I’ve spent the past few months leading up to The Batman’s release being annoyed at the cyclical “Batman discourse” hot takes that comes up every time someone wants to sound clever or original. You’ve definitely seen them–the ones that usually go “Oh, if Batman really wanted to stop crime in the city why doesn’t he use his massive wealth to fund social services?” Or the thinkpiece threads that use the character of Batman as a weirdly-literal jumping off point for debating serious issues around real life policing, poverty, inequality, or rich people’s savior complexes. These are valuable discussion subjects, but I personally can get pretty tired of them being framed through discussions about a fictional character who dresses up as a bat to punch bad guys of of all things. Despite my Batman fatigue, I was pleasantly surprised, after seeing the new movie with my brother, that I still do in fact have Very Strong Batman Opinions after all!
I am not exactly a Batman fan, but I have grown up reading a bunch of comics, both old classic Batmans and newer ones, and I’ve watched various Batman-related media at different times. I’ve also followed a lot of fanartists and fanwork involving Batman and various characters in the DC universe, and thus picked up on a variety of themes and depictions via osmosis. I’m aware that there is a rich and neverending fount of background lore discourse and nerd opinions in comics, but regardless of where I land on the pre-existing Batman opinions chart, I hope to express myself, my brain worms, and where they are coming from with as much truth and detail as I can.
Anyways, The Batman has stunning cinematography and music, but its elevated, sophisticated visuals and attempts at presenting more mature themes are still framed in a very juvenile manner. To those who might say “well duh, it’s Batman, from the kids cartoons. What did you expect?” I must clarify that I say “juvenile” in a descriptive, not necessarily derogatory manner. There are many excellent stories that employ an intentionally childlike or simplified point of view to explore serious themes from a more stylized perspective, or to depict a journey of learning and growth into a more mature world. The fantastical nature of a character like Batman and the wondrously expressionist setting of Gotham City has a lot of thematic richness that can, and has, fit many different types of stories, from fun bouncy cartoons for children and darker, more complex stories for adults. Because of this, it is not the juvenility on its own that frustrates me about The Batman, but rather how it wraps itself in some incredible cinematic visual and auditory language and surface-level complexity without having anything really substantial underneath to hold it up. Like a little kid trying to wear an oversized, quality designer coat, it’s not that there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with each individual element. However, without proper tailoring, the combination will inherently feel off.
Speaking of awkwardness and adolescence, Pattinson’s pasty, sweaty, depressed “emo boy” Bruce Wayne was something a lot of people poked fun at, but did so out of a place of affection and identification. This was an exploration of juvenility that I liked, since it shows where he is mentally, as well as setting up possibilities from where he can grow. Bruce’s character arc here is about him growing from being absorbed in his own dramatic emo coping mechanisms to having a more expansive, complex view of the world and his responsibility in it. This storyline is the heart of the movie, and one that once again, I really enjoyed, since it gave his character a lot of vulnerability and fallibility. However, this arc falls flat to me when that juvenile, simplistic portrayal extends beyond Bruce’s character and ends up still being applied the rest of the world outside of him as well.
This is partially made evident by the painfully bad dialogue, which at times made me wish I was watching a silent version of this movie with just the visuals and soundtrack. There are so many scenes where characters state obvious and redundant facts that can be clearly discerned from the visuals and music like a children’s cartoon, as well as scenes of “mystery solving” that I can only guess were meant to feel suspenseful and intriguing, but to me felt more as if someone had taken a scene from the 1966 goofy Adam West Batman movie but reskinned it with dark mysterious lighting and music. I know that the point of the Riddler in this adaption is that the contrast between his childish little puzzles and his dark serious murders is supposed to make him more creepy and unnerving, but the actual effect it gives is a bunch of hardboiled police officers sincerely asking Batman to figure out what amounts to popsicle stick brainteasers. This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, as there are plenty of mystery/secret agent/police procedural type stories that absolutely throw any semblance of realism out the window in favor of clarity and exaggerated characterization. But the thing that made the riddle scenes very annoying to me was that there was very little in the way of showing the characters’ thought process, which is usually the fun part about mysteries for the audience. Instead we are shown scenes where Batman looks at things and just knows the answer, and then runs with that, and the dramatic music and framing of the story acts like he’s Super Smart because of it. It sat in an uncomfortable place for me of not feeling stylized enough to feel like an organic part of the movie’s heightened reality, while also not feeling grounded enough to take seriously.
