Bat Lives Matter or Make Gotham Great Again: The Batman can’t justify himself in a Black Lives Matter world
OPINION: After almost three hours of noir lighting, pale sexy stars and bland action sequences even the Riddler couldn’t explain why Gotham’s hero makes sense in 2022
I like Batman, as a comic and a movie franchise, but as a Black comic fan, he’s always been a problem. Bruce Wayne is a genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist who fights crime as Batman.
Bruce Wayne is also a rich privileged white guy who rubs shoulders with (literally) white-collar crooks who steal billions from grandma’s retirement fund—but it’s the Black dude knocking over the bodega in Gotham’s south side that gets a batarang in his arm and brass knuckles to his temple.
Batman puts rich people in handcuffs, he puts poor people in the hospital, but we’re supposed to consider him the hero. Every Batman film wrestled with the problem of why the world, let alone Gotham, actually needs a Batman, until unfortunately, this latest reboot The Batman.
After almost three hours of noir lighting, pale sexy stars and bland action sequences even the Riddler couldn’t explain why Gotham’s hero makes sense in 2022.
Michael Keaton’s Batman (1989’s Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns) was a response to the excess of the ’80s; we needed him to stop a Joker who was trashing art and poisoning us with hairspray.
Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman was a feminist icon, an obsequious woman who finally stood up to the sexist cavemen at her job. Basically Melanie Griffith’s Working Girl with a BDSM cat fetish. Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997) were for cynical Gen Xers who were too cool to admit that the greatest scandals of our lives were a low-speed Bronco chase and a president who liked oral sex.
Who better to face the phony threats of Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy than a pun slinging, ice skates wearing, nipple flashing Batman? Director Christopher Nolan gave us the post 9-11 Batman (2004’s Batman Begins, 2008’s The Dark Knight and 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises) who battled terrorists like Ra’s Al Ghul, The Joker and Bane, who didn’t just commit crimes but wanted to tear down American society.
Nolan’s Batman movies were just as political as the previous movies, wrestling with surveillance vs. liberty, a whole lot of Copaganda and featured a happy ending of Catwoman and Batman going off the grid like some rich conservative Doomsday preppers.
The Batman, starring Robert Pattinson as Bruce Wayne / Batman and Zoe Kravitz as Selina Kyle / Not Quite Catwoman (more on that later) is touted as a completely different kind of Batman film, and it is, but not in a good way.
It’s been 10 years since the last solo Batman film, so how does the Dark Knight justify himself in an America plagued by mass shootings, rising authoritarianism and nationwide protests about racism in criminal justice? By pretending none of those things exists, which pretty much makes Batman unnecessary.
The Batman’s plot revolves around catching the Riddler, a deranged, clue-leaving serial killer who is targeting Gotham City’s political and economic elite. A crime that, by the end of the movie, it’s not clear is necessarily a bad thing.
Stopping the Riddler requires the Batman to beat up various street thugs in darkly lit hallways, and moody goth Bruce Wayne (played by utterly bland Pattinson) to dig into the Wayne family history, and the various ways that the Gotham mob and political elites have worked together for decades.
Even though the movie takes pains to remind you he’s only been active for two years, this is a strangely public Batman who just strolls up into crime scenes in broad daylight, walking past the cops because Lt. Jim Gordon (a criminally underutilized Jeffrey Wright) vouches for him.
In past movies, the cops at least pretended to disagree with Batman’s vigilante tactics, while giving a wink and a nod to the brutality he doles out on their behalf. This Batman is basically a Proud Boy in battle armor being deputized by the Gotham cops.
After a decade of news stories about white guys acting as self-appointed defenders of justice, whether it’s George Zimmerman, Kyle Rittenhouse or Ahmaud Arbery’s killers, we’re supposed to think it’s OK that the cops let Batman roam free because one Black dude said he’s cool.
Speaking of Black cops, it’s worth noting that The Batman is a vast improvement over previous Batman films when it comes to race, although that’s not saying much.
This is the franchise that white-washed Billy Dee Williams out of being Two-Face and tried to convince us that an assassin in Bhutan named Ra’s Al Ghul was actually a white Irishman with a particular set of skills.
The Batman at least has Black people in key roles, even if those roles were missed opportunities to explore why Gotham needs Batman. Mayoral candidate Bella Reál was obviously Gotham’s version of The Squad, and there would have been no better way to justify Batman’s existence and “Own the libs,” than to have a “Defund the Batman” politician get saved by the caped crusader.
Instead, she barely addresses this crazed white vigilante driving an armored muscle car through residential neighborhoods. Jim Gordon is reduced to a Black side-kick, offering only the slightest pushback on The Batman’s methods and participating in one of the most embarrassing Token Negro scenes I’ve seen in a movie since Shola took a bullet for a colonizer in The King’s Man.
Perhaps most disappointing is Kravitz as Selina Kyle / Not Quite Catwoman, because while she can crack a safe and leap from rooftops, there is no explanation about why she has any of these skills or what she does with them.
Why does Selina live in squalor by day but work as a bottle girl at the club and act like an extra from Euphoria all night? Is she in a queer relationship with her missing friend? Why are her action sequences so stilted and poorly lit that they look like a stop motion Kara Walker exhibit?
None of these questions get answered. During the build-up to the film’s multiple climaxes, Selina delivers a speech to Batman about how “rich privileged white guys” are ruining Gotham. This is supposed to be a critical moment, where the duality and contradiction of Batman and Bruce Wayne are addressed.
Instead, the speech sounded like a white 7th grader’s book report on Black Lives Matter. The speech sounded like something Sage Steele would write. The speech made Sam Wilson’s All Lives Matter monologue at the end of Falcon and the Winter Soldier sound like a lecture from Dr. Umar Johnson.
Dear Woke White Writers, if a character is going to deliver a searing monologue about how rich white guys like Bruce Wayne are destroying Gotham, maybe it shouldn’t come from the Black woman who’s romantically entangled with the masked vigilante who beats up more Black people than the 90’s LAPD.
After almost three hours of grisly deaths, side-scroller-styled fights and seemingly multiple climaxes, it’s not entirely clear that anything in Gotham would’ve played out differently if Batman didn’t exist. This is the most damning takeaway you could get from a Batman film.
Comic fans will notice The Batman borrows heavily from storylines like the Bat & the Cat, Batman Year One, Batman Long Halloween and No Man’s Land, but unlike those stories, The Batman can’t figure out a satisfying climax, so it gives you several of them, none of which work.
The Batman could’ve been so much more. HBO Max’s Peacemaker (2022) does an excellent job of satirizing how a white hero’s penchant for beating up poor brown criminals looks in today’s world.
The Joker (2019) was an incel manifesto but it highlighted how class is the true supervillain in Gotham City. Even Suicide Squad (2021) showed how giving someone free reign to commit violence for the greater good has a moral cost.
Unlike every movie before it, The Batman wants no part of those discussions, which makes it a truly different, but ultimately disappointing addition to the franchise.
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