Riddler’s. Both characters have targets that they “choose carefully,” and both identify vengeance as the motivation for what they do. When a street thug asks Batman who he is, he whispers, “I’m vengeance.”
Toward the end of the movie, one of Riddler’s cult followers says the exact same thing when Detective James Gordon asks him to identify himself. The movie complicates the traditional understanding of hero and villain, and even somewhat calls Batman’s motives into question. In a riveting dialogue between Riddler and Batman, Riddler says, “You inspired me. You showed me that using fear and a little focused violence is all it takes.” So, what’s the difference between Batman and Riddler if both think they’re serving a higher cause? And what is the real difference between vengeance and justice?
Starting with the obvious, Batman doesn’t kill. Riddler does. Batman may inspire terror in the hearts of criminals, but he holds true to his rule: no guns, no killing. True, he’ll punch the living daylights out of you, breaking noses and snapping arms, but he doesn’t kill those who prey on the weak. Fear and intimidation are tools, and ideally, if the fear is strong enough, he’d never have to throw a punch at all. Secondly, the Riddler’s main goal isn’t to protect or uplift the downtrodden. His mission is more nihilistic. He wants to prove that all efforts to help other people are inevitably shrouded in corruption and self-interest. Riddler doesn’t want to start charities for the poor and orphaned. He wants to show Gotham that there is no such thing as charity. This is what makes his character so chilling and ominous. He doesn’t think human beings are redeemable.
While clearly Riddler and Batman are worlds apart, Batman does have something important to learn about the true nature of justice.
The film ends with Batman taking out a horde of Riddler’s malevolent followers above a massive arena complex, and then shifts to him saving victims from a flood (created after the Riddler detonated bombs along Gotham’s seawall) and bringing them to the roof for medical evacuation. We hear a monologue of Batman’s voice after the chaos is over, telling us that vengeance alone can’t change the past, that people need “more.” They need hope, someone they can count on. Here, Batman holds a boy’s hand, serving as a source of reassurance. In this moment, he is given a fresh new vision of what he’s fighting for and not just who he’s fighting against.
Justice, then, is not simply retribution against the wicked, but involves deliverance for the oppressed—those who are too weak to help themselves. The ending reminded me of James 1:27, which reads, “Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (NASB). Bruce Wayne knows what it is like to be an orphan. Up to this point, he seems to have fought these criminals out of vengeance for its own sake. While he’s not sadistic like the Riddler, he is still acting out of anger, woundedness, and the fear of loss. He can still do those things for the city, but his purpose has become larger than himself and his own goals. He’s fighting on behalf of the vulnerable.
So, the Batman is not only an avenger of wrongdoing, but ends up becoming a sort of Christ figure, heralding hope within a city in desperate need of renewal. His vision of justice is expanded to include charity and sacrifice. While he can’t renew the city alone, he can serve as a symbol of inspiration for the masses and be an agent of justice for the widowed and the orphaned. He knows what he’s fighting for.
The movie doesn’t explicitly refer to religion, God, or the cross, but it is filled with allusions to Christendom. A major scene of the film takes place in a cathedral, where a choir sings “Ave Maria.” Wayne’s own personal manor is reminiscent of a cathedral, and while that probably does not reflect the director’s intentions, it makes the film feel “God-haunted.” And most importantly, the movie is about moral justice, and ends up, albeit unwittingly, extolling a biblical vision of it. Justice, we learn, is about protecting the vulnerable and oppressed more than it is getting revenge on the wicked. As Batman says to Catwoman when she wants to kill a corrupt policeman: “Cross that line and you’ll become just like them.” Instead of taking vengeance into our own hands, we are to surrender it to God, doing what we can in the present day to lend a hand of help to the weak and even forgive our enemies, lest we become like them ourselves.
The movie has its issues, of course. We don’t get much of Batman’s backstory. His chemistry with Catwoman falls flat in a few places, and in my opinion, no one can do Alfred Pennyworth better than the legendary Michael Caine. Ultimately, however, the movie does a great job in supplying fans with a fresh and authentic Batman experience, and I am eager for more.Peter Biles
Peter Biles is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories. He graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois in 2019 and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications, including Plough, Dappled Things, The Gospel Coalition, Salvo, and Breaking Ground.• Get SALVO blog posts in your inbox! Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/post/the-batman