The other aspect that grinds my gears is the characterization of Catwoman. In this adaption, Selina seems like she is positioned to be the foil to Batman, in that while his approach to justice is somewhat simplistic and shielded, she has a greyer sense of morality due to the kinds of compromises needed to survive in a harsh world as someone not shielded by money and a tower the way Bruce is. Once again, I’m not a huge Batman nerd in terms of granular knowledge, but from what I’ve read of comics and seen in other media depictions, I always thought of Catwoman as being much more self-motivated, worldly, and sultry character, one who is always two steps ahead of Batman, someone who he disagrees with, but whose independence he grudgingly respects, the Irene Adler to his Sherlock Holmes. However, this adaption runs with a much more naive, innocent, justice-motivated Selina, which in execution felt very odd to me and ended up really taking away the more interesting edge to her character. When we do see her doing an typical Catwoman heist, it’s for altruistic reasons. She reluctantly acts a bit flirty with a corrupt politician to get information for Batman, but her signature skillful sultriness felt like it was incredibly restrained, so much that even the scenes where she was supposed to be flirty with Batman, it felt weirdly half-assed and not as intentional, playful, or intimidating as it could have been. This is frustrating to me because it seemed like an incredible lost opportunity to emphasize the difference between Bruce and Selina’s characters, as Selina being a character who casually is able to manipulate sexuality and social awareness to her advantage contrasts with Bruce’s morose awkwardness. Also, to be perfectly honest, when Batman got mad at her and was confronting her on the roof about “What did you have to do” to get money or whatever from Falcone, I almost laughed because it seemed like a very naive and also unnecessarily moralizing question on Batman’s part. I had assumed that she had dated him temporarily or slept with him or something similarly difficult, but understandable, and that she was going to scold him for judging people’s (esp women’s) decisions in such a childish way. That would have been an interesting moment of Bruce having to encounter a moment of maturity and complex moral decisions very much outside of his realm of understanding, and also display how different their worlds are. But instead she drops the bombshell that he’s her father (which also initially, made me even MORE hmmmmm given the sensual way he touched her face in the previous scene) and it feels like the story once again took an easy way out, framing her less as someone making hard but understandable decisions and more as an innocent girl who happens to be in an unfortunate situation.
If the story of The Batman is about Bruce Wayne breaking out of his indulgent point of view and realizing his limitations, a more complex Catwoman would have been a perfect challenger, but instead she was incredibly nerfed. It’s another example of the “juvenile” approach I mentioned earlier, since her revealing that Falcone is her father does make him feel bad for yelling at her, but it doesn’t serve to challenge either Bruce or the audience in any significant way. Instead of expanding Bruce’s perspective, her troubles are framed in such a way that he can already relate to them because it’s something familiar to him (i.e. father issues) that he can easily fit into his already existing justice framework, without being challenged by the sheer brief mention of more “adult” themes and dynamics. This drives me crazy not just because of the whole “everyone is beautiful and no one is horny” phenomenon of modern blockbusters which has already been written about, but because Catwoman is a character who was initially modeled after the femme fatales of the 30s and 40s, who were able to emanate incredible personality, intriguing sexual perilousness and desire despite being restrained by both the appropriateness guidelines of the Hayes Code and the sexist expectations for women of the era. It’s really a shame because Zoë Kravitz did give a very good performance for the type of character she was written as, but it seems like the creators thought that this Catwoman could only be accepted as a sympathetic and vulnerable female character if they erased any real room for complexity, darkness or overt sexuality in her actions.
While on the subject of women and their portrayals, I cannot get around how the main inciting incident of this movie involved the coverup of a woman’s abuse and murder. This was something I hadn’t initially wanted to write about, but I the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it is one of the things that did leave a bad taste for me, not because I’m opposed to the existence or exploration of such themes in fiction (just read the rest of my blog lol) but because the use of it here felt very cheap and not actually explored at all. Annika serves as motivation for the mystery, and in a way represents the victims of corruption that supposedly are being championed. But throughout the story there is very little connection that we the audience have with her. Selina fights and robs for her, and Selina’s care for Annika is initially what causes conflict between her and Batman when they are trying to do investigations, but to me it felt like Annika felt incredibly more buried and sidelined as the movie went on. Annika’s whole plight is the element of the movie that felt the most uncomfortably real, at least to me–a lot of vulnerability is implied with her character, as a foreign worker blackmailed into giving up her passport and heavily implied to have endured a lot more abuse at the hostile systems at play. However, to bring up these incredibly complex and painful experiences for the plot only to just kind of….forget all about it, and not follow through on it, makes me wonder why even bother bringing it up in the first place. It feels like the story wanted to touch upon the Important Serious Issue to show that this is an Important Serious Story, but backed away because to think too hard or in depth about it would be too depressing and ruin the momentum of the fun narrative we already have. Overall, the storyline felt misplaced and a little exploitative to me, even with Selina there to be Annika’s supposed advocate.
