The Dork Knight Rises

The recent Batman adaptation makes braver decisions than any other Batman film to come out in my adulthood (with the possible exception of Lego Batman. But that bravery doesn’t come from its increased darkness, but it’s increased dorkiness.

I recently saw The Batman, and enjoyed it more than I thought I would. By and large, I’ve avoided DC’s cinematic offerings, as they continue to yes-and each other towards the apex of bleakness. But a friend of mine, whose cinematic opinions I always heed even I don’t always share, said that the movie was amazing. So on his recommendation, I settled down for an evening to watch Robert Pattinson as the Caped Crusader. I have enjoyed other Batman films more. Regardless, I find The Batman to be an exceptional examination of the Batman myth, which succeeds in a lot of the ways that Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises failed.

A Unified Theory of Batman

Setting aside The Batman as an outlier for a moment, what would you say is true of Batman in every film and TV show about him? Let’s get some of the obvious stuff out of the way:

  • Billionaire
  • Dead parents (I can’t not hear this in Will Arnett’s voice)
  • Dresses as bat
  • Fights crime

But let’s strip away narrative details such as those, and focus on stylistics. Is there anything, beyond those identifiers, which can include equally Christian Bale, Adam West, Michael Keaton, the One True Batman Kevin Conroy, and all the rest? Beyond the baseline narrative markers, is there anything that can apply equally to the musclebound Batman chasing the Scarecrow in an urban tank and the rakish Batman dancing the Batusi?

I would argue that one trait has always held: it has always been cool to be Batman. Yes, the definition of cool may shift from era to era. And as we see with Schumacher, some have tried too hard to be cool. But Batmanliness is always an aspiration. Maybe Batman is cool because he’s a brilliant detective who works outside the system. Maybe he’s cool because he has a gadget to solve every problem. Maybe he’s cool because he’s the perfect ninja. But whatever the methods and aesthetic of the individual Batman, his coolness is always an assumed precondition. Even when Batman himself is a whiny little shit, like Will Arnett in Lego Batman, the persona is widely loved and adored in Gotham at large. (So, even when Batman himself isn’t cool, it remains cool to be Batman.) But aside from popularity, Batman’s coolness manifests in confidence, competence, and capability.

Batman is always equal to every challenge he faces. Yes, Bane may break his back and toss him in a hole, but that’s only to allow Batman to become even more cool by triumphing in spite of that. Yes, he may have a momentary crisis of faith in the second act, but that’s only so he can come back stronger and Batman the badguys even harder!1 But perhaps more important than the physical competencies the simple, persistent truth that Batman gets to be right about things. This is key, because “who gets to be right within the narrative?” is the question that can most reliably point us to a narrative’s moral positioning, and in turn, its moralizing expectations.

Whom do we trust within each Batman story? It depends on whom Batman trusts: Alfred, Dick Grayson, Lucius Fox, etc. Whom do we like? First see whom Batman likes. Oddly enough, you can see this most clearly the Adam West Batman series. The aesthetic of the whole show is clownish and frivolous. But some of these clowns–the Joker, the Riddler, Batman himself–we are meant to take seriously. Is there anyone among the comical figures we are supposed to dismiss as purley comical? Maybe Aunt Harriet: she doesn’t know his secret identity, but is neither a threat to be taken seriously nor (like Commissioner Gordon) an ally who reliably aids the work of Batman. Neither villain nor accomplice, she exists entirely to be duped.2 Perpetually deluded, she is the only clown in a world where half the people wear facepaint. Our relationships with the characters, our Gotham-centered worldview, our acceptance of vigilantism and of violence, all are predicated by an incredibly cool Batman who likes those things and gives us permission to like them.3

This to me is what makes The Batman exceptional. It’s not the different look, or the much vaunted “darkness.” The exception behind The Batman is that it does the previously unthinkable: it gives us an uncool Batman.

The Creep Crusader (spoilers for 2022’s The Batman)

Robert Pattinson’s Batman is weird, but not in the charming way of Michael Keaton. He’s brooding, but lacks the awareness of Kevin Conroy. Robert Pattinson’s Batman is an internet weirdo. The only reason anybody pays any attention to Bruce Wayne is because of his money–and even that is slipping away from him as his Batmanning drains away both his corporate resources and cultural capital.

And this Batman is not beloved. A man he saves from gang violence makes no distinction between him and the costumed thugs who were about to beat him. Batman isn’t winning hearts and minds. Granted, the ending of The Dark Knight plays into the same dynamic, but in those movies we still had a Batman who was wise and apt, even though he was hated. He still gets to hold on to some shifting definition of coolness, just as Will Arnett’s Batman can hold onto to large public esteem in spite of having the charm of microwaved fish.

Pattinson’s Batman is wrong about things. He’s completely incapable of outthinking the Riddler, playing right into his hands by serving the Riddler his most important victim on a silver platter. He doesn’t even guess at the network of bombs ringing the city, and certainly is able to divert their detonation and the massive, permanent alteration of Gotham as we know it.

