Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Vengeance is mine, saith… The Batman?

(Guest post by Ken)

Minor spoilers for The Batman ahead; read at your own risk

I can’t remember another time a superhero film has caused me to find deeper meaning in a scripture, but the much discussed newest outing of the Caped Crusader, The Batman, did just that. This well-built entry in the most film-adapted superhero’s filmography is definitely not for everyone, but it has some poignant things to say in an increasingly conflict-ridden world.

I admit I came into the film with heavy skepticism for multiple reasons (besides the butt-numbing three hour runtime!), such as:

  1. First, the obvious thing we were all thinking: Robert Pattinson??? Really? 
  2. Second: the previews looked SO DARK and “gritty,” an overused Hollywood trope that often substitutes for substance. 
  3. And finally: how is this ever going to live up to the unfillable shoes left by the Nolan trilogy? 

Let’s pick apart how the film performed against these barriers.

R-Pat at the Bat

My initial hesitations regarding Pattinson were tempered after seeing his performance in Tenet which showed him in a charismatic action role. That performance gave me a bit more hope that we wouldn’t just get the “emo vampire” Batman everyone feared. The result? Well, we actually got something more like the emo vampire, but I don’t think it was really Pattinson’s fault. First of all, there is extremely little Bruce Wayne in this film. He is almost always under the cape and cowl. This is a script choice, of course. But I couldn’t help but feel like Batman himself was the most boring character in this film. When you do see him as Bruce he is very moody and dark. When he’s Batman he’s either fighting or standing in near-paralyzed silence. You could have traded dozens of other actors into that cape and gotten the exact same performance. I will say that I appreciated how the action scenes portrayed him as still very young and inexperienced. He’s far from a perfect fighter and makes some physical mistakes that heighten the realism (this is most notable in a scene with a roof jump in a wingsuit).

The Dark-er Knight

This film absolutely leaned into the trope of “make it gritty for the sake of gritty” that I assumed it would from the previews. It wasn’t insufferable, and many other recent films are far worse offenders. But this film is DARK. If you had a hard time sitting through The Dark Knight, do not see this film. I think it was at least as dark, if not more so. Particularly brutal are the methods the Riddler uses to torture and kill people. It manages to keep the blood levels within the PG-13 rating boundary, but the psychological trauma elements were far creepier to me than any gore would be, and I don’t even handle blood that well! It's also literally dark. Almost every scene takes place at night. The only daytime scene that readily comes to mind in my memory is literally a funeral with everyone dressed in black. It’s like Reeves took a cue from Lego Batman: “I only work in Black. And sometimes very, very dark gray.” The darkness (literal and figurative) is what some people are raving about, but it honestly was my least favorite aspect of the film, even if I respect that it was executed well. 


You really can’t write a review of this film without inevitably comparing it to Nolan’s films. Many have said it succeeds by not trying to mimic the Dark Knight films at all but be its own new film. I don’t entirely agree. It is definitely not a Nolan film, but I think director Matt Reeves has actually done well at preserving some of the things that people most admired in those films compared to earlier adaptations, such as a pure sense of realism that eschews any extreme sci-fi/fantasy elements. In the end, I think Reeves succeeded overall by balancing the reverence for Nolan with his own instincts and he got that mix perfect. It never seems like a Nolan knock-off, but still builds upon many of the same principles in its approach. He did well to use two primary villains (Riddler and Penguin) who Nolan never touched, but who fit well into being adapted to Nolan’s hyper-realistic form. 

Is this film as good as the Nolan trilogy? In the opinion of this Nolan-junkie author, no. But it didn’t need to clear that mark and what Reeves pulled off was about as good a film you could make in Nolan’s shadow.

Regarding Vengeance

One additional way Reeves took a cue from Nolan was endow his film with a sense of theme that aims to make the audience think rather than just be entertained. The theme is much simpler than Nolan’s often-multilayered approach of heavy-handed Jungian psychology that tends to go over the head of many average movie-goers. But while simple, I found the film’s message profound.

Throughout the film, Batman ends his interactions with bad guys by growling, “I’m Vengeance!” His motivation is obsession in seeing punishment doled out to the criminal elements of Gotham he blames for the death of his parents. In the end, Batman learns that the only people he inspires when he acts this way are others obsessed with punishing those they feel responsible for every injustice in their life. The Riddler doesn’t hate Batman—he idolizes and is trying to mimic him, as are numerous others throughout the city. When he hears a domestic terrorist quoting his own “I’m Vengeance!” tagline, he realizes that much of the mayhem caused throughout the plot’s course has been inspired by his own crusade. He makes a distinct decision to recalibrate his purpose at that moment and decides to focus from that point on rescuing victims as the higher priority than punishing the offenders. 

This moment of realization for Batman is at first one of the most depressing moments I’ve seen on film and calls into question how much we should laud many of our most closely held superhero tropes. While Batman will no doubt continue to play a role in catching bad guys and bringing them to justice, he learns an important truth that helping and lifting the innocent is more noble an ideal than making sure the wicked get punished. He moves on from a motivation of vengeance. 

I don’t regularly spend much time pondering vengeance as a concept, but I was made to think of the common scriptural context of the word. The most famous passage we hear is from Romans 12:19: “Vengeance is mine… saith the Lord.” This verse itself is a quoting of numerous earlier scriptures (just go search “Vengeance” in the Topical Guide). I’ve heard these scriptures my whole life without pondering them much, maybe because they made me even vaguely uncomfortable. They just seemed to reinforce a perception of God who promises to punish us for our wickedness rather than forgive. And yet, if you read that Romans verse in full context it actually begins with a note of counsel: “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves.”

God isn’t saying He wants us to remember how vengeful He is. Rather, when he says “Vengeance is mine” He’s reminding us that it isn’t ours. That isn’t to say we should stop striving for justice or disband systems which try to bring justice to society. But ultimately, there will be many wrongs from others we cannot set right, and God invites us to set aside our quest for vengeance and remind us that He will take care of that. And honestly, his form of setting it right will often be through reforming the wicked in any way He can as His first tool of choice. The punishment was all already paid in Gethsemane. 

In a world that is increasingly angry about just about everything, choosing to end a Batman film with a message of letting going of vengeance and focusing on making a positive difference in the world was a bold move for a movie filled with so much darkness. And it’s a message I appreciated and which lifted the film’s value all around. I’m optimistic that this revelation reshaping his motivation carries through to the inevitable sequel.

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