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The definite article (“the”) is a bold choice for the title of Matt Reeves’s new film about Gotham’s fabled caped crusader. A more appropriate title for The Batman would perhaps be A Batman, because this latest reboot of the lucrative franchise is just one of many iterations of the comic book world.
To declare Robert Pattinson’s version the Batman is to boldly go all in on this rendering of the familiar story, pitting it against other renderings—Christopher Nolan’s so-serious Dark Knight trilogy (2005–2012), Tim Burton’s and Joel Schumacher’s campy versions in the ’80s and ’90s, and Ben Affleck’s Batman in the DC Extended Universe films (2016–2021)—to vie for supremacy in cinema lore.
Yet this boldness is what I loved most about The Batman. By going all in on reenvisioning the world of Gotham—and its many colorful characters, textures, and subplots—Reeves captures why franchise reboots are attractive. Even if our memories of previous Gothams are still fresh, there’s something captivating about seeing it remade so completely, with some familiarity but mostly new dimensions and creatively subverted expectations. Note: Spoilers follow.
As I watched The Batman, I was utterly immersed in its world; three hours has rarely sped by so fast. I relished the new spins on Batman (emo/goth, Enneagram 4), Alfred (Andy “Gollum” Serkis liberated from a CGI suit!), the Riddler (genuinely scary psychopath inspired by the Zodiac killer), Penguin (underworld mob boss in the mold of Boardwalk Empire, who will soon get a spinoff series on HBO Max), and all the rest. I also loved the overall mood of this Gotham City (where the music of Nirvana and Beethoven both feel native), which feels poised to develop its rich characters even more in sequels.
So committed is this film to a reenvisioned Batman look, feel, and face that I never thought of the other films as I watched. It might be the best reboot I’ve seen.
At their worst, cinematic reboots are creatively lackluster regurgitations of familiar aesthetics and plots, made to milk more money from cash cow franchises. But at their best, reboots capture the beauty of creative vision: the human vocation of world-building and renewal. Reboots done well remind us that we’re made for a new creation.
Meta vs. Meaty
The one other superhero movie I thought about as I watched The Batman was last December’s megahit, Spider-Man: No Way Home. One of the reasons fans (including me) enjoyed No Way Home is that it so playfully leaned into the reality of multiple “universes” that arise when the film industry constantly reboots the same franchises. Watching three Spider-Mans (Tom Holland, Andrew Garfield, and Tobey Maguire) team up, crack jokes, and fight bad guys together was a pure and utter delight. Yet aspects of No Way Home didn’t sit well with me, and it wasn’t until watching The Batman that I knew what it was.
As fun as the “three Spider-Mans” motif is, it makes No Way Home a meta reflection on movies more than a meaty, self-contained movie. The effect of foregrounding its very movie-ness (by leaning into the reality of previous actors playing the character of Spider-Man) is that it pulls the audience out of the film’s world, rather than deeper into it. The world of No Way Home never felt immersive and substantive to me in the way The Batman’s world did.
To be sure, Reeves’s film basks in movie-ness in its own ways (mainly by referencing genres like noir, gangster films, and David Fincher–style procedurals), but it’s done in a way that still feels earnestly committed to the self-contained, highly specific place constructed for the film. What makes the world-building of a remake or reboot great is the extent to which its world is distinctive and believable as a unique world unto itself. When that world-building is ruptured by metareferences to other cinematic worlds, it cheapens the act of creation by underscoring its fictive artifice.
Imagine if Denis Villeneuve’s Dune (2021) had contained a scene in which Timothée Chalamet’s Paul Atreides encounters and teams up with Kyle MacLachlan (who played Atreides in David Lynch’s 1984 version of Dune). It would have betrayed what was otherwise one of the most stunning, immersive cinematic worlds created in recent years. Likewise, what if Joel Coen’s utterly distinctive vision of Shakespeare in The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) contained a dream sequence where Denzel Washington is haunted by other cinematic Macbeths (like Mel Gibson, Michael Fassbender, or Orson Welles)? It would ruin it.
