) The new movie
The Batman plunges us right into the midst of a crisis of faith. Forget Christian Bale’s confident, charismatic playboy. Robert Pattinson’s Batman hasn’t slept in a week. He keeps journals, sulks and is obsessed with details. A Goth in Gotham – a concept that shouldn’t work, but it does. The dark tones correspond to the underlying issues being explored. He records everything he sees overnight, replaying and replaying their interactions, plagued by doubts: is he part of the corruption around him? Is it making a difference? Is it possible to improve Gotham’s situation? All doubts that mirror the crisis of faith in which we find ourselves now. If institutions are unreliable, there is no mediation between us and our neighbors. Can we trust the narratives reproduced by the mass media? Who is really thinking about what’s best for us?
Our pervasive pessimism to resolve these issues was featured prominently in my vision of the new blockbuster. The crowd on screen matched the crowd around me. Two groups started fighting directly as soon as the movie started, in real life. One was very noisy. The other made threats. When one member of the first spilled a drink, the second threatened to draw a gun (which I think was a bluff), but the other didn’t stay to find out. They left the cinema to boos. The rest of us went back to the movie, ready for a fight, on or off screen.
The film’s central issues transcend any specific political narrative. Debates about security, justice, elections, business all boil down to whether we can trust those in positions of authority over us and the bodies through which they govern. Corrosive doubts are present in every political and social debate. And the film literally spares no one in dealing with this crisis. Corruption infects all areas of Gotham, causing Batman to question all loyalties. Who can he trust? How and where can he find justice?
Justice is so hard to achieve in Gotham as well as in our little world. The film begins with a very specific view of justice. Batman is effective because he takes revenge on evildoers. His catchphrase, “I am revenge”, is intended to instill in criminals the very fear they provoke in the city’s inhabitants. Batman wants these criminals to “see him in every shadow”. He establishes social order, a kind of trust, inflicting pain, real and imagined. Although he doesn’t directly kill people, he does come close enough. The level of crime he faces seems to justify a certain recklessness in the face of the criminal classes. It is thrown back to the old principle of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. This conception of justice demands a punishment that corresponds to the crime – “what he did, will be done to him”.
Reflect on a world where this principle is widely applied in all relationships. If every action were exactly reciprocated, we would have a cacophony of suffering. The crowd presses on, hoping for perfect justice. But justice for whom and on whose terms? The Riddler takes the view that there is no true justice – there is only power and those who wield it. He seeks revenge on the people and systems that have wronged him. Our crisis of faith begins when we adopt this attitude. Justice as mere retribution is a deeply pessimistic view of the world.
But this isn’t the only vision of justice, and it certainly isn’t where the movie ends. In a twist, Batman is forced to realize that revenge is not an adequate response to evil. Violence cannot be fought with violence alone. We must also offer mercy. One immediately thinks of Portia’s soliloquy from “The Merchant of Venice”:
)”The grace of forgiveness is not forced;
It descends from the heavens like a fine rain
On the ground: blessed doubly
Bless those who give and those who receive;
It is stronger than strength: it garnishes
The monarch is better than a crown;
The scepter shows the time force,
Attribute of pride and majesty,
Where is the fear due to kings;
) But forgiveness overcomes this grandeur:
It is an attribute that belongs to God,
And the terr and in power becomes divine
When, to pity, justice bows”. (Translation by Bárbara Heliodora)
The scepter symbolizes the power of the law of to inspire fear in would-be criminals. But mercy is above justice, revealing an attribute of God, who could have exacted perfect vengeance on all wrongdoers, but chose a different path. His mercy reveals to us a way forward that would prevent us from applying the full force of justice in such a way as to become indistinguishable from vengeance. Mercy is not an isolated virtue in our individual and spiritual lives. The State reveals mercy better when it incorporates it into the law.
For those who would say that this religious theme is an exaggeration, just pay attention to one of the recurring musical themes of the film, “Ave Maria”. Why this theme? The song is linked to the Riddler’s appearances in the film and, more specifically, to the hypocrisy he sees around him. Some found the choice offensive – including Brad Birzer (The Imaginative Conservative). But in reality, for most, hypocrisy now defines our institutions, especially the church. In a flashback, orphans sing “Ave Maria” at Thomas Wayne’s funeral. While the wealthy elite attending the funeral say they care about the “orphan and the widow”, they are actually a far cry from the real pain of orphans. The Riddler is one of those orphans who has been flunked by the system. The song, originally written by Schubert, is in fact a cry for help that in the film becomes a devious, desperate cry. Again, how can we trust the institutions that are supposed to create and sustain order when they are so clearly corrupt? This is the crisis of faith Batman must accept when he finds himself agreeing with the Riddler. Even Wayne’s own family is not immune to the deep corruption in Gotham. One criticism of the film is that it does not fully detail these religious themes. But they are present, however, for us to take them into account and reflect on them.Back at the movie theater where I sat surrounded by my fellow mob. How can we move forward in the face of the distrust we have in practically everything and everyone? The two conceptions of justice presented in The Batman point to two paths. The first is pure revenge, in which we find no end to the cycle of evil and retribution. Perhaps this is the current trap we find ourselves in right now. We want our institutions to do something. We want to feel like we’re back in control, even if that “control” makes things worse in the long run. But a second alternative, mercy, provides a way forward for a society that is sinking under the weight of corruption. This mercy is possible within families, churches and communities nearby. These relationships can repair ties that have been broken through consistent neglect and even abuse. Not everyone in Batman’s history, or ours, is corrupt. In fact, the concept of mercy requires the existence of goodness in the world. To maintain some hope for the future, we don’t need to “make a cloth” for our current state, but cling to old truths. Batman mirrors our crisis of faith, but falls into despair.
©960 Acton Institute. Published with permission. Original in English.19112354