Writer and director Matt Reeves’ rendition of Batman in The Batman is imposing. His suit is hard, unforgiving. His cowl and the black paint beneath it imply a void underneath. Early in the film, as Batman circles the body of The Riddler’s (Paul Dano) first victim, the same cops that groan about inviting Gotham’s vigilante into official crime scenes take skittish, respectful steps back when he nears. Batman exists only in the auburn warmth of nighttime, shrouded in darkness that is illuminated only occasionally by the bright red of a flare, or the pulsing of a police car siren light, or the bright strobes of a nightclub.
The Batman’s rendition of Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) is morose, sunken inward. Bruce Wayne stalks about his outdated mansion in loose-fitting clothes and the streaky, sweaty remnants of the paint he smears along his eyes as Batman. Bruce Wayne blanches at sunlight and at the thought of seeing anyone outside his tiny circle of hired staff and confidantes. Bruce Wayne exists and suffers through the cold, bright, pale, clinical daytime.
The Batman is deeply curious about the ways that lived, personal experiences mold the way one responds to and defines notions of justice. Billionaire Bruce Wayne’s response to his parents’ murders is to enact complicated vigilante justice, to embrace the night, to use brute force on who he perceives as “the bad guys” to try and gain power and control over the powerlessness of his loss. His internal traumas, or “scars,” as he describes them, are reflected literally in the divots and slices we see collected across his back as he dresses.
But beyond that, the film is also interested in the ways in which these “scars” and their subsequent responses are part of us all. Bruce Wayne’s obsessive diving into vigilante justice and taking matters into his own hands stems from circumstance; from obsession, loss, immense resources, a hunger for control and for setting things right outside of traditional systems. In a different life, Bruce Wayne could have just as well had the outlook of his foe The Riddler, who, like Wayne, is an orphan displeased and obsessed with a corrupt city, but who was raised in an underfunded, loveless system and is now ready to take action into his own hands through murderous methods against those in traditional power. Or Wayne could have had the outlook of Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz) and her alter ego, Catwoman. Selina is willing to kill in the face of corruption and cruelty, unlike Batman, who refuses to employ guns or murder in his arsenal. Her involvement in criminal spaces through work – and, in a key plot point, by blood – plus her awareness that the disadvantaged often suffer under the hands of both the clear-cut “bad guys” and the powers-that-be that can be paid off to be puppeteered by the mob, make her less open to the idea of any “good” ultra-wealthy or ultra-powerful people existing. She often even suggests to Batman that they work on taking some CEOs and big shots out alongside their hunt for The Riddler.
The Batman seems comfortable sitting in the most basic, complicated truth of Batman as a character — that Bruce Wayne’s response to his trauma and the cruel world around him is a singular response among many, built around his own fears. We are all scarred individuals, we all learn what is right and what is wrong subjectively, through our own specific set of lived experiences.
Near the film’s end, Batman shows a rare moment of softness in his usually detached practice of crime-fighting and civilian-saving, as he holds a scared, injured person’s hand gently when they reach out in a panic. As he does so, his voiceover considers that perhaps surviving our internal scars gives us “the power to endure.” It’s not necessarily a happy, optimistic, or healed outlook, but it does encapsulate what makes Batman so fascinating as a cultural touchstone. Batman is not so much interested in doing what is universally right or wrong, nor does he seem capable of healing from his past, but is interested in enduring, in making something from the pain that is ultimately thrown at us all in systems that tend to fail us. And with that gentle physical touch, it seems Batman considers “enduring” as a practice that can take many forms, including maybe even collective compassion.
The Batman does not provide totally clear answers to the political and ideological. questions it raises about corruption, justice, and goodness (although that never really feels like the point of Batman in general), but it does what it needs to do, holding itself in a space between a gritty superhero mystery while also exploring the malleable and impossible nature of defining what is truly just. The film holds this balance well, and is a compelling and stylized exploration of what makes Batman such a distinctly captivating superhero.