By: Celeste Hoover
He keeps a diary, smudges his eyeliner, and broods around the house to a Nirvana soundtrack. He’s also a blockbusting, crime-fighting, vigilante superhero. Robert Pattinson’s newest iteration of Batman is popular because, well, he’s just really relatable. Like a slightly cooler version of my seventh-grade self, he wears his angst on his sleeve. The Batman is a drastic departure from precedent; in its best moments, it depicts a struggle between the intrepid superhero and a grieving man stuck in perpetual, pitiable adolescence.
However, to fully appreciate director Matt Reeves’ transformation of the character, we have to start at the very beginning, before even the Batman comics. Batman’s popularity has its origins in early 20th century literary heroes—masked vigilantes from all over the world who became best-sellers. In 1905, the Baroness Orczy wrote The Scarlet Pimpernel: a romantic, swash-buckling adventure novel that sold out within weeks of its publication. The story follows the heroic exploits of Sir Percy Blakeney, a dull-witted nobleman whose alter-ego, the Pimpernel, recuses those trapped in the violence of the French Revolution. He guards his identity from even his wife. The Pimpernel became a fixture of the public imagination for generations, as readers were fascinated by the anonymous and benevolent ne’er-do-well who hid behind a carefully crafted illusion. The protagonist effortlessly switches between the narcissistic, languid persona of Sir Percy and the self-sacrificing hero that is the Pimpernel.
Johnston McCulle closely followed The Scarlet Pimpernel’s success when he wrote The Curse of Capistano in 1919. Don Diego Vega arrives in Los Angeles during the early nineteenth century when the area is under Spanish rule. Similar to Sir Percy, Vega puts on a mask to help those in dire need. He transforms into the expert swordsman Zorro in order to defend the people of Los Angeles from political oppression, hidden behind the rakish, self-absorbed persona of Don Vega. By contrast, the debauchery of his alter-ego persona makes Zorro’s adventures all the more heroic. His righteous sense of justice also mirrors the Pimpernel’s: both fight for the underdog. Through Zorro, the masked vigilante with a hidden heart of gold quickly progressed from a one-time success to an enduring archetype.
However, it was the Lone Ranger character that truly solidified the archetype’s, and Batman’s, place in the American canon. In 1933, stories of the masked cowboy would be told weekly on the WXYZ radio station of Detroit. Originally from a wealthy industrial family of Manhattan, the Ranger decides to go it alone in the Wild West. There he is most often pursuing arch-nemesis Butch Cavendish, a sadistic outlaw, and former confederate general that terrorizes the innocents of the frontier. As a cowboy and the American equivalent of a nobleman, he continues the masked vigilante’s legacy by anonymously fighting to protect the people of his community. All in his characteristic black mask, of course.
The Batman himself followed not long after. First attributed, though somewhat controversially, to artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, Batman debuted in May 1939 in Detective Comics. As probably both serious fans and casual moviegoers are aware, traditional Batman is Bruce Wayne’s vigilante alter-ego. Wayne, a millionaire playboy by day, fights crime and guards justice in Gotham City by night. There have been six notable movie adaptations of traditional Batman thus far, each one a massive box office hit. Though perhaps grittier or more violent than the direct descendants of the Pimpernel, most film adaptations (prior to Reeves’) deviate very little from precedent. The Batman of previous films is merely the modern Pimpernel, Zorro, or Ranger. What began as a best-selling trend of the 20th century transformed into a modern archetype: the masked vigilante bent on justice hiding behind a rakish persona.
Understanding Batman’s literary precedents are crucial to understanding Reeves’ interpretation of the character. What makes The Batman so radical is its departure from two of the archetype’s most iconic components. (Warning, minor The Batman (2022) spoilers ahead.) Firstly, Pattinson’s Batman forgoes the playboy alter-ego. He struggles to reconcile his overwhelming desire for revenge with the responsibilities of a businessman and philanthropist. Wholly obsessed with vengeance, he is unable to assume a rakish disguise like Sir Percy or Don Vega. This Bruce Wayne is sulking, isolated, and devoid of public life. Unlike his literary precedents or many previous adaptations, this Bruce does not have the prodigious, almost superhuman ability to inwardly juggle two distinct identities. His grief and trauma consume him completely. Reeves’ Batman blurs the line between man and hero.
Furthermore, Reeves deviates from Batman’s precedents in the character’s purpose: vengeance. Instead of fighting for justice in his community or for the oppressed, as the Pimpernel, Zorro, Ranger, and Batman of previous franchises, Reeves’ Batman has a deeply personal motive. He targets petty criminals in an endless desire to revenge the murder of his parents by a (supposedly) small-time thug. The Batman, who goes by “Vengeance,” has no higher ambition until the final minutes of the film. If anything, the Riddler more successfully fits the masked vigilante archetype. In his own twisted and grotesque way he is anonymously fighting for a cause larger than himself: to bring down the corrupt and protect innocents. In contrast, this iteration of Batman is working out his rage. All his fights are very personal. He lacks the self-sacrificing altruism of a Pimpernel or Ranger. Reeves’ movie transforms the Batman, he is no longer a selfless symbol of justice but a grieving man desperate to heal his own trauma.
The movie is a blockbuster success because it depicts a Batman we rarely get to see: he is the Pimpernel, Zorro, and Ranger stripped of nobility and higher purpose. He’s damaged and vulnerable, unable to overcome his own grief. Human, not superhuman. As Summaiya Jafri points out in a recent Hothouse Article, recent Spider-Man movies have also focused on a more damaged version of the hero. In the newest film, Spider-Man is similarly forced to forgo an alter-ego and struggles to maintain entirely selfless motives. So why are audiences drawn to this new kind of hero? Have we finally tired of a prodigious, god-like masked vigilante? Do we appreciate gritty realism? Do we see ourselves in the hero’s vulnerability? I’m inclined to think it’s a complicated, messy mixture of all of these factors. As our superheroes become more human, we’ll have to decide for ourselves if they’re still heroic.