The Dark Knight gets on TikTok

The Batman is good. Like damn, those 3 hours flew by. It’s nice that we skip going through Batman’s origin one more time, and it’s certainly novel that the first villain we get to in a Batman reboot is The Riddler, but it works in this movie.

Politically, the movie kind of covers the same territory as in The Dark Knight Rises since it’s about gross inequality and popular reaction to it, but it handles the issue a lot better than the earlier film since it actually has an idea of what it wants to say on the issue. Bane’s live action introduction had a confused and ambivalent reaction to the Occupy Wall Street protests that were ongoing when it was made. However, the world that created The Batman has had over a decade to think over the Occupy movement’s ideas, as well as a global pandemic and a summer of BLM protests. In fact, I would characterize this particular reboot as a post-BLM ACAB version of the Batverse, inasmuch as it can be in a fictional setting where the protagonist’s main problem with cops isn’t that they’re violent but that they’re not directing their brutality toward the right people (i.e., criminals).

The pundit Anand Giridharadas has a quip about billionaires and how they whitewash the terrible reputations they earned while amassing their wealth by giving back some scraps from their fortunes in the form of charity: “Batman is what all these plutocrats do. You cause problems by day, in the way you run your company, and then you put on a suit at night and pretend you are the solution.”

The movie is essentially that quote presented in dramatic form. The problems of Gotham are caused by Bruce Wayne’s family, by their peers, and by the people who enforce their rule – cops, lawyers, mobsters, and so on. Bruce Wayne, ignorant of the larger context, tries to fix things with a child’s understanding of the situation by beating up poor people who’ve turned to crime. It’s not even a band-aid solution, since the worst that a band-aid can do is be ineffective, whereas in the movie, Batman’s example inspires other people to fix their own problems with violence. Of course, socioeconomic inequality isn’t a problem you can punch into submission, and it’s striking how one of the takeaways from this superhero movie is that almost everything heroic that we watch the protagonist do is completely useless and ineffective.

But the movie can only go so far in this critique. The superhero story is rooted in private actors using violence to impose order on a chaotic society. It’s a worldview conducive to being “tough on crime” and unswerving support for the police. Fundamentally, a superhero movie is pro-cop. Which is why, after a supervillain-caused natural disaster, Batman ends up letting go of his original mission of cowing the people of Gotham into submission and instead helps in relief efforts with the US military.

In the end, Catwoman asks Batman to run away with her, but he refuses and instead chooses to stay and help Gotham. She notes that his mission will never end and she ends up walking away from the disaster of trying to save a city that’s actively trying to commit suicide. Batman’s decision is presented as a noble sacrifice, of placing duty over love, but ironically, Catwoman’s proposal that she and Batman spend their lives robbing hedge fund plutocrats probably would have done more to address Gotham’s fundamental problems than Batman’s idea of punching street thugs and the occasional crooked cop.

Anyway, it’s nice when a superhero movie gives you something to think about besides the fight scenes.

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