Dark days for the Dark Knight.
The boy Bruce Wayne was eaten from the inside. The man Bruce Wayne is but a husk. The Wayne empire is crumbling, its king a recluse. He broods in his mansion, counting the hours ’til darkness. ’Til he dons his cowl and becomes his true self.
His father loved Gotham City. Loved it, perhaps, too much. He ran for mayor. He founded a charity with $1 billion of his own funds, hoping it would transform the city. And then, with a trigger pull, he was gone. Thomas Wayne and his wife were shot dead—their 10-year-old son left alone with their bleeding, cooling bodies.
That act of violence pushed that boy, young Bruce, to take his father’s legacy in a different, darker direction. As the Batman, he haunts the streets like a righteous demon, striking fear in the hearts of its sullied men. He doesn’t lurk in the shadows, he tells us: He is the shadow. And from its inky folds he strikes without warning.
In the vacuum Thomas Wayne left, The Batman stepped in. And he hopes to make the city better—one beatdown at a time.
But is he making Gotham better? The Batman can’t say. Night after night, he metes out his brutal justice. Day after day, the news blasts remind him how much injustice was done—how much more there is to do.
Better because of Batman? Perhaps in small ways, yes. But overall, things seem to be getting worse.
Take the city’s latest killer—a man who, like Batman, wears a mask. He, too, makes use of the shadows—in his case, the dark recesses of the Internet, posting sermons filled with righteous rage and murderous intent, almost as if he thought he was Gotham’s own Passover angel, sweeping up the unrighteous in his bloody quest to cleanse.
The Mayor is first—killed on Halloween while his own son was out trick-or-treating. The little boy found the body—tied to a chair, his head bandaged in duct tape. Someone had cut off the Mayor’s thumb.
The killer says he won’t be the only person to pay for past crimes. His work, the murderer says, is just getting started.
And he leaves a card—a riddle, if you will—for Batman to solve.
These are dark days indeed, filled with opaque cyphers and inky black clues. And Gotham will get a whole lot darker unless Batman—called by some the World’s Greatest Detective—can bring a little light to bear on the case.
For someone who says he’s part of the shadow, that won’t be easy.
Gotham City just might be the most corrupt, slimy city this side of Gomorrah. The rot runs deep. But Gotham does have a few things going for it.
One, of course, is Batman. While the superhero we meet here is unquestionably flawed and conflicted, he is trying to do what’s right for the city—no matter the physical cost or the mental and emotional toll. And even as the Riddler poses question after question to him, Batman is struggling with a question of his own: What sort of figure does he want to be? What sort of hero does Gotham truly need? And as this question grows more and more important, Batman finds himself doing something that all of us struggle to do: pushing himself toward positive change.
He’s not all alone in wanting to help the city and serve a little justice. Assistant Commissioner Gordon is one of the few folks in the upper echelons of Gotham who isn’t corrupt, and he’s going to get to the bottom of this case, even if his own superiors would rather he just ease off the throttle. Gordon forms an alliance with Batman, which suggests that both men are reasonably decent judges of character. And while Batman takes on the lion’s share of physical risk, Gordon’s putting his neck on the line in plenty of other ways.
Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s dutiful butler, does his best to steer the brooding billionaire into a more positive state of being (not easy, that), even as he supports Bruce’s alter ego in his detection work. Alfred is the closest thing to “family” that Bruce has had in his life since his parents’ murder, and Bruce comes to appreciate that in greater measure.
The Riddler—obviously Batman’s main antagonist here—seems to see himself as truly an Old Testament-like instrument of justice, and most of his diatribes have a certain (if mostly unspecific) biblical flavor to them. He talks about washing the city’s sins clean and forcing the guilty to “atone” for their wrongs, thundering like a masked Moses at the sight of a gilded calf. He also trots out references to the “sins of the father,” which points to Exodus 20:5: “You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation.” (Never mind that the Bible also says, in several locales, that every person’s sin is his or her own, and that kids aren’t punished for their parents’ misdeeds.)
The classic song “Ave Maria,” about the Virgin Mary, is used frequently in The Batman, even serving as a sort of clue. A funeral takes place in a towering Cathedral.
Riddler’s not the only longtime Batman nemesis on screen. Catwoman, a Batman villain who nevertheless often allies and flirts with the Caped Crusader, plays an important part in the film as well. And indeed, the two seem to harbor a mutual attraction: The couple kiss on occasion but go no further.
We see her alter ego, Selina Kyle, disrobe down to her underwear (as Batman spies on her outside her window), and she wears plenty of tight, revealing attire elsewhere. At a nightclub, she flirts with a patron, touching the man’s thigh as she plies him for information. She also runs into a gangster named Carmine Falcone, and the tone of their conversation suggests they were once in some sort of relationship.
Selina rooms with another woman who works at the club, who is also shown in revealing outfits. Selina calls her “babe” at once point, but there’s no other suggestion the two are anything more than friends.
We see Bruce Wayne without his shirt a few times.
For those expecting Avengers-like levels of violence here, think again. While The Batman is not particularly bloody, the violent vibe of the film feels less superhero flick and more like an R-rated crime thriller.
Case in point: the murdered mayor. We see the murderer half-chop, half-bludgeon the victim with a sharp hand-held instrument, then throw the bloody tool aside before pulling out a strip of duct tape—stage two of the killing. (It’s suggested that the man is smothered to death.) As mentioned earlier, he loses his thumb in the process, and the digit is later found and dangled.
