The Batman is a Study of the Popular Socio-Cultural Consciousness in 2022

I always enjoyed Batman comics as a child. I didn’t think of them as political. I loved Batman because of the distillation of noir in his character; it was a pure fantasy that was in no way rooted in realism. There is something so appealing about the dark fantasy of Gotham City, a city that exists out of time between the modern era. Gotham is full of melodrama where anything is possible. 

My favorite iterations of the character and setting were the grounded noir-esque takes from writers such as Frank Miller or Jeph Loeb. My favorite Batman stories are Batman: The Long Halloween, Batman: Dark Victory, and Batman: Year One. Each of these stories focused heavily on politics, city bureaucracy, and organized crime in Gotham. These character-focused narratives did not rely on fancy gadgets or massive fight scenes. Instead, Batman was a detective with a few simple tools. 

The writers crafted complex, strained relationships full of distrust, personal corruption, and paranoia. The villains tended to be the corrupt city leaders, serial killers, and mobsters instead of the fantastical and colorful characters of the Joker or Poison Ivy. These stories emphasized the tension between characters such as Commissioner Gordon, Harvey Dent, and Batman. A central character tended to be the mobster, Carmine Falcone. Falcone is a powerful mobster with a stranglehold over Gotham’s organized crime. He does not have superpowers. Instead, he relies on intelligence, wisdom, a lack of moral compass, and the ability to corrupt politicians and police officers. 

Before the release of The Batman in 2022, my favorite media adaptation was the Batman: The Animated Series show. The show retained the timelessness and noir character of the comics. The show maintained many of the noir aspects of the comic books, and it spotlighted characters like Falcone. 

As I became more politically active, I shifted away from the Batman character. He was at odds with my ideas of a justice society. Fundamentally, he is a rich billionaire who physically assaults poor people, the mentally ill, and so-called “criminals” at night. He is unable to process his own trauma, so he targets vulnerable people. The Gotham City Police Department aids him in these pursuits. The concept of Batman only gets worse when you think about how criminality is linked to anti-blackness. Batman is no hero. I haven’t engaged in Batman media for a long time. 

Despite this, I enjoyed The Batman due to the emphasis on corruption, detective work, and noir elements. The noir themes and style of the film work well with the broader political and social ideas in the film. The Batman is about our society and political culture. Many of the characters display devotion to nihilism and political apathy. They are anti-social people living in an urban environment. The film uses these characters to discuss moral ambiguity, anti-social, isolation, moral depravity, and bleakness. The director, Matt Reeves, drew inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock, film noir, detective stories, serial killers, and the movie Chinatown to make broader points about society. 

The film uses its characters to embed our current political climate in the movie. For example, Bella Real, a black woman running for mayor of Gotham, acts as the embodiment of progressive politics in the movie. Her character is eerily similar to Congresswomen like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, and Ilhan Omar. She acts as the moral exemplar of Gotham and a direct contrast to the city’s corrupt white mayor. She tackles inequalities through her work within the system, which contrasts with Batman’s approach as an underground vigilante. 

Batman engages in the biggest character transformation in the movie. Robert Pattinson’s character shifts from an anti-social vigilante to a progressive crusading hero for justice. The orphaned Bruce Wayne is a disconnected billionaire with emotional trauma stemming from his parents’ murder. He employs violence against the poor with a holier than thou attitude. However, the unaccountable billionaire would be a hard sell to young audiences in a moment where progressive politics seems to be all of the rage. The film is painfully aware of Batman’s lack of relatability as Catwoman, played by Zoe Kravitz, makes a quip about how “I could tell you grew up rich.” when she’s talking to Batman. Previous films such as the Dark Knight Rises were effectively anti-Occupy Wall Street movies, but Reeve’s Batman is more nuanced and progressive.

How do you sell Batman as a character to general audiences now? You pit him against the rich and the powerful. Ultimately, Batman’s main villain is not the Riddler but the corruption at the highest levels of society. One of the main story beats is about a drug called Drop. The Drop operation is run by the wealthy and powerful which clearly hurts the poor in the city. This in some ways could reflect how pharmaceutical companies are responsible for the opioid crisis with their overprescription of opioids leading to addiction. 

If there are any characters who represent a social activist figure, it is Catwoman and the Riddler. Catwoman is “a woke social activist.” She steals from the rich and powerful to protect herself and Gotham’s poor. On the other hand, the Riddler represents perhaps a far-right conspiracy theorist who feels angry about his place in the world. He is the white grievance character incapable of dealing with reality and hoping to reveal the “truth” about the city. He is the QAnon leader utilizing conspiracies to validate his anger. The anti-government/anti-social stances seem eerily similar to the recent shooting in Brooklyn, New York. Catwoman and the Riddler represent an anti-social political approach that eschews traditional routes. Ultimately, Batman must choose between the two paths. He sides with Catwoman and Commissioner Gordan to combat the Riddler while fighting corruption. He stops the Riddler’s 4Chan-esque inspired cult at the Gotham Square Garden, and he saves newly elected Mayor Bella Real. Batman becomes a hero by saving Mayor Real and the people of Gotham alongside Gordon and the GCPD. He also successfully brings Carmine Falcone to legal justice. In doing so, the film makes a fundamental argument about the nature of justice and how it must flow from the courts and police; even if we understand those things to be thoroughly corrupt. The film ends with Batman deciding not to join Catwoman to rob hedge fund managers. Instead, he stays to fight against the looting in Gotham and help people feel hope. This hope in some ways is a call for reinvestment in institutions.

The ending is especially interesting as it concludes with a political and civil crisis in the form of the collapse of infrastructure (the seawall) through a terrorist attack which leads to a flooding of the city. It feels like a metaphor for American society. The film tells us that the way to fight back is to trust institutions, which is a bizarre message for a movie whose hero takes the law into his own hands. Reeves castigates anti-political attitudes ranging from right-wing terrorism to anti-rich activism. As the 2022 and 2024 elections emerge, there will be a continued push from well-meaning Liberals and progressives for Americans to reinvest back into institutions. It remains a question whether this will happen. I think that the more likely future is a continued crisis with more anti-social actors from the left and the right finding themselves in conflict with the State. Our society is like flooded Gotham, and to paraphrase Catwoman, “it will only get worse.” Either way, the movie was fantastic, and I think it captures the American psyche

L McGowan-Arnold
Contributor at The Commoner | + posts

Luke is another 20-something floating around in the American Wasteland. A recent Haverford College grad, he studied political science and black studies with a focus on black political theory. He is interested in writing and speculating about racial capitalism, the decline of American society, youth culture, DIY music, traveling and everything else. He also makes music under his moniker Huey, The Cosmonaut. He's passionate about space cowboys, martial arts, hard cider and audiobooks.

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