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The Batman and the case for masked vigilantes
It's not a "detective story"!
The world is at war, commodity prices are spiking, the pandemic is still out there, and so naturally today’s post is about “The Batman.”
Because I love movies and I love Batman and I’m being driven insane by the coverage of this movie.
The marketing material really pushed the idea that the filmmakers leaned heavily into the “Batman as the world’s greatest detective” theme and many critics have run with it:
Miles Surrey at The Ringer says, “Matt Reeves, the latest auteur to take the reins of the franchise with The Batman, has transformed our hero into a hard-boiled detective following a trail of bread crumbs left by a serial killer.”
David Betancourt at The Washington Post calls it “equal parts superhero thriller and detective drama.”
Alex Abad-Santos at Vox says, “The Batman brings the caped crusader back to his detective roots.”
Peter Travers at ABC says it “plays more like a detective thriller than a comic book epic.”
Germain Lussier at Gizmodo says it’s “more of a detective procedural than a superhero movie.”
Even Jacob Oller’s negative review calls it “a nearly three-hour detective story that overvalues both realism and style.”
Perhaps they just mean that Batman, the character, stands out from other superheroes in that he does not have superpowers, but he’s one of the absolute most famous superheroes and has been well-represented in screen adaptations for decades. I’m just not buying it.
Before we go on, you can’t address the question of whether or not “The Batman” is “a detective story” without spoilers, so if you are the kind of person who complains about spoilers,1 then please close this tab now.
Let me say some nice things about “The Batman”
A lot of people enjoyed this movie enormously, and it really is a much more interesting and well-crafted film than a lot of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies or the Zack Snyder DC movies.
Cinematographer Greig Fraser, who also did “Dune” last year, is some kind of genius. The film is often described as “realistic,” but Fraser photographed the movie with lenses that generate a lot more bokeh than you see in most movies. There are tons of scenes with really pronounced distinctions between what is and isn’t in focus. This is, of course, not what the world looks really looks like. Instead of being realistic, it draws attention to the artifice: you are watching things recorded on a camera. But in today’s digital world, prominent bokeh is associated with old-fashioned methods — big cameras with interchangeable lenses rather than smartphones; actual photography rather than CGI.
The movie has plenty of other virtues: the emo Batman characterization is an interesting idea, Zoë Kravitz keeps being great in things (she’s also Catwoman in “The Lego Batman Movie”), and the deep supporting cast is really wonderful — especially Peter Sarsgaard, who is asked to show a lot of range.
Killer score, killer use of “Something in the Way,” all-around good movie.
It’s also true that the movie is heavy on allusions to the film noir detective story genre, which has not really been true of past Batman movies even though it makes a ton of sense. And I assume that’s what people mean when they say it’s a detective story. But “Blade Runner” is also like that, and I don’t think anyone would say that “Blade Runner” is actually a detective story. It’s a cerebral science fiction movie about artificial intelligence. And unlike Batman, Deckard actually does detective work.
Batman does not solve any crimes through detective work
The first thing we see Batman do in this movie is leap into an elevated metro station and beat up a bunch of goons who were attacking a random guy.
It’s a very long film, and some things that happen over the course of it do resemble detective work. Batman visits crime scenes. Batman tries to talk to witnesses. Batman conducts surveillance. What Batman does not do, however, is use detective work to catch the Riddler. Instead, the Riddler shoots someone out of an open window. Witnesses see him fleeing the scene and see where he has gone. That’s how he’s caught. Once that is done, Batman does not manage to foil the Riddler’s plan to destroy the city’s flood controls. He does not uncover the bomb plot against Bruce Wayne (which ends up maiming Alfred) until it’s way too late. He arrives at the city’s designated flood shelter2 — an obvious place to go during a flood emergency — and then physically defeats a group of armed gunmen, saving the life of the mayor-elect.
This is extremely heroic stuff. Batman starts out by saving one guy on the station platform and ultimately raises his game by saving tons of people in the arena. He’s really good at fighting and has an awesome car.
But his detective skills are marginal to the story. And while his crime scene chats with Jim Gordon suggest that he’s knowledgeable about forensics, he is clearly not the most impressive detective in the story.
It’s the Riddler, after all, who figures out that the mayor, the DA, and the chief of police are all on the take. The Riddler figures out that the Gotham Legacy Foundation’s funds have been misappropriated. And while it’s (sort of) forgivable that Batman missed the former, he really was uniquely well-positioned to figure out what’s happening at his own family foundation. And he somehow missed it! By the end of the film, massive crimes have in fact been solved thanks to detective work, but it’s the Riddler who does it.
The corruption plot is important to modern Batman
If you’ve spent any time at all on the internet, you’re familiar with the suggestion that Bruce Wayne should fight crime through social reform rather than punching people on the streets of Gotham. This is part of the reason I like Frank Miller’s classic run “Batman: Year One,” from which “The Batman” takes a couple of thematic elements and plot points: Miller actually attempts to make some sense of a billionaire orphan dressing up like a bat to fight crime.
Here it’s worth recalling that while the Batman character dates to 1939, the Joker and Catwoman to 1940, Scarecrow and the Penguin to 1941, and the Riddler to 1948, the character of Carmine Falcone wasn’t introduced until 1987, even though “The Batman” is now his second movie appearance. In other words, we did several generations of Batman stories before it became canonical that his early work as a vigilante involved taking down a gangster who secretly controlled the political and legal system of Gotham City. The fact that “Year One” is no longer officially part of the DC comics continuity only underscores how well-entrenched the concept has become. Like the other classics of the Batman rogue’s gallery, the idea of a Carmine Falcone character persists in the comics across reboots of the whole continuity. He’s in “The Batman,” but he was also in “Batman Begins” and “Gotham.”
