THE BATMAN and the Bruce Wayne I didn’t know I was waiting for

As someone historically ambivalent to the Batman character and mythos, I’m caught off guard by how much Matt Reeves’ The Batman swept me away. A wonderfully conceived and crafted work of storytelling, the heart of which is Robert Pattinson’s incredibly portrayed moody broody broken Batman, all dark painted eyes and stoic exterior and whipsmart perception for solving mystery clues, yet obfuscated to so many emotional, human realities and tolls both in himself and those around him, till they all come crashing down and so too do the walls he’s built around his own heart.

The masterstroke here is foregoing the typical Bruce Wayne socialite playboy depiction, and portraying instead how being mired in his trauma has made him an emotionally stunted recluse, trying to close himself off from feeling or having to face any more loss. And so he recedes from the world as Bruce, and manifests this Batman alter ego as a coping mechanism. The film’s great success is in being very cognizant of the ridiculousness of the whole concept of Batman, and rather than insist on trying to make it some deeply edgy thing, embrace that and better contextualize Batman as the persona where a very troubled Bruce Wayne hides (while also grounding him in being more defined by his detective acumen than his brawn; and taking his share of hits and scrapes while also formidably dishing them out). It’s also very pointed about how detrimental being Batman, and being wrapped up in that to the exclusion of all else, actually is on him. Not some glorified hero, he is tormented and consumed by his vigilante life, while heedless to the heavy toll it takes on his own wellbeing, his deteriorating mental health, and his emotional walls and assume-the-worst attitude that keep everyone in his life held at arm’s length.

His journey then becomes about emerging from that, coming face to face with harsh, shocking truths and finding balance, as he figures out what his place in this world actually is — as Batman, and as Bruce.

“I am the shadows” he writes in his journal, holed up in his lonely cave, so wonderfully Shraderesque. It’s a delightful line, and one that exemplifies how deftly this film balances self-aware moody Batman melodrama with dark tonality and a sincere, affecting (and sometimes terrifying) story and emotional arc. So stunningly shot, it also does create the feeling of Batman being perpetually everywhere and enmeshed in the shadows of the city. The way we rarely see him in other contexts and out of the batsuit, where he’s clearly most comfortable, and the funeral scene where he makes a rare public appearance as Bruce Wayne, so palpably on edge in broad daylight, hit hard and underscore his buried anxieties. At the same time, playing against the levity of him wincing at the sun and putting on sunglasses inside his own home, and tragicomically describing himself as a “nocturnal animal”. The subdued Bruce Wayne gets increasingly manic in a compelling push-pull to his calm, assertive, methodical Batman; yet also a Batman who stumbles and fumbles; and whose self-assured misconstrued conclusions often get in the way of his undying, underlying earnest desire to do what’s right.

And so as the layers of Riddler’s clues and the sordid truths of the Gotham underworld get peeled back, so does Bruce’s awareness and emotional vulnerability, as he learns to take a step back and gives himself in, slowly, to more and more moments of human connection, of re-finding the humanity in himself as well as in those around him. And so too does the mythos he’s built up to himself of what and why Batman is. If his belief was that Batman is vengeance, and exists in reaction and answer to the seedy criminal villainy that surrounds him, this comes undone when he is confronted with the realities of the Riddler: that he is reacting to that same criminal corruption, as well as to Bruce, his parents and his family legacy; that he claims to be inspired by Batman and his mask, and that his own mask made him the real him; that he is someone who became consumed by an alter ego taking him to the most warped and brutal of extremes — while seeking vengeance. Facing all this, Bruce’s worldview and conception of his place in it are completely rattled; forcing him to reckon with his own part in all this, and what effects he can and should be having.

At the film’s climax, with the Riddler caught and locked away yet still wreaking havoc from beyond his asylum confines, the city sinking under water and no one left for Batman to fight, to punch, to beat — to get vengeance over — his pinnacle moment becomes a breathtaking, dramatic sequence of just: helping people. Descending into the wreckage, he lets himself fall out of the darkness and lights up a brilliant flare, illuminating himself to the citizens of his city who he’d holed himself away from — now a beacon instead of a shadow. Reaching out, to the forlorn young boy whose father has just been murdered, a reflection of young Bruce; to the newly elected mayor trying to effect change, and wanting to work with Bruce to do so. As he hauls away wreckage and helps them to safety, he becomes more a part of them, a part of the city instead of just its shadows. And as he opens himself up to that and to the people in his life, Selina, Alfred, Gordon; his walls (partially) falling away gives rise to the power of working collectively, hand-in-hand, above that of the one-man loner crusade.

By the end of the film Bruce Wayne hasn’t worked through all his issues by any means, but he has gained more balance and understanding of himself and his place, and started to emerge a bit from his metaphorical as well as physical cave. Though not quite enough to go away with Selina when she entreats him to, unable to tear himself from Gotham just yet. The drawn-out, melancholy sequence of their motorcycles running in parallel then ultimately diverging effuses all the emotion that he is unable to fully express, as he lets her go. For now his city needs him, and whatever’s keeping him there — duty, atonement, belonging — he’s figuring it out, committed to healing his scars along with Gotham’s, now with a new sense of hope.

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