Batman is shielded again in the narrative from having to emotionally confront the world after he learns about Thomas Wayne’s corruption. When he confronts Alfred, angry that Alfred lied to him about his father, Alfred immediately diffuses it with reassurance “Oh no, your father was a good man actually, he just needed to make a tough decision and didn’t mean to do a bad thing” and redirects the blame of the bad actions once again onto Falcone, once again the Real Bad Guy. Another wasted opportunity for emotional development right there, as that moment could have been used as more complex characterization for Alfred as well, but instead his words are completely taken on their surface level meaning. In an interesting way I feel like this scene had a lot of what I think a good synthesis of “Dark- Mature presentation” and “childlike perspective” would entail–It’s the part of the movie that suddenly becomes very Gothic Novel, what with Thomas Wayne being all “No one must know… my wife is a HYSTERIC” and the imagery of abandoned orphanages, brooding princes in towers, choirboys, mysterious asylums, criminal organizations… it’s very weirdly anachronistic, but also has a very distinct dramatic flavor that is very Batman, and I (my own taste, not quality evaluation) really think it should’ve leaned more into that! It’s fantastical while also being dark and also fitting into that childish stylization. The whole thing also about Martha Wayne was woefully unexplored too, since her whole Shameful Deal of needing Mental Illness Treatment was completely glossed over to focus on the character of Thomas Wayne’s decisions. (on another personal note: What is up with the majority of western media and not exploring the extremely spicy concept of maternal inheritance for sons??? At least we have Dune for that, but maternal inheritance can vastly freshen up any storyline, but that’s just me.).
And then immediately after that it pivots away from being a gothic novel and back to trying to make us believe this is a believable way police and city council acts. The cringiest moment for me was when they arrest Falcone there’s that Heroic Police™ shot where Commissioner Gordon is like “Look at all these OTHER uncorrupt police that we have who are willing to arrest you!” a scene that, even aside from feeling like regular triumphalistic copaganda, didn’t even feel very built up to and only really served as a smug feel good moment for Batman & Co. before quickly moving on to the next plot point.
Regarding the Riddler’s whole deal since I’ll admit that even as a kid, I thought the Riddler was the most boring and pointless Batman villain since I never understood his deal, and I’m already predisposed to just accept that Superhero Villains Representing Real Life Social Issues will inevitably be painfully superficial, if not outright propagandistic. I will say that I did very much enjoy Paul Dano’s geeky “I’m just a little guy” look and found the fact that they made him a mix of streamer (with a whopping 507 followers!) and lefttube conspiracy theorist. Not that those surface elements really led to any real thematic meaning aside from him Explaining Privilege 101™ to Batman, but that and his cutesy one-sided “omg notice me Batman-sempai” vibes did get a chuckle out of me, so points for moe, I guess. If villains are to be annoyingly facile in their politics, then at the very least they can be amusing or entertaining to watch, and he certainly managed to satisfy that.
The thing about this Juvenile approach that specifically bothers me is that it almost, just almost, feels self aware at times. In a way wanted to hope that the childishness was leading up to the big twist, which seemed to be that the Riddler is messing with Batman by giving him basically the equivalent of baby enrichment puzzles to make him feel better about himself while also trying to point out the hypocrisy of elected officials. At first, I thought this was an interesting acknowledgement of Batman’s childishness, and the thing that would help lead him to making a realization and character shift. Oh shit! Maybe Batman isn’t as clever and smart as his chuunibyou self would think just because he has cool technology and emo bangs and can figure out popsicle stick brain teasers! Maybe he does have a limited perspective due to his background that made him chase down the wrong clues due to the allure of the easy solutions of baby enrichment puzzles. But like everything else, it all kind of comes down to a big load of…nothing. No one came across as particularly smart or clever in this movie despite it wanting us to, not even by the standards of “puzzle of the week” kids media.
As mentioned before, this isn’t to say that Batman NEEDS to be either super realistic or super cartoony to succeed, but just that when a story introduces specific elements, it needs to know how to synthesize them to create a cohesive outcome! Its certainly true that if I wanted to watch a more complex, adult story about political corruption and people’s responses I could go watch idk, El Reino or watch a depressing documentary or something, rather than demanding something meant to be fantasy like Batman deliver all the realistic nuance and angles. God knows we have enough “cheeky superhero deconstruction” media to choose from in 2022. But even stylized and fantastically-presented stories can have a sense of balance and in their mature characterization and story framing, while still leaning into the aspects that make it classic and cool, for fans and newbies alike. Instead so much of the convolutedness of the background political things, along with the aforementioned cheap and shallow usage of the woman in peril storyline, ironically did not serve to make The Batman feel more “mature,” but just felt like a jumbled obfuscatuon of narrative priorities.
I struggle with framing this critique both because I feel like if you criticize why its world logic doesn’t make sense, the response is “Well it’s Batman, he’s a cartoon character superhero for children, you can’t expect realism from it!” but if you criticize that it doesn’t feel stylized or fantastical enough, the response will be “No, it’s supposed to be a Deep and Gritty interpretation, it’s not cartoon batman for Kids.” Except this movie ended up feeling annoyingly indecisive regarding what it wanted to accomplish and that lack of commitment is I believe what leads to it’s feeling childish overall. It teeters Batman on a precipice, unsure of how to balance the hopeful, fantastical connection with the beloved character with the seeming desire to tell a more mature and darker story that touches upon themes of frustration and inequality. But perhaps I’m also, like Batman, looking in the wrong direction, and that’s a narrative riddle that was never meant to be solved by a mainstream story of beloved IP after all.