Heading into “The Batman,” you might expect to see a film about the caped crusader taking on the villainous Riddler. And indeed, that’s what happens. Gotham City’s hero fights with a puzzling mastermind in Riddler, looking to save a city and its citizens in a battle of pure good and evil.
“The Batman” is not, however, the Adam West “Batman” television show from 1966. It barely resembles the “Batman” movies from the ’90s, starring Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney (which also featured the Bat-nipple suit and a dancing Jim Carrey as the Riddler).
In truth, “The Batman” is a return to the gritty Batman, a Batman who is anti-heroic and almost as villainous as Riddler himself. It’s the Batman we’ve come to know in the past few decades. The comedy, the silliness and the lightheartedness of an earlier Batman era are long gone.
There might not be anything wrong with telling a gritty Batman story — particularly since the comic book source material is just as, if not more, dark than the movies — it’s a potential problem for the Batman franchise as a whole. As Batman becomes increasingly dark, his status as a hero falls into question.
If every Batman series feels the same, do any of them stand out? And, if “The Batman” is hoping to stand out, what will be the defining factor of this new movie now in theaters?
What to expect in the new ‘The Batman’
“The Batman” isn’t a poorly made film. If you’re a fan of Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” trilogy, then you’ll enjoy “The Batman.”
The film takes a little time to get going and make us understand the world we’re in as we’re treated to exposition about Gotham City’s crime families and underground clubs. We learn about how the mob works in this world, selling drugs and ratting out each other. In many ways, it feels like a missing film in the Nolan trilogy.
Robert Pattinson — who notably played Edward in the “Twilight” saga — is a very different Batman than we’re used to. He spends the bulk of the film making dark, glowering glances at the world around him. He hides in the shadows.
He’s definitely a young Batman, who is still trying to figure out how to be Batman, which is a fun change of pace. It makes Batman, at times, endearing. But he’s almost unsure of who he is, which leads to increased violence for Batman. He’s consistently throwing haymakers and making poor decisions because he’s still young and naive about the world. This proves to be the central plot of the movie — the arc of Batman learning to control his darker impulses and become heroic.
Other characters — like Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz) and the Penguin (Colin Farrell) — straddle the line between good and evil. At times, they help Batman. At others, they look to take him down. Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred (Andy Serkis) — who is normally portrayed as the moral center of the world — can’t be trusted in this film. Once again, “The Batman” creates confusion around morality. No one is safe and a moral white knight. Each character lingers in the dark.
And then there’s the Riddler, played by Paul Dano. Though Dano steals the show, he is the darkest Batman villain yet. He’s sick, twisted and demented. He brings the film deeper into darkness, dragging Batman far into the shadows he already lives in.
Dano’s Riddler could live in the same universe as Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker.
And as the villains become darker and the other heroes become untrustworthy, that has an effect on Batman. The farther his villains fall into darkness, so too does Bruce Wayne. When the Riddlers wraps his villains in plastic, it forces Batman to become an ultra-violent hero who packs heavy punches on thugs in the streets.
Gritty comic book movies and the dangers they present
“The Batman” having such a dark vibe isn’t surprising since it comes on the heels of another gritty comic book film — “Joker.”
“Joker” is a film about Arthur Fleck’s descent into madness. He begins as a goofy comedian trying to make it in the world. But his mental health issues become unhinged when he loses his job, discovers he has a father he never knew about (maybe) and that no one is listening to his problems.
Films like “Joker” have arrived at a time where mass violence has been on the rise. UCLA recently had to cancel classes due to a former lecturer threatening a school shooting. A number of historically Black colleges and universities received threats on the first day of Black History Month — which came after a number of threats in the days before Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Since “Joker” came out, we even saw rioters storm the U.S. Capitol, breaking inside and destroying one of the most illustrious of U.S. buildings.
“The Batman” might not be as dark of a film as “Joker.” If anything, “Batman” may make people worried that they’re seeing the same film again. A darker, more grounded Batman without realistic villains and storylines — far different than the eccentric characters we see in the comic books.
See, “Joker” stirred concerns that incels — someone who is involved with an online subculture, who often define themselves as unable to get a romantic partner — would incite violence at movie theaters. That hasn’t happened with “The Batman.”
Instead, “The Batman” is a sign that darker comic book films aren’t going away. “Joker 2” appears to be set for production. Marvel Studios’ “Moon Knight” series could dip a toe in the darker direction, too.
And if all films are dark, can they really stand out?
Mystery and intrigue — a growing trend
“The Batman” is a film based around mystery and detective work, a side of Batman we have rarely seen in previous iterations of the character.
“The Dark Knight” — the second of Nolan’s trilogy — came the closest to giving us a Bruce Wayne movie. In this film, Bruce (Christian Bale) seeks to stop the Joker (Heath Ledger) from terrorizing Gotham, so he needs to use technology and resources to make it happen. We see Bruce fiddle with gadgets, technology, satellites and an improved Batmobile to make it happen.
Ben Affleck’s Batman — seen in “Batman v. Superman” and “Justice League” — is a little lighter as well. He spends time working through an investigation into what’s going on with the villain Darkside and the history of the mystical boxes, too.
“The Batman” has a chance to stand out as the most Bruce Wayne of Batman films yet. Though it’s called “The Batman,” the film’s trailers suggest the project is about solving a mystery, one dished out by the Riddler, who is leaving clues behind that Batman must follow. The entire film seems encompassed in a puzzle of mystery, something that only Bruce Wayne will have a chance to figure out.
Kendall Phillips, a pop culture professor at Syracuse University, told me that this fits into an ongoing trend of mystery stories making a return to the pop-culture consciousness. Films like “Murder on the Orient Express,” “Knives Out,” “Scream” and “Death on the Nile” are prime examples of mystery stories making their way back into the fold.
“It’s interesting that mysteries have kind of made a comeback,” he said.
“Audiences are hungry for something that’s not just spectacles of action and violence, but a mystery thriller,” he said. “That’s not only kind of cerebral, but maybe something where the violence has consequences, right? It matters.”
Indeed, plenty of comic book movies in the modern age is often a display of violence. The Avengers waltz into town, save the city, but they leave a mess behind. James Bond films are packed with violence, gunshots and murder plots that fill the film with blood and bullets.
A mystery thriller has the chance to do something more, Phillips said. The mystery could have consequences for Batman and Bruce Wayne, giving us a deeper exploration of the character.
“Maybe they make a more intimate version of Batman,” he said. “We can reconnect with the character in a more intimate way.”