One of the many pleasures of The Batman, which premiered on HBO Max this week, is finally getting another kind of story about being Batman on the big screen.Both the Christopher Nolan and Zach Snyder depictions of Batman were close-but-not-quite for me, as a lifelong Batman fan and comic book reader. Having cut my teeth on Batman: The Animated Series, Christian Bale’s turn as a billionaire playboy rang true to me, but his Batman always felt a little too well adjusted for a guy who decides to become a bat-themed vigilante. Ben Affleck’s interpretation of Batman as a divorced dad also wasn’t wrong, exactly, especially given Snyder’s obvious fondness for the work of Frank Miller. But it wasn’t the kind of Batman story that I have found compelling since I was a child.
Robert Pattison, who skyrocketed to fame as Edward Cullen in Twilight, has made a career of playing obsessive weirdos, starting with Cullen, who Pattinson said he played as a “108-year-old virgin.” From Eric Packer in David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis to Thomas Howard in Robert Eggers’s lonely, homoerotic The Lighthouse to Monte, the prisoner doomed to languish on a spaceship headed into a black hole in Claire Denis’s High Life, Pattinson is interested in characters who are in search of something that is missing in their lives, whether that be Cullen’s desire for true love, Packer’s desire for the Rothko Chapel, or Monte’s desire for human dignity; these are all singularly driven characters, past the point of sense in most cases. Pattinson’s Batman is also defined by that kind of obsessive, hopeless search for purpose.The story of Batman is pretty simple: Bruce Wayne, the son of a rich doctor who could want for nothing, is orphaned one night by a mugger. In response, after years of not recovering from his grief, this child decides to dress up as a bat to fight crime. Both Nolan and Snyder pretty much stop there, with the decision to dress like a bat and fight crime being the answer to Bruce’s problems. While Snyder didn’t get to tell the complete story he wanted to, Nolan’s trilogy ends with Batman escaping his self imposed cycle of grief and fucking off with Anne Hathaway to France, Gotham be damned. Again, none of these portrayals are bad, but they don’t reach the richness that the comics, or even Batman: The Animated Series, are capable of.
Nolan and Snyder made movies about a guy who is broken, and for whom being Batman is the reprieve from his brokenness. It’s an appealing fantasy of recovering from trauma by simply transforming yourself, one that many people wish were true. Matt Reeves and Robert Pattinson’s Batman is just a step more complicated. Being Batman can’t save Bruce Wayne from his loneliness in this movie. He has to, however slowly, actually process the emotional pain that drove him to make such an extreme life choice in the first place.Pattinson, reportedly, is a real Batman nerd, who sat down with Eggers while doing post-production work for The Lighthouse and said “I need to play the Batman.” Like a lot of people his age, who grew up when Tim Burton’s Batman film paved the way for every single superhero movie that came after it, he was obsessed with Batman to the point of wearing the costume as his normal childhood clothes. You can feel this kind of instinctual, childhood fascination in his portrayal of Bruce Wayne and Batman. He’s a Batman fan’s Batman, the kind of Batman who shows up in the most famous and acclaimed of his comic books. This is Batman as an emotionally stunted adult, a guy who dresses up as a bat to solve crime not as an answer, but as a way to find something for which he is still, eternally, seeking.
After watching The Batman, I immediately reread Grant Morrison’s iconic run on the comic, starting with Batman and Son, and continuing in Batman: RIP, The Return of Bruce Wayne and Batman & Robin, in which Morrison pits Batman in an eternal fight of good against evil, life against death. While less rooted in material reality than The Batman—Morrison’s comic eventually features time travel and the New Gods of Apokolips—its treatment of Batman as a character is the one most familiar and interesting to me. While this Batman is also a broken man who is haunted by trauma, he has found the way through it.“The gunshots left me alone. For years I was alone in the echoing dark of that well,” Batman says, after he has finally vanquished death itself near the end of The Return of Bruce Wayne. “But something else defined the exact moment Batman was born. The first truth of Batman… the saving grace. I was never alone. I had help.”By the end of The Batman, Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne isn’t quite there. But he’s also not a person defined by loss, like Affleck’s Batman, nor is he as directionless as Bale’s. He’s pushed himself as far as he can into his elaborate deathwish without actually dying. He has the beginnings of his group of allies in Arthur and Selina Kyle, and is realising that in order to do any good, he needs to open up to people.The idea that Bruce Wayne finds absolution from his grief through family is one that’s been more or less accepted as truth in the fiction of its comic books. Even Frank Miller, whose overtly macho and glum work defines a popular, hypermasculine vision for the character, gave Batman a Robin, a partner to crack wise and take the edge off the whole crime fighting thing. In the comics, eventually Batman collects a whole series of orphaned children to help raise an entire Bat-family as it has been dubbed by fans. Morrison’s Batman and Son arc is all about Bruce getting a more literal heir to his lineage in Damian Wayne, his son with this sometime paramour and arch nemesis, Talia Al-Ghul. Even Damian, who bristles at Bruce’s request to not murder people, ends up charmed by the whole “having a supportive family” thing.What’s most appealing about all these depictions of Batman is that they know the ultimate limits to a story like this. The Batman obviously draws its inspiration from film noir, but also the tortured melodrama of romance comics and pulp novels, where no one leaves their house until it’s past midnight and raining. This is a Gotham City that feels more like a place out of time than an actual, inhabitable city, closer to the pastiche of retro architecture and high tech gadgets of Batman: The Animated Series than Christopher Nolan’s Gotham-As-Literally-Just-Chicago. At the end of the day, these are stories based on children’s fantasy, and The Batman is campy enough to fit that tone, from the moment that Bruce Wayne sits in the dark journaling to Nirvana until Selina Kyle pouts that she “has a thing about strays” while seductively drinking a glass of milk to Colin Farrell as the Penguin doing an Italian accent that feels like it might actually be racist to Italians. This is a space where a man dressed as a bat to fight crime briefly makes sense, and The Batman doesn’t have any pretensions of being anything more than a movie about Batman.It’s a really good movie about Batman, though, and one that still imparts a comforting truth to its viewers. Just like the Batman I’ve read comics about for most of my life, you don’t have to be alone in your grief. You have allies and friends, and they want you to be a little bit nicer to yourself. You might not get over it right away, but after that long night, there is still a sun that rises.