Matt Reeves’ version of Batman feels as distinct from Christopher Nolan as Nolan himself felt distinct from Tim Burton. While the story is quite familiar from previous Batman narratives, featuring the superhero himself, played by Robert Pattinson, along with Catwoman (Zoe Kravitz) and the Riddler (Paul Dano), the mood and atmosphere signals this as a new stage in the franchise. In 2022, it’s no longer possible to romanticise billionaires, let alone envisage them as the beating heart of a healthy city, so Reeves quickly eschews any sense that Gotham is capable of being restored by the Wayne family fortune. To that end, he opens with a Gotham that is heavily indebted to David Fincher, both in terms of the Se7en-like industrial grime, and the Zodiac-quality of this new incarnation of the Riddler. During the first act, this plays more like horror than a regular superhero film, often recalling the Saw franchise, and torture porn more generally, as the Riddler subjects his victims to a serious of painful deaths.
At the same time, Reeves largely eschews the panoptic vision that we normally associate with superheroes. In the wake of September 11, it was common for superheroes to plant themselves on top of buildings, and calmly take in the urban terrain – or at least dodge and weave their way through collapsing buildings to come out unscathed. 2001 is a long time ago, but The Batman makes you realise how pervasively that consolatory fantasy of the panoptic superhero has lingered into the present moment, due to how emphatically Reeves reverses it. While the Batman light still shines in the night sky, and frightens criminals, it doesn’t seem able to galvanise Batman himself into the same aerial omniscience. We only see him fly once, and even then his trajectory is marked by weakness. He hesitates on the precipice of an enormous skyscraper, as if terrified by falling, and then doesn’t time the landing properly, misdjudging the space between a bus and a footbridge. In an earlier film this would have been a good pretext to flex his dexterity (and CGI), but now it all ends with a bone-crunching thud.
In that sense, it’s appropriate that The Batman draws on torture porn, a genre that stood at the other end of the spectrum from superhero films in the early 2000s. Where superhero films were optimistic about America’s ability to reclaim the world order, torture porn was haunted by what America had to do to stay in control. Superhero films presented saviours, torture porn reminded us that those figures were based in in bloodshed. While it’s nominally dressed up as a superhero film, The Batman has much more in common with the reflexive impotence and morbid pessimism of torture porn, even if it’s not quite as violent. Instead, Reeves focuses on the cityscapes implicit in the background of torture porn, the same cityscapes that have come to dominate “late” renditions of the genre such as Spiral, which continues the “Book of Saw” by transforming the franchise into an urban crime procedural.
To some extent, this lurid cityscape is a gesture of impotence in itself – a concession that cities have become more inequitable, but also more boring, since the last round of Batman films. Going further back, Gotham City was once a warning about what New York might become in the future if inequality was allowed to continue unchecked. Now, from the perspective of the gentrified 2020s, Gotham feels like a fantasy, an unachievable vision of a city with real character, a city where corruption is visible and tangible, rather than subsumed into bland gentrified civility. In order to evoke that fantasy, Reeves, like other recent DC directors, reaches back to the grime of New Hollywood New York, longing for the dystopian future that directors of the 70s warned us would come. None of those directors could have imagined a New York so bland and neoliberalised that it seems to repel cinema itself, and yet that’s just what has come to pass, turning the recent DC universe into an argument (or delusion) that cinema is still commensurate to the urban corruption at the core of the superhero worldview.
This creates an unusual vision in The Batman. On the one hand, there’s less effort than in any previous Batman film to hide the fact that we’re in New York. We hear about Gotham Square and Gotham Square Garden, while Reeves anchors his shots in familiar tourist attractions. On the other hand, Reeves packs the city so full of grime that he simultaneously obscures the New York we know, as if attempting to bury it beneath the weight of its urban decayed past. That makes the central plot point, the failure and corruption of a “Renewal Program,” strangely designified, since while it’s ostensibly a problem that urban renewal is stalled, the film is also deeply sceptical of the rhetoric of renewal as a mechanism that absorbs corruption back into an illusion of urban harmony, and so removes it from the field of cinematic critique.
