When someone in Matt Reeves’ new film The Batman refers to Robert Pattinson’s Dark Knight as “Zorro,” it’s a low-key gag with a number of layers. A quippy, Whedonesque pop-culture name check on the surface, it also alludes to Zorro’s dual role inspiring Batman, both in the real world and in the pages of the comics.
In the real world, comics legends Bob Kane and Bill Finger drew significant inspiration from Douglas Fairbanks’ 1920 silent swashbuckler The Mark of Zorro in creating their own caped crusader. In the comics, Frank Miller established in the 1980s that it was the 1940 Tyrone Power version of The Mark of Zorro that the Wayne family had been to see on that fateful evening when Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered.
Watching The Batman, I found myself thinking about the Zorro connection and especially about those two early Zorro movies — and the differences between them. Among these differences are contrasting visions of the hero’s relationship to the people he defends: Is a hero a savior or champion standing alone between the powers of evil and a passive, helpless populace? Or is he an inspiration, a role model whose example has a transforming effect on the people he serves? Is it up to the hero to say what justice is or how society should be ordered? Or do members of society have a say?
Noblesse oblige and peasant revolts
Compared to Power’s Zorro, Fairbanks’ pioneering masked man is notably closer to Batman in some ways, down to the secret passage from his manor home to a hidden lair below where he keeps his cool black ride. Opening titles establish the principle of action and reaction:
Oppression — by its very nature — creates the power that crushes it. A champion arises — a champion of the oppressed — whether it be a Cromwell or someone unrecorded, he will be there. He is born.
One might gloss over this passing lionization of the controversial 17th-century anti-Royalist leader Oliver Cromwell (whose arguably genocidal campaign against Irish Catholics surpassed even the ruthless anti-Catholic program of his great-great-grand-uncle, Thomas Cromwell, under King Henry VIII) — especially given the Catholic-friendly drama that follows. There’s no glossing, though, the paternalistic noblesse oblige with which Fairbanks’ Zorro, after various exploits defending long-suffering “natives and priests” from corrupt authorities, upbraids the blue-blooded Spanish gentry for their inaction:
Are your pulses dead? Thank God, mine is not — and I pledge you my blood’s as noble as the best! No force that tyranny could bring would dare oppose us — once united. Our country’s out of joint. It is for us caballeros, and us alone, to set it right!
This language (“noble blood”; “us caballeros, and us alone”) establishes clearly not only who has agency in the film’s early 19th-century Spanish Californian setting, but who fittingly leads and acts on behalf of the common people. To be fair, The Mark of Zorro also celebrates Franciscan priests who speak against oppression, but their advocacy brings only suffering unless a member of the aristocracy intervenes. It is ultimately the nobility, good or bad, who will decide whether the common folk live in tranquility or oppression. The common folk have no voice, no agency.
A very different vision emerges 20 years later in the Power remake. When Powers’ Diego Vega returns to California from military education in Spain, he finds that his father’s benevolent governance has been displaced by a regime of oppression backed by a garrison of trained soldiers whom all the caballeros together could not overcome.
Justifying his methods, the corrupt alcalde says he only wants to make the peons more “industrious” — which really means, Diego’s indignant father retorts, “grinding them into poverty to line your own pockets.” Since the caballeros alone lack sufficient strength to prevail, regime change ultimately turns on a peasant revolt, or rather a mob scene in which peons and caballeros join forces to overwhelm the alcalde’s soldiers (with Eugene Pallette’s gravel-voiced friar lending a conflicted hand, each blow dispatching a hapless soldier accompanied by a mantra of “God forgive me”).
The conflict in the 1940 Mark of Zorro is linked to opposing ideas about what is good for the peons: how they should be governed; what they need and deserve. The alcalde disingenuously claims that his heavy hand is for the peons’ own good. From the start, though, the peons have at least some agency, however ruthlessly curtailed it may be. In an early scene Diego meets a man who spoke at a meeting of the peons against the heavy taxes, only to have his tongue cut out. Other signs of resistance indicate that these peons aren’t passive victims; what they need — and the caballeros too — is not a savior, but a leader to rally and unite them.
