The Confused Political Commentary Of ‘The Batman’
It’s always a bit awkward when gritty, grounded Batman movies begin to stray into politics.
Matt Reeves’ The Batman dives right into it, more directly than its predecessors did, acknowledging the uncomfortable implications of a billionaire in a bat costume who cracks the skulls of poverty-stricken petty criminals. Or at least, it tries to.
Don’t get me wrong, The Batman is a spectacular Batman movie – it’s a beautiful portrait of a grimy, diseased Gotham and its twisted inhabitants – but the ending is confused, and somewhat contradictory.
If Batman really wants to help the people of Gotham, why doesn’t he just give away his vast fortune? This question pops up all the time, to the point where it has become a bit of a cliché; it’s a fun question for fans to ask, ironically, to poke apart the internal logic of comic books, but Batman movies shouldn’t bother acknowledging that question, because it answers itself.
Perhaps, after Joker gleefully critiqued Batman’s wealth and privilege, Matt Reeves felt the need to address it. Right-wing culture warriors seem to think the film went “woke,” but that’s not what happened at all – I don’t think it’s even possible to make a truly progressive Batman movie.
This incarnation of Batman is portrayed (accurately) as a sheltered rich kid, too far removed from the streets of Gotham to really see how the underworld functions. He wants to crush petty criminals, not corrupt CEOs and politicians, because he doesn’t view crime as a structural problem – he believes it’s about individual choices.
Of course, he’s proved to be wrong, but where does the film go from there?
The thing about Batman is that, sure, the concept is inherently reactionary – when you apply it to the real world. It’s a billionaire giving petty criminals brain damage, quite literally “punching down.” Unless he’s battling a costumed supervillain, the optics don’t look great.
The Batman chooses to lean into it, showing Batman as menacing and unhinged; his actions even inspire copycat acts of vigilante terrorism. Why would they not? Faced with the monster he created, Batman decides to stop being such a brute and focus on rescuing victims, rather than punishing lawbreakers; essentially, he shifts from cop to firefighter.
It’s an interesting arc that allows Robert Pattinson to lean into how disturbed Batman is, which is neat – it’s a great performance. Catwoman and the Riddler are there to give him an education in how the world really works; the fact that Batman not only inspires the Riddler, but completely fails to stop his plan is a brilliant twist (not unprecedented, but refreshing).
The thing is, Batman can’t stop being a cop – he’s not going to stop beating the snot out of street-level thugs, because this is a superhero story and we want to see some action. Hence, when Batman reflects on the damage and devastation caused by the flood, only the threat of “looters” comes to mind. It’s a strange moment, where Batman seems to snap back to his old self.
The film “snaps back” several times – it reveals Thomas Wayne to be a cold-hearted, merciless billionaire, then instantly softens him. It frames the Gotham City police department as hopelessly, institutionally corrupt, then shows a large group of noble officers who stand defiant against corruption. It paints a picture of a city where the game is always rigged, no matter who’s in charge, then shows an idealistic political willing to get shot for the right cause. Which is it?
I think the film is overthinking it – Batman is just a cool story about a man overcoming grief and senseless tragedy, rising up to become protector of the innocent. The moment Batman movies try to ground this idea in “reality” it becomes blindingly obvious that Batman is a complete nutjob, and that only a dangerous man would actually think this way. So what’s he supposed to do, hang up his cape?
The Batman attempts to question its own logic, but can’t fully condemn Batman because there’s a sequel on the horizon, and the character needs to keep cracking skulls; the result is a centrist Batman movie that tries to turn a fun power fantasy into hard-hitting political commentary, and winds up saying nothing at all.
Because there’s always a million petty criminals out there – it’s Gotham! Gotham City is supposed to be a broken, haunted place, the manifestation of urban decay and inner-city violence that fuels conservative fever dreams. It’s a reactionary idea with a reactionary solution, and we’ve just got to sit back, eat the popcorn and accept it, because it’s a superhero movie, and that’s what we signed up for.
Batman isn’t a character from Alan Moore’s Watchmen – Rorschach and Nite Owl made it perfectly clear how hideous and pathetic Batman would be in reality.
Hence, we don’t need an official Batman movie to halfheartedly deconstruct itself, or to make political commentary – realism just doesn’t apply to Gotham City, where the only way to deal with cigar-chomping, scenery-chewing villains is to punch them out and toss them in an unregulated insane asylum.
It’s a right-wing fantasy, but it’s fun; that’s just what Batman is, and doesn’t need to pretend otherwise.