At long last, the new Batman movie is out.
And it sucks.
Of course, all my friends are rolling their eyes right now, because I’m known to be pretty hard on movies – particularly, big cultural-event movies, like massively hyped superhero or franchise movies such as this one.
I don’t universally hate big franchise movies just for being big franchise movies, mind you. I loved most Marvel movies prior to “Avengers: End Game,” including “End Game,” and I even kind of liked “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” despite the fact that it bombed with most “Star Wars” fans, and just had no reason to exist.
I’m a lifelong DC Comics fan (I happen to own more “Batman” shirts than I do pairs of socks, and even more “Superman” shirts), so I wanted to love “Man of Steel” and “BvS” and the rest, but … they just didn’t merit it (except for “Shazam!,” which was highly flawed, but still great).
All of that is to say that – contrary to my reputation – I don’t automatically hate big franchise movies, as a rule, so the eye-rolling is unjustified. I have reasons for loving and hating movies, and they are not arbitrary nor the result of unfair bias, nor even political partisanship.
So, I felt the need to justify it this time, and it’s hard to imagine how any objective observer could reasonably disagree.
Be warned: This will be full of spoilers (in many different senses of the word), so if you haven’t seen in it and plan to, etcetera, etcetera … you know the drill.
Good Plan, Failed Execution
The best thing I can say about “The Batman” is that it has a really cool mood, tone and look to it. From the costume, the casting, the red-themed marketing, the music and the style, “The Batman” looks like it should be exactly the kind of Batman movie I’d want to see and should be my favorite. It looks like a Batman movie made by people who get Batman the way I’ve always gotten him since I was a kid reading Frank Miller comics in the ‘80s.
But, it is long and boring and tedious and suffocating, and that mood wears very thin very soon, and so it fails to sustain what feels like the 183-hour run time of “The Batman.” That mood and tone and music made for a great set of trailers, but unfortunately, if you’ve seen the trailers, you’ve already seen everything good about this movie.
The music and style do a really good job of conveying the kind of movie director Matt Reeves was supposedly going for: in stark contrast to the Zack Snyder-style “smashing action figures together and pretending something meaningful is happening”-fare of recent memory, “The Batman” is offered as a psychological suspense thriller/crime drama in the same vein as “Se7en” or “Zodiac” or “Silence of the Lambs,” which is a great fit for Batman as a character. In the comic books, he is the reputed “World’s Greatest Detective,” which is an aspect rarely explored in the movies. Batman is a genius-level investigator, a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, who relies on his superior intellect to defeat his enemies as much as he does his athleticism and martial arts. Just like the protagonists in the aforementioned suspense thriller movies, he is often pitted against enemies whose intellectual powers rival his own, doing mental combat through high-stakes chess matches of clues and deductive puzzles, eventually outwitting the killers before their sinister machinations can play out.
Like I said, Matt Reeves does a tremendous job of conveying the kind of movie, and the kind of Batman, he’s going for (or wants us to think he’s going for).
Except, “The Batman” has none of the substance, internal logic or connective tissue of that kind of movie. It has all of the external packaging of that kind of movie, but inside, it’s a jumbled mess of pretensions, genre tropes and failed executions.
Batman never outsmarts the Riddler. He only finds the clues the Riddler specifically spoon-feeds to him, but then spends half the movie chasing down bogus leads resulting from his misreading of one of those clues, until the Riddler deliberately surrenders. Instead of the expected cat-and-mouse, “hero tracks down the killer”-progression of these kinds of movies, Batman is more of a mouse being led through a maze by the Riddler, despite all of the musical and narrative cues that tell us Batman is winning.
Batman never outsmarts the Riddler, because there’s nothing really there to outsmart. The audience is meant to think there’s something meaningful going on behind all the breadcrumb trails of clues, but there is no internal logic or broader meaning to any of it. It wasn’t like “Se7en,” for instance, where the underlying themes of his crimes gave them insight into the killer’s psychology, indicating clues to his identity and a puzzle to solve. Rather, the “clues” are nothing but empty plot devices meant to move the narrative along and get Batman into position for the next action sequence or car chase. It’s a story about a puzzle – in which the characters are shown exerting tremendous effort over each of the individual pieces – but there is no actual puzzle. There is nothing for the pieces to fit into. We are just told by the narrative that they are puzzle pieces, as the villain promises a grandiose and magnificently shocking revelation when that puzzle is finally assembled … but there is no puzzle to assemble, and so no big payoff in the form of that shocking revelation, apart from what we already knew when the movie started: Gotham City is full of corruption. Likewise, the narrative itself promises a John Doe/Hannibal Lecter/Zodiac Killer-level villain in the form of the Riddler, but instead, we get a cardboard cutout of such a villain. The Riddler is a bundle of tropes meant to be evocative of such a villain, but there is no substance inside.
