In the wake of The Dark Knight Trilogy & DCEU, Sophie distills what director Matt Reeve’s new interpretation of The The World’s Greatest Detective really brings to the table.
When I walked into the theater to see The Batman (2020), I thought I had the entire three hours planned out. In my mind, I knew what to expect: a typical mystery movie, with a total triumph over the villain at the end. I was wrong from the start. Some mysteries will carry the audience on its shoulders, ensuring viewers solve the crime around the same time as the detective. But not so with The Batman. As the caped crusader visits crime scenes and mob-run clubs, it feels like he is always one step behind, struggling to predict or understand the Riddler’s next move. Before reading on, please beware of spoilers.
The Batman is grounded in realism, realism seen most in its commitment to contending with the true consequences of the narrative’s final threat. Indeed, the third act sees the entirety of the Riddler’s plan come true. Vans parked all around Gotham blow up, destroying the breakwaters that keep the city safe from flood. It’s not the god of war or an alien race driving the chaos at the end; it’s the terror and destruction brought on by natural disaster.
I couldn’t believe what I was watching. As the bombs went off, I truly turned to my friend and asked her if this was really happening. I thought the scene was a flash-forward to a hypothetical situation, a nightmare in Bruce’s head of what would happen if he didn’t find the bombs in time. Instead, the water crashes through the city, demolishing buildings and killing droves of people.
For me, this final act was wave after wave of subversion. Batman is supposed to find the explosives and save the city. Batman is supposed to capture the Riddler and stop his plan. Though he and Selina are able to defeat the shooters in the stadium, there is still this undeniable sense of loss. The city is gone. What’s the point?
Then Batman drops into the middle of the flooded stadium, breaking a red flare over his head. He helps an orphaned child out from underneath the wreckage, before offering the new mayor his hand. The rest of the trapped victims follow after. As the group walks through the water, the imagery on screen is so haunting, so striking that it would seem like a horror movie if not for the score. Finally I understood.
Director Matt Reeves intended The Batman to represent a return to comic book roots, and until this scene I understood that goal to be primarily aimed at the character himself. But this homecoming also manifests itself in respect to his city. Gotham is more than a city, it’s a concept. Despite original inspirations, it’s not meant to be the same as New York, Chicago, or the fictional Metropolis. The very point of the city is that it cannot be saved.
Alternative perspectives on Gotham have been presented before. Comic book writer Grant Morrison once commented, “If Gotham was so bloody awful, no one normal would live there and there’d be no one to protect from criminals. If Gotham really was an open sewer of crime and corruption, every story set there would serve to demonstrate the complete and utter failure of Batman’s mission…I can’t buy that. It’s simply not realistic and flies in the face of in-story logic, so my artists and I have taken a different tack and we want to show the cool, vibrant side of Gotham, the energy and excitement that would draw people to live and visit there.”
In my view, Morrison’s statement makes him appear either insensitive or completely oblivious to the real world. Countless places run rampant with crime, poverty, and unlivable conditions but many people still live in these places because they cannot leave. So no, Gotham does not need to be reinterpreted as a city that shines in the right places, and it never should have been. All this does is cheapen the meaning of the city, and that of the hero tied to its fate.
If you make Gotham palatable, you take away the essence of what Batman is. Superman protects the city that can be saved and Batman does damage control. He puts out the little fires everywhere that just never seem to stop popping up. This idea is well-embodied in the ending of the film, with the city’s darkness giving Bruce true purpose. Batman is more than vengeance: he’s also hope.
Hats off to Matt Reeves for creating a new, fresh take on the character by returning to his roots. In many ways, it’s the original stories of Batman and Gotham City which matter most. It’s these stories that we connect to and see in our own world. And when your superhero story, starring a man dressed as a bat, can speak to real relationships and real lives—that’s when you’ve got a good film.