‘The Batman’ is great; its take on policing is not
There can be a thin line between hero and villain. Unfortunately, the latest from DC Films fails to grapple with these complicated issues.
I’ve been a Batman fan all my life. When I was a kid, I used to watch reruns of the 1960s Adam West show on The Family Channel. Then I’d watch the still-great animated series and, like everyone else, consume all of the movies as they came out — yes, even the one with Arnold Schwarzenegger making weird “ice” puns. I’m also a huge comic book fan and gobbled up all of the Batman books I could find, from Frank Miller’s influential, gritty take on The Dark Knight Returns to Grant Morrison’s depiction of the unflappable calculating mastermind who could take down Superman.
But in recent years, as I’ve learned more about policing, jails, vigilantism and, quite frankly, rich white folks in America, I’ve found myself becoming more disenchanted with the idea of a masked man who beats up poor and mentally ill people, tosses them in jail and sits on billions of dollars that could be used to reshape the communities he patrols. With this in mind, DC Films’ latest, The Batman, left me torn between my nostalgic excitement over the movie’s release, and my growing disdain for what the character represents.
Unfortunately, the movie didn’t assuage my concerns. While it is a great Batman movie, even in the running to be the best ever, it still tries and fails to make cogent points about the character’s role as a law enforcer and enters into the territory of being downright police propaganda, in spite of trying to present itself as the opposite.
The Batman is the best, most accurate and complex representation of the Caped Crusader we’ve seen on film. (He’s actually doing detective work!) Director Matt Reeves and star Robert Pattinson deliver a young, conflicted Bruce Wayne who’s dead set on vengeance, but without any consideration for the gray areas that cause people to break the law. At the beginning of the film, Batman is ambivalent about a sex worker’s slaying because he believes she shouldn’t have gotten involved with criminals in the first place. Catwoman (played by Zoë Kravitz, who had everyone in the theater trying to maintain their composure every time she was on the screen) helps Batman understand that crime is more about circumstance than he’d previously believed. Alfred (played by Andy Serkis) also acts as a conscience, of course, pushing Wayne to be more intentional with his money instead of letting it go to waste while he puts on a costume and tries to fix the city, one lowly pickpocket at a time.
By the end of the film, Batman does evolve into a more understanding version of the crime fighter we’ve come to know. He realizes his vengeful version of vigilantism will only inspire more dangerous white guys to take the law into their own hands. He also seems to recognize the futility of fighting crime alone without the help of structural change. However, just when we appear to be reaching a new Batman status quo — one in which he knows that people, even criminals, are complex beings — the movie walks it back just enough to let us know he’ll still be out there punching teenagers in the face.
For example, in Gotham’s most desperate time — after the city has been flooded, countless lives have been lost and helicopters are lifting people to safety off of the Gotham Square Garden rooftop, à la Hurricane Katrina — Batman still takes time to note that he has to stop the city from being overrun with “looters.” It’s another reminder that Batman is going to spend time “fighting crime” even as so many of the alleged criminals are people scavenging for what they need to survive.
The Batman’s inability to discern what constitutes a criminal the titular character needs to stop is also manifested in the way the movie tries to contort itself into making The Riddler into an actual villain. Riddler’s plan, for instance, revolved around exposing a city full of corrupt police officers, lawyers and politicians who were draining money from a program intended to help the city’s most vulnerable. For the film’s first two hours, Riddler (played by Paul Dano) only targeted those directly involved in the conspiracy. As his plan unfolded, it became clear that the entire Gotham political structure was built on corruption and harming the people who needed the most resources. The movie explicitly says the police force is on a mobster’s payroll, and the political system is broken. To drive this point home even further, protesters in Gotham proclaim they don’t want more police in the city (reminiscent of real-life calls from some activists to defund the police) and are justified in their rebuke of the city’s power structure.
Yet the movie again walks back its message of highlighting systematic corruption by going to great lengths to show that not all police are crooked, just most of them. And yet, we’re still supposed to somehow root for the few good apples while ignoring the bad.
In The Batman, Riddler’s plan also suffers from a common conundrum superhero movies struggle to work through: the realization that the bad guy was right and the fear of what that means. Riddler saw a city built on corruption and victimization, where mayors, police and prosecutors did the bidding of the most ruthless killers in Gotham and sought to erase the forces who worked within an unjust system to ruin so many lives. But superhero movies can’t let the villains be right, so Riddler’s final plan was to kill innocent people, which went against everything he’d stated as his goal leading up to that moment. And the explanation offered for this murderous turn doesn’t quite hold up. It’s a recurring issue with villains in superhero properties. They commit crimes that contradict their messaging just so audiences are given reason to root against them. (Think Erik Killmonger in Black Panther, or Karli Morgenthau in The Falcon And The Winter Soldier, who was turned into a ruthless terrorist just to make her a villain.) This kind of messaging also sends a clear signal that dismantling oppressive systems is something that bad people do, as opposed to the “good” cops who make menial gestures toward justice while upholding injustice.
It’s all so hollow, but nothing is more performative than the movie’s virtue signaling by way of the Black female mayor, Bella Reál (Jayme Lawson), who has no character traits beyond being the voice of big, bold-letter social justice jargon. She only appears on camera to remind everyone of their duty to the citizens of Gotham before catching a sniper bullet for her trouble. If there’s one example of The Batman wanting to appear as if it’s saying something without actually saying anything, it’s Mayor Reál’s mismanaged character.
All these years later, I’m still conflicted about my overall Batman fandom. The movie was indeed true to a character I loved for decades, and if I turn off the part of my brain that makes me write 1,000 words about the justice system, then I find myself loving the newest depiction of the Caped Crusader. But I still find myself at odds with what that character represents. It’s not him; it’s me.
At least The Batman tries to reckon with these complications when it didn’t have to — the film could have easily raked in hundreds of millions of bucks by giving us the uncomplicated crime fighter who punches goons like we’re used to. But if Reeves and the film’s creative team are going to try to offer a meaningful evolution of the character, they’ll need to do more than touch on token social justice talking points and really figure out what they want to say about what makes a criminal, and what makes a hero.