So, instead of smashing action figures together and pretending something meaningful is happening, Matt Reeves just walks those action figures slowly through a scene with evocative mood music, and pretends something meaningful is happening. He tells us that “The Batman” is an intense and cerebral suspense thriller, and we have to take his word for that, because it’s never demonstrated.
Bruce Wayne? More like Bruce Woke! Amiright?
That isn’t to say that there was nothing meaningful going on.
Walking out of the theater, I remarked to my friend, “That wasn’t nearly as Woke as I thought it was going to be.”
The Wokeness to which I referred came from a couple of lines delivered by Zoe Kravitz’s Selina Kyle about Bruce Wayne’s “privilege” of being a rich white orphan, who got to grieve his parents’ murders from the luxury of a mansion, surrounded by wealth. It was such a callous and incongruous thing to say that I half-suspected in the moment that it might have been intended as a subtle repudiation of Woke ideology, considering the irony that she said it to Batman, who, of course, is Bruce Wayne sacrificing that very privilege and security on a nightly basis for the betterment of the city. If it wasn’t meant as a repudiation, it had the feel of having been inserted into the movie at the urging of some studio executive in the interest of checking off a box for virtue-signaling points, so I just shrugged it off as the obligatory Leftist pandering we’ve all come to expect from any movie in Current Year.
Upon reflection, though, “The Batman” was way more Woke than I thought it was going to be.
To put it in Woke terminology: taken as a whole, “The Batman” is about a privileged white man “doing the work,” so to speak, by coming to terms with his privilege and culpability for society’s problems by adopting a “kinder, gentler,” more Left-leaning approach to the “systems of corruption” in Gotham City.
It should be obvious to longtime fans of the character, if not to casual moviegoers, that there is virtually zero chance of ever seeing a faithful depiction of Batman on film in our current era, in which Hollywood views movies as little more than vehicles for reprogramming the unwashed masses with Leftist dogma.
The character of Batman, in his classic iteration, is the consummate conservative hero and the embodiment of everything the Left hates, so of course “The Batman” would have no purpose but to destroy and replace that classic iteration.
When Leftists speak in terms of “white privilege” and “wealth inequality” and the like, someone like Bruce Wayne is whom they have in mind. He’s a white man born into fantastic wealth who uses his power to fight crime, i.e., “underprivileged minorities.”
Yet, at the same time (paradoxically, unless you follow his backstory), he would fit perfectly as a hero in an Ayn Rand novel, because he is the consummate self-made individualist. He rises to heroic stature on his own terms, by his own merits, by serving his own values. Yes, he inherited his wealth, but he expands it and puts it to effective use only by disciplined application of his mind, as an inventor and an innovator, both in the Wayne Industries corporate headquarters and in the Batcave.
But he also crusades on behalf of the family values he learned from his parents. The loss of his family is the defining tragedy of his life, and he’s out to stop that from happening to anyone else. He is, in that regard, a champion of the nuclear family.
And, of course, he’s a cop, of sorts. He’s an ally of the police. He sets himself against corrupt authorities, but his crusade is to purify and preserve the system of policing itself, and he is himself a sort of “super cop,” which is signified by his classic black/blue-and-yellow coloring.
In other words, he embodies everything Woke ideology is out to destroy.
And, destroy him they do, in “The Batman.”
A Batman of Straw
Of course, they couldn’t depict Bruce Wayne/Batman as he is in the comics. They had to make subtle changes to justify the character arc they set forth for him.
There is a scene early in the film in which Alfred tells him that some accountants are coming to go over his finances. We don’t see that meeting with the accountants nor are we told what is amiss with Bruce’s finances – suffice to say that they are in disarray, because, apparently, Bruce has just been coasting on his inheritance.
And, nothing ever comes of this. Nothing about the current state of Bruce’s finances is mentioned again in the movie. It has no bearing on his pursuit of the Riddler or his exploits as the Batman. And, it has no further relevance to his life as Bruce Wayne, because in this movie, he has no life as Bruce Wayne, because there is virtually no separate identity. Andy Serkis’ Alfred makes a remark about “keeping up appearances,” but there is no indication that, apart from this off-screen appointment with some accountants, there is any actual public appearance to maintain. He comes up from the Batcave for air and the occasional change of clothes, but his only existence, as far as we can see in this movie, is as the Batman. Even in those rare instances in which he goes out in public in civilian clothes, he behaves no differently as Bruce Wayne than he does as Batman.
So why include this brief bit of dialogue about his finances?
This is, of course, to establish the fact that he has earned none of his wealth. He is nothing but the unwitting beneficiary of inherited privilege and the unjust “system of wealth inequality.”
This is reinforced later on when he encounters the soon-to-be-elected mayor, Bella Reál, who complains that he doesn’t return her calls and remarks that, while his parents were known for their philanthropy, as far as she can tell, he “isn’t doing anything” with his wealth to help the city, and this is something she would see corrected, “if I’m elected,” she says.
