So, Hollywood thought we needed yet another feature film about Bruce Wayne as Batman. At this point, the character has become akin to the revolving door that is the James Bond franchise. A new actor and director come in to offer their own take, which can often feel unimaginably similar to previous iterations, only to make room for the next hitters to take their shot. While I am far less cynical than my colleague Christian, I do wish we could have more variety with the Caped Crusader on the big screen, whether it’s in the stories being told or who wears the cowl.
That being said, this Batman just felt different.
From the opening monologue that established the masked vigilante already in his second year, to the Joker thugs in our first interaction with Gotham’s criminal underbelly, there are no origin stories to be seen, no rehashing the Wayne’s back-alley murder. We are thrown headfirst into the filth and corruption. The city is gloomy, it’s constantly storming, and together with the eerie score, so much of it feels like a horror film. Criminals glance over their shoulders into dark corridors, dreading the terror that lurks within.
As much as this isn’t a Batman origin story, we were given many reminders that Bruce Wayne is still relatively new at this. Starting from the first fight scene, Batman takes his share of licks. His combat style is messy, brutal, and at times seems heavily improvised. This isn’t a Batman trained by the League of Shadows and aided by advanced gadgetry. His body is strewn with battle scars that tell stories of abuse inflicted from gunshots, stab wounds, explosions, and blunt force trauma.
He’s still just a man, but one who will never stop. In his dramatic escape from the Gotham police precinct, Batman makes his way to the roof only to gasp in terror at the sight of the sheer drop to the streets below, a jump we’ve seen Batman make without hesitation countless times.
Every previous movie and other media depiction strikes some level of balance between Bruce Wayne the man and the Bat, but never before has Bruce Wayne the man felt so insignificant. He’s a recluse, making sparse public appearances. Gone is the philanthropy, the money flexes, and the need to abscond with ballet ladies as cover. Here, Bruce Wayne is unkempt and unconcerned with his outward image because his true identity is masked in vengeance and shadow.
His few public appearances as Bruce highlight the vulnerability that he fights so hard to bury. While attending the funeral of the Mayor, the Riddler’s first victim, Bruce can’t help but hold his gaze on the Mayor’s now-orphaned son, a parallel to his own childhood trauma. After following the Riddler’s clues to a horrific truth about his parents, Bruce is compelled to make his only other public appearance when he ventures into the seedy Iceberg Lounge for the answers he desperately seeks.
Driving the mystery and leading Batman on a journey of discovering this ultimate truth is the Riddler, arguably one of Batman’s best on-screen villains. This Riddler is a sadistic serial killer in the vein of Se7en’s John Doe, who leaves intricate puzzles behind for Batman to follow, and finally gives life to Batman’s moniker as the World’s Greatest Detective on the big screen. The Riddler’s clues slowly reveal a complex web of corruption that blankets the entire city and of which no one, not even the loved ones we hold in the highest regard, is above.
The closer Batman gets to answers, the higher the Riddler raises the stakes, culminating in his final plan to flood the city and assassinate the newly-elected Mayor at the Gotham Square Garden arena. In the most frightening and all too familiar real-life parallel, the Riddler uses online forums to enlist help from violent fringe conspirators who view themselves as the disenfranchised rising up against Gotham’s elites.
They begin shooting down from the rafters at the event attendees, hitting the Mayor as she tries to calm the crowd. When Batman stops one of the shooters and asks who he is, the man simply answers, “I am Vengeance.” This is the pivotal moment for Batman. What separates him from the men he is fighting?
As he harrowingly dispatches the armed insurrectionists, the flood waters crash in, cutting the lights and plunging the arena into shadow. The Mayor and event goers are trapped inside, unable to see their way out. Batman lights an emergency flare, trudging through the water and debris, becoming the light to lead Gotham out of the darkness.
The next scene shows Batman helping the survivors onto the roof of the flooded arena with the sun rising over the horizon. Here, Batman knows that striking fear into the heart of the criminal underworld will never fix Gotham. He must become something else. A beacon of hope to inspire the city to rise to prosperity.
As the credits roll, we are left with this message of hope for Gotham. It’s not an ending, but a renewed start. With the city in chaos, a power vacuum will consume its criminal underbelly. Many will be vying for control, but this time Batman and Gotham itself will be united together.