Note: This review discusses the 2022 Batman film (including references to tone and general subject matter), but specifically and intentionally strives to keep things vague. People who have not seen the film may find that reading this review creates a “bias,” but no specific spoilers are revealed (every surprise and plot twist is still waiting, if you choose to see the film after reading).
Batman (as a character) has often been associated with fear and a feigned “supernatural” element, but 2022’s The Batman leans more heavily into these elements than other portrayals of the character that I have seen.
The hero is almost treated like a monster, like a terrible destructive force that’s barely controlled. The film’s opening narration even formally discusses how (to criminals) The Batman is everywhere, with camera work that seems reminiscent of early scenes in a horror film (lingering shots of a darkened space, waiting to see if the monster is going to appear).
When Batman does appear, he doesn’t seem “larger than life” or “particularly imposing” in his appearance or size. Instead, it’s his presence (his body language and overall emotional energy). He is full of (barley controlled) rage, and no matter what you do, he won’t stop. There is no “hurt him enough and he will back off.” This is a creature who “will win (or die trying),” and nothing short of death will stop him.
There’s a savage, blind intensity about him, a sense that “all that matters is hurting and defeating his opponents (no matter what the cost).” In some ways one almost wonders if Batman is somehow “seeking death” through this never-ending crusade to punish every criminal for the pain he feels (at the loss of his parents).
In turn, such a brutal take on the character requires even darker, dirtier version of Gotham (or else Batman starts to look like “part of the problem”). The city’s corruption is as widespread as it’s ever been in the franchise (if not more so), with a strong emphasis on drug use (as well as hints of prostitution and recreational violence). In the midst of this “Gotham ghetto” backdrop (with islands of wealth and privilege that function like ivory towers), the “villain” of the story emerges (in the form of the Riddler). But this Riddler is a very different take on the character, one that (in some ways) reminds me of Heath Ledger’s take on the Joker.
This version of the Riddler is intense. There’s a great deal of trauma behind the character, a pain that abruptly erupts into “shouting, shrieking remarks” about how wrong someone is (both morally and in the sense of “this is not how it’s supposed to be”). This Riddler is still intelligent (and confident in their intelligence), but there’s also a vulnerability about them, a desperate desire to “be heard (and understood).”
The villain’s intense frustration with “how things are” (and the lack of positive change) feels very topical in this time (an exaggerated version of how a great many people in the real world seem to be feeling). This is not a character who simply “wants to show how smart they are.” This villain “wants to fix things” and (in their own twisted way) they are working hard to “make a difference.”
In some ways the Riddler in this film reminds me of both John Doe (from Seven) and John (from Saw). Like these villains, there’s a disturbing cleverness to the Riddler’s crimes, a macabre sense of humor in how the meaning of each puzzle is “hinted at.”
The story does an adequate job of gradually revealing the mystery, pacing the segments so that audiences have a chance at solving it (while encouraging them to come to the wrong conclusions).
One area where the film seems to fall short is in the portrayal of Bruce as a distinct character (separate from Batman). Very little time is spent with the character when he is not Batman, and in many ways there just “isn’t much to the character” beyond this “quiet pain” and a sense that Bruce has given up on everything other than “his quest for revenge.” In some ways it makes one wonder (as Alfred in another film aptly pointed out) why no one is asking “What Bruce Wayne does with his time and his money?”
Visually the film is dark, with a slant towards brown, pale blue, as well as a great deal of black, white, and grey. Action scenes are respectable, while quieter moments often feature a tension of “the insight that’s about to be realized.”
In terms of theme and meaning, the film really explores the issue of “becoming a monster” and whether or not someone is actually “making things better or worse?” Throughout the film, many characters question whether Batman actually “cares?”
The film does a strong job exploring how “yes, sometimes it’s necessary to destroy (to an extent), to clear away sickness and rot, but that doesn’t ‘heal the wound,’ it only makes room for ‘something else’ to ‘infect’ and continue the sickness.”
Overall, it’s an interesting film, and a very different take on the character and story of Batman. It definitely has its weak points, but I think some of that also stems from the challenges faced by those who were tasked with creating this film.
With so many prior films (and other portrayals) of the character, creating a distinct version of the character that is “theirs” is not easy. Many options were probably ruled out because “That’s already been done.” They chose a version that is “hurting” and “struggling” far more than he ever has, and whether you like it or not, it is definitely distinctly “theirs.” And this is definitely one version of Batman who “still has a lot to learn,” and over the course of the story, the character does change (not always for the better, but always in very organic and believable ways).
Like many good stories, this one is very much “a product of its time,” a dark, exaggerated reflection of how many are feeling a lot of anger, a lot of skepticism about “politicians” and “leaders” in general, and a recurring feeling that “I know what the problem is, I know how to fix it, but no one will listen, no one ‘sees’ me.”
It’s not what I’d call a fun film, but I definitely think it is well made and has some very relevant ideas to discuss with its audience (through the experiences of the characters).