What is disguised but never lies? Lessons from The Batman.

“Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth,” observed Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde, and after watching the latest iteration of the iconic dark detective superhero in Matt Reeves’ The Batman, I certainly agree. I found the film exceeded my expectations, especially since I wasn’t initially impressed with the casting of Robert Pattinson as Batman. The dark noir setting of this film was brilliantly executed, and like every good movie should, it invoked thoughts and feelings which serve as a prophetic critique to some of the greater concerns of our present reality. If you haven’t yet watched the movie this is a good place to stop reading to avoid spoilers, as I will explore some of what I believe to be some of the more impactful moments of the film. 

Wearing masks is about so much more than just disguising identity in The Batman.

Like every good Batman story, this film explores the ever increasing divide between the privileged and the marginalized and how that divide threatens the ever so fragile societal order. This theme is underscored when Pattinson, as Bruce Wayne, is eventually targeted by Paul Dano’s Riddler as someone who perpetuates “The sins of his father.” Bruce Wayne was unaware of the corruption that had appropriated the legacy of the Wayne estate that was designated for the renewal of Gotham City. The Riddler reveals this renewal fund is just a front to bankroll organized crime. This revelation forces The Batman to momentarily shed his mask to confront some of those leading citizens and underworld bosses who continue in perpetuating the masquerade. Andy Serkis in a refreshing and original portrayal of Alfred Pennyworth fills in some of the missing details of Bruce Wayne’s memories of his parents, further complicating the complexities that The Batman must navigate as he unravels the mystery behind The Riddler’s crimes. 

Zoë Kravitz masterly portrays Selina Kyle AKA Catwoman and contributes to this theme of “unmasking society” by revealing her own secrets as someone who was denied privilege and feels entitled to take what is hers by any means necessary. Catwoman even comes close to identifying The Batman by observing that he talks like “someone who grew up rich” and later challenges the entitlement of the “white privileged.” The law and order that narrowly holds Gotham together is revealed to be merely a guise to empower and protect the seedier elements that serve those who manipulate the system for their own benefit. 

In my estimation, the truly great performances in this Batman movie, like many of the films before it, are not by the heroes but by the villains. Colin Farrell is as genius as he is unrecognizable as The Penguin, John Turturro as crime boss Carmine Falcone turns in a riveting performance, as does Barry Keoghan’s brief cameo introduction of The Joker.  But of course, as previously mentioned, Dano as The Riddler is chilling, with a performance that in my opinion is on par with  that of the iconic portrayal of Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. 

Paul Dano as The Riddler

Dano gets the subtleties of the mastermind serial killer just right, while playing up the similarities to recent QAnon conspiracies and the still unresolved Zodiac Killer vibes. But The Riddler is more than just a villain, in many ways he represents the increasing segments of the population who feel disenfranchised and powerless. At one point, he even confesses that The Batman was his means to bring corrupt individuals “To the light” because he, growing up as an invisible orphan, lacked the physical ability to do so, even though he possessed the intellect to uncover the duplicity of Gotham’s well connected citizens. 

This is one of the most powerful moments of the film. When The Riddler confronts Batman within Arkham Asylum he reveals to The Batman, “you’re part of this too.” This revelation has powerful implications for how Batman sees himself in this mirror of a villian he inspired to put on a mask. The Riddler confesses as much as he engages in a tirade proposing that it is the mask that allows him to be true to himself. The Riddler provokes Batman to anger by suggesting that while “all of Gotham wants to unmask you,” they don’t realize the mask is a source of power by inspiring fear. It is at this moment Batman realizes his persona of “Vengeance” has unintended consequences of inspiring others to do the same. Batman comes to the revelation that all of us would do well to learn, which is no matter how noble we may estimate our motivations, our actions are always open to interpretation.

Zoë Kravitz puts in a powerful performance as Catwoman

The Riddler’s acts and motivations perforates the fabric of Gotham society divulging that though it is often disguised, the truth never lies. A message that is the potent point of The Batman

The Batman suggests this about society: we all wear masks. We put on a smile when we are sad, we respond “I’m fine” when a friend asks “How are you?” We all do this because wearing the mask enables us to speak a truth while denying the truth. The truth is that we are all a mixture of good and bad, righteous and evil, and depending on the day or circumstances we are equally guilty of the same weaknesses we judge in others. By faithfully communicating these truths, albeit laboring under the constraints of a social contract of civility, these truths maintain the pathways for the more difficult conversations to engage. Only in attempting kindness to each other when we don’t feel like being kind can we exercise the relational collateral that is necessary for all of us to confront the undeniable harms we collectively and individually perpetuate, however unintended they may be. 

While attempting to save Gotham from The Riddler’s grand finale of atrocity, Batman comes to understand that vengeance isn’t enough to inspire others to goodness. If we merely live our lives in a way that reciprocates the actions and behavior of others, rendering “tooth for tooth and eye for eye” we will, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., all be left blind. Batman realizes that in order for society to achieve true order then individuals must aspire to something more than mere vengeance; people must have hope. 

In the end, Batman’s cowl should represent more than fear; it must give people hope. In the same way, if Oscar Wilde is to be believed, that “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he’ll tell you the truth,” then may we all reveal ourselves by donning the guise, not of fear, but of everlasting hope. And by doing so make a better and safer society for all. 

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