Of course, the audience knows that, as Batman, he is doing something with his wealth to help the city (at least, as far as he is concerned), but her point is otherwise treated as valid: we, as the audience, are meant to simply accept as perfectly evident that she has every right and obligation to call him to account for what he does with his wealth. It isn’t seen as intrusive or presumptuous or grasping in the least for her to chase him down to impose demands upon him for the proper use of his wealth, especially if she is elected mayor … for some reason that is never explained, but is simply taken for granted.
Her character is set in sharp distinction against the outgoing mayor and the network of other corrupt old white men who run Gotham and make it the cesspool of crime and graft that it is. Even Thomas Wayne, Bruce’s father, was established as a corrupt politician prior to his death, so that Bruce – at least by association – could be folded into and made a beneficiary of the general fabric of political corruption that characterized Gotham City.
Reál’s election is then treated as a turning point in the political history of Gotham – her moral authority is treated as genuine and deserved. It is never explained, exactly, why she is different than any of the corrupt politicians who preceded and surround her. No backstory is ever given, nor any explanation of where she came from or what makes her any better or any different. She just is.
Of course, the fact that she’s black has nothing to do with it. At least, not as far as the movie overtly indicates.
But now that I mention it, it just so happens that James Gordon – the one police officer Batman trusts, who hasn’t been corrupted – is also black. Jeffrey Wright is a great actor and he brings a gravitas and intensity that makes him perfect for the role, so I have no problem with this casting, on principle. I thought it was a pretty cool casting choice when it was announced.
Naturally, there is nothing overtly said in the movie about the comparative virtues of one race against the other, but once the distinction is noticed, it’s hard not to register the fact that all of the morally upright characters – the characters who offer the voices of conscience throughout the movie, happen to be black, while the rest of the characters – characters who are predominantly outright evil or at least tainted by corruption, to some degree, are white.
Of course, we’re not supposed to notice that, and we are absolutely not supposed to notice it out loud. It would be “racist” to notice and comment upon it.
But, I’m sure the filmmakers wouldn’t object if we just so happened to unconsciously internalize the idea that white people in power are corrupt and dangerous, while black people coming into power is a relief, and an automatic victory for goodness and virtue.
The character arc of this movie’s Bruce Wayne points toward his abdication of power and privilege, and most of all, policing. No, we don’t see him explicitly give up his wealth or property (I’ll place some bets on that for the sequel), but we do see him give up his crusade, at least in its standard form.
Throughout the movie, Bruce Wayne is set in parallel to the Riddler, both with their crazed journal-writing and operating out of some kind of cave, both depicted as recluses or “Incels,” both on a mission to confront and root-out the corruption of Gotham. Both were orphaned as children by violence. Both are driven by vengeance, and say so often.
The difference between them is that Bruce was “privileged,” and the Riddler was not, and Bruce’s character development is in recognizing this — the suggestion being that, but for the comforts of his privilege, Bruce would have turned out the same, and so he cannot rightly condemn the criminality of others who didn’t have his advantages.
In the end, we see Bruce make a gesture of self-sacrifice in order to lead the new mayor and her retinue to safety, and then he narrates about the wrongfulness of his form of policing: he shouldn’t be punishing the criminal underclass of Gotham, but actively helping the vulnerable instead.
Of course, this lesson would be moot for the character in his classic iteration, because he does both, and he has almost always done both, for virtually the entire history of the character since long before there was any discussion in the broader culture about “white privilege” or “wealth inequality.” But, to make their point about the evils of “white privilege” and “wealth inequality” and the like, they had to change the character in order to create a dichotomy where there previously was none. They had to recast Bruce Wayne into the role of their stereotypical “privileged white man” so that he could model what they demand of “privileged white people” in general, which is to “do the work” and abdicate our supposed institutional power.
In conclusion, “The Batman” was a bait-and-switch: it was made to resemble a psychological suspense thriller, but its actual substance was a subliminal parable of Leftist dogma.
I don’t automatically hate movies for being Woke … despite my principled hatred of Wokism itself. There are plenty of Woke movies and TV shows that I love, despite being Woke. I happen to love “Star Trek: Discovery,” and it’s the Wokest thing on TV – there was a storyline, for instance, in which they literally saved the universe through the power of gayness (not an exaggeration). But, “Discovery” is also extremely well-written, and I could watch Sonequa Martin-Green in anything.
So, I don’t automatically hate shows or movies if they’re Woke. I understand that art will always unavoidably reflect the values of the artists, whether they mean for it to or not, and it isn’t realistic or fair to expect them to keep their values out of their art (even if their values are misguided and repugnant). And, engaging with art is how we participate in the ongoing cultural conversation, and disengaging from the conversation isn’t an option for anyone who wants to influence the culture, or, at the very least, be aware of what’s happening in the culture.
But, there is a difference between art and outright propaganda, and “The Batman” leans more heavily toward the latter.
That’s not even the worst thing about it, though. Its primary transgression is just being so insufferably long and boring.