Two seats down from a pair of thirty-somethings who whistled anytime Catwoman appeared onscreen, I watched The Batman and wondered why Warner Brothers bothered pretending to be woke.
The Batman is a detective-style story that tracks Batman’s hunt for The Riddler. Scene after scene, Batman arrives a bit too late to save the next victim. In between these scenes, the movie offers a portrait of Gotham City, a metropolis riddled with inequality. We see the corruption on every level of government, the exploitation of labor by underground mob bosses, the ongoing racism, and the lack of political will to make any type of change. At the top of the city’s social hierarchy stands the Wayne family. Bruce Wayne has the power and resources to almost single-handedly change the trajectory of Gotham, but he chooses to spend his time, money, and privilege becoming a vigilante.
Warner Bros. understands that the heir to a billionaire fortune does not make the most relatable character, so they try gesturing to the rampant poverty in Gotham. The central problem becomes how to tackle progressive themes of income and racial inequity in a movie without completely discrediting its wealthy, white protagonist. Unwilling to substantially alter the Bruce Wayne mythos, The Batman acts as another superhero movie with little to no character growth to entice the viewer. Instead, it tries to win the audience over with flashy cutscenes, an angsty score, and a brooding yet attractive male lead whose acting only hits a single register.
The movie presents Bruce with the system of inequality he stands atop multiple times, and yet he ignores it. The mayor elect (a clear stand-in for AOC) asks him to engage in more philanthropy efforts, and he simply strides away. A man at the funeral voices his frustration with Gotham’s inequality to Bruce, not knowing who he is. The Riddler, whose entire motivation for antagonizing Gotham rests upon the city government’s neglect for the orphanage where he grew up, and Catwoman, who grew up spoonfed on the harsh racism ingrained in Gotham’s underground, symbolize the results of problems within Gotham. By the end of the movie, Batman dismisses them all, and I question why the writers even dove into Gotham’s socio-economic issues in the first place.
“I am Vengeance” became Batman’s latest trademark phrase. But vengeance for whom? It’s certainly not vengeance for his parents—most of the villains he attacks are unrelated to his parents’ killer. Vengeance for “the people of Gotham?” Unlikely. Most of the “goons” or “henchmen” who endure constant beatings from Batman appear to be poor men resorting to violence in pursuit of upward mobility. I think of his dramatic final entrance where he shatters the glass roof of a stadium. Surely, glass falling from that height would injure many people. Bruce Wayne has his own interests, not those of the public, at heart. By dressing up as Batman, he keeps the cycle of inequality intact.
The movie ends with Bruce’s conclusion that he must become “a better Batman,” not Vengeance. He resolves to continue his stint as Batman, which undermines his entire character arc and the supporting cast’s effort to make Bruce realize that Batman must go. Even if he assaults the poor out of misplaced righteousness from here on, is it really better than assaulting them out of anger? Vengeance was never the answer to Gotham’s—or Bruce’s—problems, but neither is Batman. The real hero Gotham needs is Bruce’s money.
Batman is the personification of performative activism. He dresses up in a costume with promises of reducing crime. In reality, he assaults a few people a night instead of addressing the inequality that ravages the city. His caped crusades serve more for self-gratification than anything else. The persona of Batman only exists to justify Bruce continuing to hoard wealth when he sees the crippling poverty throughout the city. He only dresses up to keep his consciousness clean and satiate his anger.
Part of the issue here is the consumerist logic of movie franchises. The writers must maintain the status quo to make another movie, so they add another villain or manufacture another world-ending crisis, all to ensure that the superhero never has to put down their cape. After all, there’s no way the sequel can generate millions in revenue if Batman runs off with Catwoman at the end—or is there? Physical violence fails to resolve Gotham’s longstanding problems. If Bruce relinquished his fortune to assume a Robin Hood-esque role alongside Catwoman, now that would be a possible solution and a movie I’d watch. Otherwise, we are forced to accept that Batman is just another of Gotham’s villains who hoard wealth and disregard the city’s working class.