Other Batmen (Batmans?) have erred, but only because they’d been momentarily tricked by a devious mastermind. Pattinson’s Batman is different: he’s shortsighted. When he discovers a note by the Riddler that says, in essence, “You are a rat with wings,” he immediately interprets this to mean “pigeon” (as in the mafia stoolpigeon at the heart of the movie’s mystery), and later to mean “penguin” (as in The Penguin, here played by Colin Farrell).4 In short, he uses the full range of his acrobatic training to avoid reading that as a reference to a bat. It’s not even that subtle or oblique of a reference–likely half the audience is in their seats shouting at the screen “He’s talking about you, chucklehead!” But Batman can’t see it, because as keen a detective as he is, he always thinks he’s something apart from the system he interacts with,5 and the viewer is in the incredibly rare position of knowing more than him.

His shortsightedness relates to more than just narrative reveals–he has an inaccurate perception of how the world operates. When guiding Selina Kyle through a dangerous club with a hidden camera, there’s a part where Selina briefly catches sight of a Gotham official. It’s long enough a glance that Bruce can tell he’s someone to pay attention to, but not so long for his facial recognition software to positively identify him in real time. So he pressures her to go get a longer look at him. I should point out that the hidden camera is a pair of special contact lenses–the viewfinder is her eyeline. This means getting the shot isn’t just a matter of angling a lens surreptitiously in his direction–she has to maintain eye contact with this guy in a club while dressed as one of its “hostesses.” For Batman, it’s just “I need the footage” (and for that matter, since he’s recording all this, he could just as easily run the facial recognition on a screenshot). But Selina knows the effect of returning to eye contact will have as a woman in that setting. She warns Batman, is ignored, and the complications she warns of arise.

She was right. He wasn’t. Just as she is right about income disparity in Gotham–an argument Batman can’t begin to understand. We’ve had a similar move in the past: In The Dark Knight Rises, the Gotham riff-raff take over the high-dollar estates. “This was someone’s home,” says Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman, as she walks through a spacious mansion. “Now it’s a lot of people’s home,” responds her friend. But we can’t take this seriously. When our Batman is always right, we know that if he doesn’t have any moral qualms about being a billionaire, there must be nothing qualmable. But when we have an intensely fallible, shortsighted, and thoroughly uncool Batman, we can have the same conversation and actually engage with its substance. Kravitz’s Selina Kyle gets to have a point, instead of setting up a foolish strawman.

He’s wrong about other things as well: He seems to think he’s the only one who has ever known grief. He doesn’t realize he’s not even the only one broken by the death of his parents. He doesn’t see Alfred, even as he raises him. He doesn’t see how delighted Alfred is to find his young charge waiting for him in his hospital room, and he doesn’t see Alfred’s heart break when he realizes Bruce is only there to accuse him of petty bullshit. This Batman doesn’t get people. He doesn’t understand them. He fights crime, not only out of some vague overriding vengeance, but also because it’s comforting to reduce the problems of the world to something that can be punched and doesn’t need to be understood.

The Tired Villain Line Wakes Up Refreshed

There’s a line that shows up in way to many superhero movies. Usually in the second act, the villain will say to the hero, “We’re not so different, you and I.” I hate this line for two reasons: first, it’s so damned stilted and clumsy, and doesn’t sound anything like how a human being talks. Second… it’s not usually earned. Because even though our superheroes usually operate outside of the law (as do the villains), and even though they solve all their problems with violence (as do the villains), our heroes… at least Batman… are always cool. So when the villain delivers that hackneyed line, we don’t think, “Oh my gosh! There really are a lot of similarities! I need to take a moment to reevaluate my moral assumptions up to this point!” Instead, we think, “That villain’s a dipshit. He can’t see that he and Batman are light years apart from each other?”

In the third act of The Batman, Paul Dano’s Riddler gives his version of this line (thankfully updated for our post-Snidely-Whiplash age). However, this was the first superhero movie where the “we’re not so different” move really landed for me. In part, it’s because the film was really invested–in a formal sense–in supporting these commonalities, instead of just giving it mouth service in a single conversation.

The film opens with the Riddler stalking a victim. We see this from the Riddler’s perspective–so at first, we can’t be sure if we’re seeing a villain in the act of a crime or the hero in the act of investigating one. And when we do see Batman in his investigations, his gadgetry may be superior, but the methods are the same–as is, quite frequently, the shot framing. Batman stalking Selina Kyle is presented near identically to the Riddler stalking the Mayor of Gotham.