Rather than being driven by plot per se, then, The Batman is obsessed with this schizoid urban field, at once more transparently and more opaquely New York than any previous rendition. To that end, Reeves coats his mise-en-scene with the tactile inkiness of noir, reminding you, in the most visceral way, that noir was about using darkness as a form of disorientation. In the opening scenes, Batman observes that “two years of night have turned me into a nocturnal criminal,” and that while his pursuers “think I’m hiding in the shadows…I am the shadows.” True to that vision, many of the shots are almost impossible to make out, cloaked with so much obscurity and opacity that the film really demands to be seen in a very large dark theatre to give your eyes time to adjust (and even then it requires the full three hours).
That suffocating darkness means it’s almost impossible to see, let alone read, faces in the film. Both the Riddler and Batman wear masks, but it’s hard to see even those, while the Riddler’s modus operandi involves destroying, disfiguring or defacing heads, whether by wrapping them in tape, exploding them, or setting starved rats upon them. The result is a profoundly defacefied film, which decentres any clear point of identification with both Batman and the Riddler, instead setting us adrift in the connective urban tissue between them. That tissue never brightens either, since we don’t see direct daylight once in the film. When we see vivid artificial light, it’s abrasive, whether in the cold neon of Gotham Square, the laser stabs at a local nightclub, or a sublime fight sequence in which strobe lights segue into machine gun fire. Pattinson’s pallid skin is just as incongruous, far more vampiric than Twilight, as Reeves equates whiteness with a sickness, prey to a pathological darkness that is always closing in.
As in Joker, that minoritised whiteness produces a profoundly depressive tone, except that even Joker’s flamboyant terror is now restrained into three hours of sombre sotto voce delivery. Batman’s first monologue ends with him observing that “I can’t change things here, I can’t have an effect, I don’t care what happens to me,” while his first conversation with Alfred, played by Andy Serkis, ends with a similarly blunt pronouncement: “You’re not my father.” The Riddler’s crimes occur on the 20-year anniversary of the Wayne murders, but in a way that tends to eclipse Batman’s backstory, rather than enhance it. It’s no coincidence that the most emphatic use of “the Batman” as a new designation in the franchise also occurs as a gesture of exhaustion: “Maybe all of this is coming to an end.” “What is?” “The Batman.”
That darkness and depressive tone would be enough to set The Batman apart from previous incarnations. But Reeves takes a further step in robbing Batman of his superhero omniscience. Along with the inky tones, most of the film involves occluded and refracted perspectives, vantage points that play out at three or four removes from the action as it unfolds. In the incredible opening scene, we watch the Riddler as he watches a city councillor through a pair of binoculars and a rain-soaked window, and that double distance sets the stage for the film as a whole. Even when the action is ostensibly right in front of us, Reeves shoots it as if we are observing through a rainy window and a remote surveillance device, making many of the shots remarkably difficult to parse even when the pitch-black palette momentarily lets up.
To some extent, this captures the shift in technology more broadly since Nolan’s films. While Nolan was shooting during an era of widespread social media, our lives have become infinitely more networked in the last decade. Being omniscient, in 2022, is inextricable from being fully networked, and yet being networked also undercuts the singularity of omniscience. Just as Batman is unable to extricate himself from the Riddler, he’s unable to extricate himself from digital media, which is in turn collapsed into the connective urban tissue of Gotham. Unlike Burton and Nolan, Reeves is relatively uninterested in stand-alone devices like the Batmobile or spaces like the Batcave (both only make a single appearance) and focuses on prosthetic devices that blend superhero and digital perception. After the opening scene, Batman returns home, and removes a contact lens camera, admitting that he often can’t remember his escapades without this device, since “the night all rolls together in a rush, behind the mask.”