Even if the source material is the same, we long for adapted narrative art to be fresh and surprising. We may know the old story, but we don’t know its new setting. It’s why we love things like great musical covers and fresh musical settings of the biblical psalms. It’s why we’re so interested to know who the next James Bond will be, and what the latest cinematic world of 007 will look like. It’s why new theatrical adaptations of Shakespeare or movie adaptations of Austen will never get old. We’re drawn to great stories and characters as retold, re-created, and reinterpreted by storytellers in various times and places. As fictional characters go, there’s no definitive (the) Batman any more than there is the definitive 007, Lady Macbeth, or Elizabeth Bennet. Yet in each new iteration, audiences hold out hope that this one might be the best version. Perhaps that’s what the audacious the in The Batman nods to—our instinctual longing for a renewed creation to be better than what came before.
Maybe the thrill of sitting down in a theater to witness a new adaptation of some treasured work reflects our longing for the new, ultimate, best-ever creation we will one day experience—or even just a longing to see new creation in ourselves (2 Cor. 5:17). Implicit in the human vocation to image our Creator through order-making (Gen. 1:26–28) is an intuitive desire for things to get better. It feels right to hope that chaos will gradually give way to order, problems will be solved, and sad things will come untrue. Yet as we know all too well from fallen human history since Eden, the work of renewal is messy and compromised by the human tendency to make worlds and cultivate order in self-serving ways, rather than God-glorifying ways.
Competing Visions of ‘Renewal’
Perhaps The Batman’s central theme is the way renewal is attempted in a broken and corrupt world. Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne / Batman represents one end of the spectrum, while Edward Nashton / Riddler (Paul Dano) represents the other. Both are orphans motivated by pain and justice, and both lay claim to the superior method of vengeance. At various points in the film, Batman is called “vengeance.” But one of the Riddler’s henchmen also says, “I’m vengeance” in the film’s climax.
Batman’s approach is to channel his rage into fighting evil on behalf of the vulnerable, assisting the authorities (chiefly Jeffrey Wright’s James Gordon) in ridding Gotham of crime and corruption. The Riddler also wants to fight evil and rid Gotham of corruption, yet he goes about his quest for moral purity in a violent, “burn it all down” (or “flood it all”) manner, becoming himself a morally compromised villain in the process. Somewhere in between these extremes is Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), the third central orphan of the film whose personal quest for vengeance waffles between the others-focused advocacy of Batman and the self-pitying rage of the Riddler.
How does personal trauma and victimization shape our visions of renewal? How does grievance shape our moral visions for a better world? These are central questions in The Batman—as they are in most comic book movies, or really most narratives, period. Everyone is broken, but what distinguishes a hero from a villain is how that personal brokenness translates into creation or destruction in the larger world.
Everyone is broken, but what distinguishes a hero from a villain is how that personal brokenness translates into creation or destruction in the larger world.
Matt Reeves’s The Batman explores explicitly in its plot what reboots generally show implicitly in their form: every work of “renewal” reflects a particular person’s character and creative vision. The renewal projects of fallen humans are thus always a messy mix of brilliance and brokenness, clarity and confusion; inevitably imperfect and somewhat disappointing. Every new Batman universe, however awesome, will not satisfy our curiosity and hope for the definitive masterpiece version, one day. Every reboot and relaunched thing (whether a replanted church or a rebuilt nation after war) will be a short-lived source of hope for “better.” Inevitably, though, it won’t live up to our longing for “best.”
Only God’s final renewal will satisfy that longing—when all tears are gone and “the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:4, NIV). Until then, our world is like the flooded ruins of Gotham at the end of The Batman. It’s an ongoing project, with great potential, but always a battleground of competing renewals—until God removes one “a” kingdom after another and, in his kindness, establishes “the” definitive peace of a singular, eternal kingdom.