What’s the difference? Well, ordinarily, Batman’s coolness insulates him. We’d know he wasn’t being creepy, because since Batman is always right about everything, we know he’s got to have a good reason for doing what he’s doing–just like we can trust Batman to be absolutely right in The Dark Knight when he commits massive privacy breaches and electronic surveillance on private citizens not engaged in criminal activity. Without that coolness, though–with a dorky, self-important, shortsighted Batman–we can actually see how thin and arbitrary the distinction between Batman and the Riddler is. Yes, we know Batman has sworn not to kill, and this lets him sleep at night. But the distinction is less meaningful to people who don’t sit on his shoulder as the audience does, and extend him the fullest benefit of the doubt. In-universe, there are plenty of people who see the murderous Riddler, not as an oppositional force to Batman, but as an extension of the same line. Are they wrong? Sure, the Riddler chooses different targets, but outside of any system of due process that would require them to “show their work,” both he and the Batman are doing the same thing; their operational differences are trivial.

The Day After the Dark Night

A lot of superhero movies have raised halfhearted questions about the morality of vigilantism, but since the movie would end abruptly if the hero gave it up, the answer to this moral question is always “(shrug) I guess I gotta.” And the audience nods along.

The question is not usually asked in good faith–it’s just a figleaf mean to make our hero’s violence look less wanton. The Batman comes the closest to asking that question sincerely–introducing the prospect of laying aside the cape as a viable, maybe even preferable, option. It’s long been an internet commonplace that philanthropist Bruce Wayne could do more to effect positive change in Gotham than Batman ever could. This is, to my mind, the first Batman film in which this isn’t just a snarky fan theory, but a supportable reality of the narrative universe. Bella Real, the idealistic mayoral candidate, says as much to Bruce when they meet.

Furthermore, in the white space before the movie, Thomas Wayne made a massive endowment to the city to be used for restoration and repair. We learn that this endowment has become nothing more than a slush fund for the criminal element in the years since his death–owing largely to a lack of real oversight. This means that not only could Bruce Wayne (acting as Bruce Wayne) use his wealth to materially improve the lot of all Gothamites, him taking an active role in the management of these funds would do more to hamper the underworld than what he could achieve with his fists.

In the past, when some ally has tried to get the hero to give up their life of danger and excitement, we have always known their pleas would go unheeded. If Christian Bale listened to Michael Caine and left off crimefighting, the movie would have an abrupt, inglorious end. This is because Batman is cool, so every entreaty to stop being Batman is an entreaty to stop being awesome–and how can that question ever be properly entertained?

Other Batman films have attempted to deconstruct the Batman mythos. Whether it was the bulky “real world” aesthetic of Batman Begins or the high camp of Lego Batman, there have been plenty of efforts to strip away the familiar outer trappings of the myth to invite a reckoning of the man. But unless a film is willing to dispense with Batman’s coolness in all its forms, this deconstruction will always be incomplete. Worse than incomplete, it will achieve the opposite of its intention–elevating the man more firmly into the mythic space instead of completely humanizing him.

The one place where this movie really fell for me was in the ending–literally the last five minutes or so. When Batman sees that his brand of vengeance has inspired an army of copycats who do not share his moral framework, he realizes there are better ways to serve the public good. He improves the lot of the besieged Gothamites, not by punching harder, but by lighting a torch and guiding people to safety. I had hoped, perhaps foolishly, that this was signalling something largely unprecedented: the moment where Batman becomes Bruce Wayne.

Yes, at the end of The Dark Knight Rises, we get a pleasant little glance of him living a quiet life. But there’s a world of difference between doing this at the end of a trilogy and doing this at the end of a one-and-done film. Also, there’s a world of difference between becoming Bruce Wayne and putting your vast resources and connections to work in service of humanity and becoming… just some expat in Europe, with no recognizable name, and no responsibilities to your fellow man.

In a Batman movie that flips a lot of the narrative turns of the character, that was the one move missing. No more Batman, and no Joseph Gordon-Levitt to take up the cowl afterwards. If The Batman had been daring enough to turn down the lure of a sequel, it would have been truly amazing.

As it stands, it’s still an exceptional Batman movie, and one that I rank highly in the genre. Is this me saying I want every superhero film, let alone Batman film, to be a brooding deconstruction of the form that dies in a single entry? Of course not. I said this film was exceptional, which means I recognize that for the things I responded to to remain meaningful, it must in many ways remain an exception.

A Final Caveat

All these things may be addressed just as well if not better in Gotham. I’ll never know.

  1. Yes, Batman is a transitive verb now. I will not rest until we can have a sentence that’s all Batman, akin to “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo.” 
  2. And to placate the censors. 
  3. I’m necessarily simplifying some things here. If Batman is what makes violence cool or if violence is what makes Batman cool is a chicken-and-egg question. I believe it’s a cycle, where each feeds the opposite process. Which one is the more active and lasting force is debatable, but even if the “Batman-makes-cool” effect isn’t the prime mover, it is still present and relevant. 
  4. Fun fact: when I watched this, I got my Colins crossed, and spend the entire movie (and the week after) thinking this gonzo, over-the-top performance had been turned in by Pride and Prejudice‘s Colin Firth. 
  5. His diary is even labelled an “Notes and Observations,” as if he’s entirely a proctor on Gotham’s situation as opposed to a participant. He bought into the Emersonian delusion that one can be an “Transparent Eyeball” that observes while having no effect on the observed–then added punching. 

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