Another victim is filmed wearing odd, cage-like headgear that also holds a pair of rats—with the intention that the rodents will devour the terrified man’s face. (We later see the briefest glimpses of crime photos that apparently show the damage.) A third victim has a bomb strapped around his neck. And in a Scream-like twist, the victim is forced to answer a series of questions in an effort to save his own life.
People are shot and sometimes die from their wounds. Bombs explode, leading to loss of life and tons of property damage. A character is seriously injured by a bomb. A dead body is discovered in a car. A reckless car chase on Gotham’s highways surely causes tons of unseen casualties and at least one spectacular fireball. A massive flood destroys much of the city and presumably kills many citizens. Those flood waters wash into an arena where many survivors retreated to get away from the deluge.
Batman is attacked by countless bad guys during the course of the film. He’s shot repeatedly, and while his armored suit protects him from serious damage, it’s still obviously painful (and a shotgun blast to the torso nearly knocks him out of the fight). He takes part in plenty of fisticuffs, too. One scrum with several assailants culminates in a Batman device literally shocking someone into submission. At another juncture, Batman punches a man repeatedly and almost madly, until the guy’s face is a bruised and bloodied mess.
He also punches a law officer in the face, too—though with the officer’s permission. (“You could’ve pulled that punch,” the policeman later says. “I did,” Batman tells him.) When we see him shirtless at one point, we see scars and bruises from some of his countless encounters with the underworld.
Someone careens through the air using a flying suit but comes to a pretty harsh and ordinarily bone-breaking landing.
We hear about a time when Thomas Wayne, a doctor, patched up a wounded gangster on his dining room table. We also hear about a past murder. People fall from some significant heights (though many are snared by cords and thus suspended upside down). Bad guys threaten innocent civilians, and we see a replay of an attack on a Gotham citizen. People are leg-whipped to the ground. Batman and Catwoman engage in a fracas or two.
[Spoiler Warning] Dozens of people rally to perpetrate a mass killing.
The Batman goes well beyond the profanity count of most superhero flicks. It includes one f-word and nearly 20 s-words, along with oft-repeated uses of “a–,” “b–ch,” “b–tard,” “d–n,” “h—” and “pr–k.” God’s name is misused nearly a dozen times—most of those with the word “d–n”—and Jesus’ name is abused a whopping 20 times.
The drug trade lies at the heart of the movie’s misadventures. In fact, a massive drug bust—made several years before—becomes the branch on which the Riddler’s web is spun.
The drugs in question are called “drops,” and addicts are referred to as “dropheads.” We see a laboratory where drops are manufactured (it looks quite a bit like a movie-based cocaine refinery or meth lab) and hear about how lucrative the business is. Other people at a club use the drug (so named because it’s delivered via drops in the eye) and offer it to others. One man wears a drop mask, and we see logos representing the drug, too.
Batman injects himself with an unknown green substance that acts an awful lot like adrenaline—enough to get him out of a tight spot and fight on.
People drink whisky and other forms of alcohol.
The Riddler’s methods are horrific. But he is, in his own twisted way, trying to bring the misdeeds of others to light. Corruption coats Gotham like an oily film, and we see that many of the city’s leaders have been soiled by it. Lies, graft and corruption are all part of the stew, as well as many a failed promise.
And, of course, it’s not just past misdeeds on display. Characters lie, steal and commit many other crimes as the film goes on.
Some of those misdeeds are implicitly condoned by the movie, of course. Batman is, after all, a vigilante, committing crimes (assault and reckless driving, to name just a couple) to catch criminals.
As Batman takes down a bevy of street-level bad guys, one terrified villain asks him who he is.
“I am vengeance,” Batman hisses.
This three-word statement gets to the textured core of The Batman.
Batman’s description of himself is accurate at that early juncture. He is indeed the Dark Knight of lore, an avenging slinger of batarangs and bringer of pain.
And let’s be honest: Batman is indeed cool in this, his most primal guise.
But the film asks a really interesting question—one that Batman himself asks at the outset. Does vengeance do any good? Could it even be counterproductive?
This is a theme that other Batman films have flirted with, but none have delved so deeply into those ramifications. The Riddler, in a sense, is Batman’s ethos taken a few steps beyond. If Two-Face (another famous Batman villain) believes that chance is the world’s only justice, and Joker just laughs in the face of the very concept, the Riddler here cares about justice—though he doesn’t care how many people he has to kill to unleash his definition of it. He sees himself as the good guy.
And because Riddler himself feels like he and Batman are kindred spirits, that forces Batman to consider just what sort of hero he is—and what sort of hero he should be.
This film is dark, no question. It can feel incredibly brutal. It is, without a doubt, the most profanity-laden PG-13 superhero movie I’ve ever seen. This film is as grim as a deserted road through Nevada, as dark as 4 a.m.
But when you hit 4 a.m., you might just see a tiny glimmer of light on the horizon, too.
In the midst of all this cinematic darkness, that glimmer of light is Batman himself. He holds true to his historic principles and makes a turn toward something better: He doesn’t just want to be the shadow that people fear, but a figure that can offer hope. He realizes—and we do, too—that as necessary as justice is, it must be leavened with a bit of kindness. Charity. Love.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.