Why do we keep making Batman movies? Or, put another way, why do we keep going to watch Batman movies? What is it about the character that keeps drawing us back to the theater? Christopher Nolan reinvented Batman in 2005, and now, 17 years later, we’re still coming back for “The Batman.”
Nolan made Batman a dark detective story, bringing a kind of edge to the film many aging fans probably wanted, an edge that was always somewhat present in the comic books. And Nolan’s dark Batman seemed to stick. Before Nolan, each live action adaptation had its own style and take, though they were generally more lighthearted and playful, but after Nolan, every Batman is scared and tough, edgy. These Batmans live in worlds suffused with corruption, dirty politicians and cops. And ultimately, Batman can defeat them. I think that’s a lot of the appeal of the character. Gotham is a horrible place to live. Its problems are overbearing. But at the end of the day, Batman can punch people and solve some of those problems. He’s just one man — an incredibly rich one, to be sure — but still just one person, and he makes a difference. That was an appealing kind of fantasy in the early 2000s. The world was dark, but we could make a difference.
That optimism has largely dissipated. After four years of Trump and two years of Covid, with people still dying and refusing life-saving vaccines, all in the midst of a looming climate crisis, endless police violence and poverty, and deadlocked politics incapable of bringing about the change the country desperately needs, we’ve become cynical. Maybe not the country, but certainly our generation. Our problems seem intractable, ingrained in the very structures of our country. Our individual power is so little, it’s almost non-existent. We doubt the power of one person to solve these problems.
“The Batman” is aware of this. The movie tries to complicate the traditional allure of Batman, subverting his ability to solve his city’s, or the world’s, problems. And the movie also recognizes his relative privilege. He’s an orphan, a child of tragedy, yes, but also a wealthy child of tragedy. As Catwoman remarks, Batman “sounds rich.” In other words, “The Batman” is aware of systemic problems. The problems still take the form of corrupt police and politicians, but also include right-wing extremists with online followings. These problems might be more individual than our own, but they act as allegories. “The Batman” doesn’t allow easy solutions to any of these things. “The Batman” is just as cynical as we are of the individual’s power to fight systems and structures. Batman is our modern day myth, and we can see our own hopes and worries play out in the theater. Even by the end of the film, Batman doesn’t really win over the villains. But even if “The Batman” is a story about the inability of individual characters to change anything, the filmmakers inevitably have to show the power of the hero, of Batman. It is still a superhero movie. “The Batman” is incapable of fully committing to its own, and our, cynicism.
Maybe the problem isn’t with “The Batman,” but with the very nature of narrative itself. We live in an age of systemic problems — problems that have, for years, taken not the form of people we can punch or fight, but rather glacial changes, creeping, and now, rushing towards us. Narratives take us, alongside a character, through a unique series of events. Narratives are dynamic. They change and adapt. That’s what makes them interesting.
But systemic problems are often repetitive. They are systemic precisely because they recur. These systems are experienced, both by their benefactors and victims, through the course of days and months and years and lifetimes, not as an evolving force, but as something static and suffocating and constant. Structures resist narrative. Structures are hidden and omnipresent. They aren’t characters. We can try and make narratives about climate change and injustice, but ultimately those narratives will only give us a glimpse into the broader problem, and it’s easier to be distracted by people and things. Within structures, there’s no easy villain, even if we want there to be.
How can Batman fight that? He can’t, the movie concludes. But he can try. Sure, he dresses up in a suit and punches bad guys. It solves a little problem, even if there are bigger problems left. He saves some lives, even if more are lost. As the world burns, what else can we do?