Holy law and order, Batman!
Questions around how what people need and deserve and how they should be governed are of course recurring themes in the saga of Zorro’s more famous heir, Batman: most prominently in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, but now also in The Batman. Looking back, they echo in Tim Burton’s two Batman movies and even, in a way, in the campy 1966 movie spinoff of the Adam West TV show.
These questions recur partly because they resonate beyond the imaginary worlds of Zorro and Batman. To what extent can we trust our social institutions or our ruling elites? To what extent can we trust ordinary people to advocate for the common good? Is society better served by democratic participation or by strong leadership? What are the obligations of the very wealthy and powerful to the common good? We don’t look to comic-book movies to answer these questions for us, but their varying answers tell us something about ourselves and the times in which they were made.
In the Adam West era, Batman and Robin were effectively deputized agents of the state, fully committed to the institutional systems of law and order and governance. Where Zorro is consistently depicted as a revolutionary striving against systemic injustice — always, notably, in a period setting — in the era of Dragnet and Perry Mason it’s not surprising to find the institutional world of which Batman and Robin are a part (Commissioner Gordon, Chief O’Hara, etc. film) depicted as fundamentally benign, if not always completely noble.
Of the 1966 Batman movie’s many absurdist conceits, the absurdest involves a dehydrating device that reduces human beings to small heaps of dust particles that can of course be reconstituted by adding water. When this device is used to kidnap the bickering members of the Security Council of the “United World Organization,” the situation is further complicated when someone sneezes, scattering the particles and obliging Batman to resort to even more fantastic technology to isolate the particles of each Security Council member before restoring them.
This process of filtering through the powdery remnants of the Security Council members prompts speculation from the Boy Wonder: What if they were to make a few adjustments … improve the makeup of the Security Council just a bit? Batman, though, rejects this suggestion: Heroes must not tamper with the laws of nature — nor, by extension, with the political process. In this iteration, Batman supports and upholds the system, even when it doesn’t work quite as well as it might.
Can Gotham be saved?
A little over two decades later, Burton’s Batman films offered a radically different vision. Overshadowed by the 1970s/80s anxieties about urban decay and inner-city violence that shaped movies like Taxi Driver and RoboCop — not to mention Frank Miller’s influential graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns — Burton’s films depict Gotham as a dystopian urban hellscape whose institutions are broken and whose populace is easily manipulated.
When Batman (1989) opens, a local mob boss runs the city and has most of the police (most prominently William Hootkins’ Lt. Max Eckhardt) on his payroll. The mayor (Lee Wallace, notably resembling longtime New York mayor Ed Koch) introduces an idealistic new DA, Billy Dee Williams’ Harvey Dent, whom Borg promises will root out corruption, though many viewers know he is doomed to become the chaotic villain Two-Face. The people of Gotham are so sheeplike that Jack Nicholson’s Joker, a known mass murderer, easily draws large crowds simply by throwing cash around. In Batman Returns, the public are just as easily taken in by an alliance of Danny DeVito’s deformed Penguin and a predatory real-estate mogul named Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), who conspire to take over the city with a mayoral bid bolstered by manufactured crises.
Democracy, in Burton’s Batman movies, doesn’t work; people are too susceptible to manipulation and the institutions of society are too corrupt. Only a powerful outsider who is above the law can accomplish real change — although by the end of Batman Returns it’s unclear whether even Michael Keaton’s Dark Knight is ruthless enough. He wants to turn Shreck over to authorities; Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, who knows law and order are useless against powerful men, kills Shreck. Bruce sees himself as a kind of feudal lord, Gotham’s crown prince protecting his fief, but Catwoman rejects what she explicitly calls his fairy-tale castle.