While it’s just conceivable that Nolan’s Batman might have worn a surveillance device, it was unthinkable that he would need the device to remember the evening he’d just experienced. Reeves’ Batman is alienated from his own memory, and his own subjectivity, in a new way. There’s no meaningful difference between the memory he collates from the contact lenses when they’re in his eyes and when they’re in Catwoman’s eyes, just as there’s no real difference between watching the footage retrospectively and watching it “live” through Catwoman’s eyes (or his own). That kind of embodied duration belongs to an earlier era, light years away from the overwhelming data field that Batman can never quite glimpse or process in real time. He feels suspended between a gamer and avatar, neither fully embodied nor virtual, generating a series of forensic objects that split the difference between the body and its digital augmentations – most gruesomely a literal thumb-drive in which the thumb of one of the Riddler’s victims is attached to a USB with clues to when and where he will strike next.
In other words, Reeves envisages a post-perceptual Batman who is unable to command the city, his villains or his virtual self, but instead finds himself suspended between them and his own ego ideal. More than any previous version, this Batman is inextricable, immanent, liable to disappear into the murky blackness of the film (or emerge out of it without any notice). Again, this reflects a political shift from Nolan’s films, which were preoccupied by the threat of an external terrorist attack, to an era where domestic terrorism is the real danger facing most Americans. Nolan’s genius lay in trying to rival the spectacle of international terrorism, specifically the sublimity of September 11, but that gesture is deflated when terrorism is coming from within. In place of The Dark Knight’s extraordinary set pieces, Reeves present us with mise-en-scenes that never quite materialise, and a reflexive defeatism that fragments any grand sense of spectacle back into a depressive murk that cannot quite constitute itself.
Since this murk is essentially formless, it tends to undercut the second half of the film, resulting in scenes that go nowhere or (worse) a recourse to the more generic beats of the Batman universe, which are all the more anticlimactic in that this universe appears to have dissolved during the first act. Up to a point, this works well to evoke the nebulous zone between Batman and the Riddler, which operates precisely by collapsing urban and digital space in ways that rob Batman of his former omniscience. We learn that the Riddler started by espousing an incel-like persona on a 4chan-like site, garnering enough fans to harden him into a vigiliante determined to bring down City Hall, specifically its corrupt connections to the Wayne family fortune. Batman’s inability to navigate this same digital field stems from his inability to differentiate himself, as a superhero who announces himself “for vengeance” in the opening scene, from a mad vigilante whose quest for justice centres on the Wayne name.
At the best moments, it feels like the Riddler, rather than Batman, is the real protagonist – or that the two will become one, and Gotham will reach its apotheosis, when the Riddler achieves his dream of taking off their masks at the same time. It’s an anticlimax, then, when only the Riddler takes off his mask, since this turns him into a more regular antagonist, and allows Batman to relax a little from having to envisage him as his own alter-ego. Yet the fear of domestic terrorism never goes away, even as it can no longer be processed by the superhero genre, resulting in a bizarre conclusion in which a random shooter appears at a critical moment to shape the entire climax. It’s as if Reeves can’t fit Batman and a domestic terrorist in the same film, but also recognises that domestic terrorism is what America needs saving from in the present, which makes it an urgent imperative for a superhero film as well.
The film thus ends at the horizon of what the superhero film can do, both in the past and in the future. Batman, Reeves suggests, was unable to rival the spectacle of international terrorism that drove September 11, and is equally unable to stave off the new threat of domestic terrorism. Even worse, Batman may be precisely the problem, given how enmeshed the Wayne fortune seems to be with global corruption, and the disarming continuities between Batman and the Riddler’s vigilante projects. The final note of The Batman is such profound finitude that it conjures up the threat to America that most defies superheroes – climate change. While much of The Dark Knight took place on Gotham Harbour, there was no sense that the harbour was itself a threat. Fifteen years later, ocean levels have risen, a wall has been constructed, and the city is well below sea level. The Riddler’s final plan is to bomb these walls, and thereby gather Katrina and Sandy into an act of total environmental catastrophe, and in the end there’s only so much that Batman can actually do to stop him. Terrorism segues into climate change, and Gothamites shelter in a flooded superdome, where they wait in vain for Batman to restore a nation that has already passed the point of no return.