The Falcone character is not very memorable, just a generic Italian-American gangster, but he rationalizes the whole vigilante idea — and indeed Batman was in some ways based on Zorro, who from the beginning was depicted as fighting corruption in Mexico.
Otherwise you’d say, yeah, Bruce Wayne should focus on fighting poverty and promoting economic development in Gotham City. Even if like me, you’re a big believer in police funding, the point is that patrol officers’ visible deployment on the street deters crime. That’s labor-intensive work and it requires a healthy tax base. A lone vigilante sporadically disrupting crimes in progress doesn’t really move the needle, but investments in job creation and infrastructure could lay the groundwork for sustainable law enforcement solutions.
But that doesn’t really work if organized crime is controlling all of the city’s political and law enforcement officials. In that case, anything you do to try to pump money into the city is going to be sucked off by rent-seeking gangsters. And efforts to bring law and order to the streets will inevitably be compromised by the fact that the criminals are running the city.
Meanwhile, though the exact “Year One” scenario is a little far-fetched in a major contemporary American city, it’s a perfectly real policy problem that faces many countries in the world. And it’s really not clear what the best thing to do about it is.
A realistic dilemma
It’s definitely not a straight adaptation of Miller’s story (among other things, he says clearly that he’s been doing this for two years), which is too bad because Year One is the closest thing I can imagine to a grounded and realistic take on Bruce Wayne’s decision to pursue the vigilante path.
Still, the idea that the movie is “grounded” and “realistic” is also tossed around a lot, including by Sean Fennessy, Chris Ryan, and Joanna Robinson on The Big Picture podcast, which I almost never disagree with. But I really don’t think this is true.
“The Batman” is a very visually dark film, as in the scenes are literally dark. It’s also dark in tone and themes. This is often associated with “realism” in pop culture, but I wouldn’t say the movie is especially realistic. It depicts Batman as having body armor that’s so good bullets just bounce off him as if the momentum of the bullets magically disappears. To my eye, that’s even less “realistic” than the relatively normal action movie convention of the hero who can beat up tons of guys without getting shot. From Han Solo to Jason Bourne, we have lots of characters whose superpower is that nobody hits them with a bullet. I didn’t particularly mind any of that, but I did think the single coolest sequence in the whole movie was the very stylized bit where Batman is fighting a bunch of guys in the dark with the combat illuminated in strobe light fashion by occasional bursts of automatic gunfire. It was extremely comic book-y, but in a good way.
What I thought was unrealistic in a bad way was the apparent ease with which corruption is uprooted.
Once the bad police commissioner is out of the picture, the new guy seems totally reasonable. Nobody asks what the deal is with all the other people in the District Attorney’s office. A new mayor is elected on a reform platform, but also doesn’t seem to be facing meaningful pushback from inside the police department or elsewhere in the community.
That’s all pretty hand-wavy, though I can’t really fault the movie for not coming up with a plausible solution to entrenched corruption when nobody really knows what the solution is. Where I do fault “The Batman” is that (unlike in “Year One”), it’s really the Riddler rather than Batman who takes down the corrupt establishment. That would be thematically very dark, so they tack on this whole additional plotline where the Riddler does more bad stuff to clarify that he is really and truly the bad guy.
Gotham to Ukraine via Afghanistan
Having the city’s wealthiest scion also transform himself into a finely-honed fighting machine who puts on a bat suit to personally tackle crime is probably not a viable fix for the endemic corruption that plagues lots of countries.
But I do think it’s an interesting idea if only because there is such a paucity of plausible policy mechanisms for fixing this problem. The United States would really like it if the law enforcement structures of Mexico and Central America were less corrupt and intertwined with drug smugglers and international organized crime. I’m skeptical that anything we’ve tried to do about this has actually helped. But I do think our government would sincerely like to help, just as the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations surely desired for the U.S.-backed Afghan government to become a less corrupt, more capable state. The problem is that genuinely nobody knows how to make it work. When everyone is corrupt, pulling too hard at the threads in a principled way can bring the whole house down. But selectively pulling at the threads corrupts your anti-corruption campaign. You try to stand up to new institutions outside the usual structures, but those institutions then become a means of evading accountability. There’s a reason that both Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping used anti-corruption drives as the pretext for centralizing power and entrenching autocratic power.
What’s interesting is that while western observers used to think the Ukrainian state was too corrupt and inept to stand up to Russian pressure, it’s clear that since 2014 it’s actually gotten dramatically better.
Some of that is western material assistance, but it’s not as if Afghanistan lacked material assistance. Some of it is that the years of fighting Russia in Donetsk and Luhansk paired with the threat of invasion hanging over their heads seems to have induced Ukrainian elites to get better at running their country lest they lose it. You see things like this happen in history, whether in Meiji Japan or Prussia during the Napoleonic Wars, where external pressure induces periods of productive reform. Other times, as we saw in Afghanistan or a generation earlier with South Vietnam, it doesn’t. Peacetime corruption is a form of selfishness, but wartime corruption undermines the self-interest of the corrupt elites themselves, leading to battlefield disaster and enemy victory. A place like Gotham can stay in its corrupt equilibrium indefinitely because the civic structure crumbles without really being at risk of getting knocked over, so you start dreaming up deus ex machina solutions like masked vigilantes. It’s not realistic, but in some ways, that’s the point.
The whole anti-spoiler culture is annoying and bad, but that’s another newsletter.
Why a city that is below sea level and requires a system of levees to stay dry would make its designated flood shelter an arena that appears to be below ground level is an interesting question.