I’ve already written at length about Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and how dramatically it whiffs on its own central question “Does Gotham deserve to be saved?” In each film — in a manner evocative of Abraham bargaining with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah — the villain plays God, pronouncing some kind of doom on Gotham as beyond redemption, while Batman advocates for the city, maintaining that there are good people who just need time or opportunity. Yet right to the end, with Tom Hardy’s Bane conducting a citywide social experiment to see whether a sufficient crisis will provoke the people “clamber over each other” as he predicts or elicit the “proven resilience” that the US president invokes, Nolan shows almost no interest one way or the other in who the people of Gotham are or what they will do.
The trilogy’s September 11, 2001 overtones build to a crescendo demanding a United 93 moment of popular resistance (or, to invoke another Nolan film, a “Dunkirk spirit” moment) that never materializes. Instead, it’s Gotham’s police who ultimately rise to the challenge. Things fall apart, but the thin blue line holds, and holds the world together. It’s a disappointing dodge that makes the prior film, The Dark Knight, retroactively less satisfying.
Reeves’ The Batman subjects the mythos of the Dark Knight to its most searching big-screen cross-examination yet. Drawing on David Fincher’s serial-killer thrillers Seven and Zodiac as well as Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Reeves depicts Gotham as a noir nightmare landscape, dialing up the themes of violent streets and institutional crookedness from Burton’s films, but eschewing any element of whimsy or playfulness. After two years in the field, Batman is obsessed with his crusade to the point of monomania, but with violent crime and drug abuse at record highs he’s unsure whether he’s making a positive difference. “I’m vengeance” replaces “I’m Batman” as the Dark Knight’s calling-card line, and he believes that in some way he’s avenging his parents. What if the world is more complicated than that? Suppose what the world needs is not vengeance, but something else?
The version of the Riddler played by Paul Dano is a psychopath and a serial killer, but he has reasons for targeting Gotham’s elites in a way that increasingly exposes the extent of the city’s systemic corruption. Eventually these revelations may even color the honored memory of Bruce’s father, Dr. Thomas Wayne, who in this telling (echoing Todd Phillips’ Batman-free Joker) is a one-time mayoral candidate with, it seems, compromising secrets. The elder Wayne hasn’t traditionally been imagined, like Diego’s father in the 1940 Mark of Zorro, as a mayoral figure, but this twist does reflect the stark reality that our ruling elites tend to be very wealthy — and how often are either ruling elites or the very wealthy as morally uncompromising as the elder Vega?
Disappointment with elected officials and public institutions is one thing; disappointment with father figures, especially revered father figures, is another — a distinction with a particular poignance for Catholics. The Batman invokes both; it’s also about disillusionment and anger over failed promises of renewal and change. Dr. Wayne, like his idealized counterpart in Batman Begins, believed in in philanthropy and giving back to the community; an endowment, the Wayne Renewal Fund, intended to help the lower and middle class. Perhaps like Batman’s own campaign, his father’s philanthropy hasn’t borne the fruit it was meant to. Where do we go from here? Where do we hope to go, and how do we hope to get there?
It’s easy to agree in principle with the city official who urges, as a citywide crisis unfolds, that “We must rebuild faith in our institutions.” The question is, what are we going to try now that we didn’t try before? If it didn’t work before, what makes us think it’s going to work now? Batman himself, at the denouement, has a moment of clarity about what the people of Gotham need, and it isn’t vengeance — but what does he plan to do about it? Reeves includes a dramatic image of Batman in a disaster scene holding up a shining flare, showing people the way: a striking metaphor, but for what specifically beyond this immediate crisis?
The Batman is so grim for so long that the way forward seems difficult even to imagine, let alone to begin to pursue. Perhaps this is Reeves’ narrative strategy. This film is meant to launch a new trilogy; perhaps Reeves intends to open the door to hope in the sequel (a move that might echo the humanism of Reeves’ middle film in the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy following the posthuman vibe of the first film by Rupert Wyatt).
Be that as it may, watching the film, I can’t help thinking that perhaps its depiction of the problems faced by Gotham and Batman lands so much harder than anything the film gestures toward by way of a solution partly because we as a society have clearer ideas about what ails us than what to do about it.
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