Opinion

The surprisingly hopeful note of The Batman

Yes, 'The Batman' is dark and emo. But it also finds the light.

Just how dark can a Batman movie get?

After Christopher Nolan revolutionized superhero movies with the Dark Knight trilogy, director Zack Snyder seemed determined to top him by taking the story in an even edgier direction in 2016's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. But the marketing for the latest reboot, The Batman, had made it look like Matt Reeves' interpretation would be the grimmest outing yet for Bruce Wayne.

It wasn't entirely false advertising: The Batman, in theaters Friday, does indeed offer another aggressively dark vision of the Caped Crusader, using a grounded detective story to explore systemic corruption and the degradation of faith in our institutions. But despite in some ways being the most depressing Batman ever, Robert Pattinson's version of the character is still rather heroic and thankfully never goes too far in the direction of outright cruelty — as Ben Affleck's Batman did in 2016. However bleak and disturbing the movie might be, The Batman's grittiness is in service of an unexpectedly optimistic message, and Reeves brings some much-needed glimmers of hope to this otherwise gloomy picture. 

The Batman picks up two years after Bruce Wayne became a masked vigilante in Gotham, and it's clear from the start that Reeves has a distinctive vision for the character and universe. The movie looks and feels more like a classic detective film than a superhero movie, drawing inspiration from Se7en the same way Joker drew inspiration from Taxi Driver, even at times mixing in elements of horror movies. In one early sequence set in the dreary rain, Batman explains how his symbol lighting up the sky is not just a signal, but a warning to criminals, some of whom we see him brutally beat down early on. "What the hell are you supposed to be?" one asks. "I'm vengeance," he replies. Even the man he saves appears scared of him, and for good reason.

Some of this early rage initially calls to mind the last time we were introduced to a new Batman: Affleck's version in Batman v Superman, who was inhumane to a disturbing degree. The depiction was controversial among fans, as it showed that Batman — who historically doesn't use guns, due to the violent death of his own parents — was now totally fine with killing people willy-nilly. Affleck's Batman went as far as to brand criminals with the Batman symbol, leading them to be murdered in prison, and sought to kill Superman for pretty flimsy reasons. At The Verge, critic Tasha Robinson accurately dubbed the character a "sadistic savage" and "psychopath with an endless supply of weaponry and rage." 

But while he lets loose on criminals to an excessive extent in the first act, Pattinson's Batman notably insists on never killing anyone. One scene goes as far as to deliberately show that a man he fought the day before made it out of the encounter alive. Some of the movie's more tender moments underline the way this Batman isn't uncaring but instead sympathizes with children who have lost a parent; it's implied he avoids killing as to not inflict the pain he endured when his parents were murdered on others. We also get to see him helping average citizens more than in prior films, and even as he learns some shocking truths about the extent of the corruption plaguing Gotham, this Batman — despite looking like he's about to burst into tears half the time — maintains that the city is worth saving. 

Tonally, the movie also ends up not being as oppressively nihilistic as it seems at the start. The same way Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy mixed in moments of levity despite being so famously gritty, Reeves' version isn't 100 percent free of humor, either; the dynamic between Batman and Lieutenant Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) elicits a few genuine laughs. 

Sure, Pattinson plays a more tortured version of Batman than we've ever seen before, but that's mainly because of the way he's haunted over his past trauma and has poured himself into his vigilante lifestyle to a point of neglecting being Bruce Wayne — not because he's an outright psychopathic murderer whom we can't relate to. Most crucially, his "I'm vengeance" declaration, despite being a major part of the film's marketing, turns out not to be the thesis statement of this reboot like one might expect. Instead, Reeves explores the problems with being driven primarily by vengeance rather than a desire to bring hope to the people of Gotham.

To be fair to Snyder, Batman v Superman also tried to accomplish a bit of a redemption arc, in which Batman begins to believe in the goodness of humanity again by the end. But it was still hard to swallow such a downright mean, murderous Bruce Wayne, especially because, as a movie largely focused on Superman and setting up the Justice League, Batman v Superman was too busy with its many priorities to interrogate the character's worldview that much. For this reason, it's to The Batman's benefit that Warner Bros. allowed Reeves to ignore the broader DC continuity and build a story that stands alone and doesn't need to connect to anything else. This way, he gets to devote the entire three-hour runtime to giving the character a complete, satisfying arc. 

By the time we reach the end of that story, it becomes clear The Batman isn't overwhelmingly dark because Reeves is trying to make a statement that society is doomed. Rather, he's leading us toward a more hopeful place, and the fact that the world around Batman is so unpleasant only makes the arrival there more cathartic. As producer Dylan Clark put it to The Digital Fix, Batman "goes from a vengeance-driven vigilante to something more. Batman has to represent more to the world. He has to represent justice and hope." 

The fact that Reeves understood this, and saw that it's possible to make a Batman movie that's gloomy but not mean-spirited, proves he was the right person to be handed the franchise's reins. The real world is cruel enough. The Batman might be as bleak as you've heard, but by the end, it gives us the hero we both deserve and need.

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