With The Batman, much has been made of Robert Pattinson’s interpretation of Bruce Wayne and his crime-fighting alter ego, not to mention the overall spectacle of the film itself. But what resonated with me most was the fact that this wasn’t the actor’s first time playing a wealthy character with a murky moral code.
In many ways, his appearance as DC’s signature superhero was foretold a decade prior.
Upon his casting in The Batman, I immediately flashed back to one of Pattinson’s greatest roles: as Eric Packer, the young zillionaire on a self-destructive path through Manhattan traffic in David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis.
A faithful adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel, Cosmopolis begins with Packer and his security detail (Kevin Durand) planning their day. Packer wants to go across town for a haircut he doesn’t need. What ensues is a ride in a tricked-out limousine augmented by incidental meetings with co-workers, girlfriends, viral attention-seekers, and protestors railing against capitalism. (By the time the limo parks for the night, it’s been thoroughly tagged with graffiti, including a big red target on the roof.)
Packer and Wayne are characters informed by their bottomless wealth, with an emphasis on technical efficiency. One of Batman’s trademarks is the nifty array of accessories that allows him to perform superhuman feats in the name of fighting crime. In a way, Packer’s limo looks sleek and indulgent from the outside, but the interior is outfitted with futuristic technology. It’s like a Batmobile for Gordon Gekko.
Packer radiates a shrewd, deadpan intelligence that conveys an awareness of the world outside the narrow sphere of economics, but his manner is one part defense mechanism, one-part white privilege (indeed, Pattinson is ghostly-pale in Cosmopolis). He’s ambivalent when his wealthy fiancée, Elise Shifrin (Sarah Gadon) calls off their engagement, but breaks down in tears when he learns that his favorite musician, Brutha Fez, has died.
It’s all a matter of priorities, and while Packer’s goal may be to run himself aground due to the tedium and predictability of the capitalist rat race that’s come to define his existence, Bruce Wayne is perpetually caught in a moral paradox inside and outside the mask. His life is a balancing act of reconciling his wealth and privilege against doing everything in his power to protect Gotham City and its citizens.
What’s interesting about Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz) and her Catwoman alter ego is a take-charge demeanor; she’s drawn to eye-for-an-eye vengeance, which chafes against Batman’s personal “no kill” code. The interactions between these two are interesting because their methods cause friction with their unified objective. Selina is another weathered soul caught beneath the torrential downpour of Gotham’s myriad injustices…but has no qualms about booting a known murderer off the edge of a skyscraper.
While Elise and the countless other women who interact with Packer are a largely disaffected bunch, they nonetheless initiate and terminate their meetings at will, never bound to a sense of subservience to Packer’s power-through-wealth presence. Meanwhile, one of the most potent character moments in The Batman comes near the very end: when Bruce and Selina, having ruminated on their options for the future, choose their respective paths.
The extended sequence where Packer speaks with Vija Kinsky (Samantha Morton) is probably most aesthetically in tune with Reeves’ vision of Gotham: the characters share subdued insights on capitalism, nonplussed by the raging protestors rocking the limo back and forth. Molotov cocktails burst into flames. People prance about wearing gigantic rat heads. Vandals tag the limo as it passes by. It feels apt that The Batman opens on Halloween night and sees the Caped Crusader going up against a gang of skull-faced hoodlums. But unlike Batman, Packer has no need to conceal his true self – what you see is what you get.
Thematically, The Batman keeps returning to a repeated sentiment: renewal. The Riddler (Paul Dano) uses it as taunting graffiti and, as it turns out, he and Bruce Wayne have a bit of shared history – they’re both orphans. Part of Riddler’s M.O. is peeling back the scabs of corruption that have allowed mob influence to infiltrate every facet of Gotham’s politics, leaving the “have-nots” in an ever-more-forgotten place.
While some critics have linked The Batman to David Fincher’s Seven, the scene in which Batman confronts the imprisoned Riddler owes more to Packer’s encounter with Benno Levin (Paul Giamatti), another left-behind “orphan” who finds himself laid off from Packer’s infinite-money empire. For what seems like a half-hour of ingenious back-and-forth, Packer retains his unflappable demeanor, obliging the disgruntled, gun-wielding Levin with open honesty.
Conversely, when The Riddler drops the symbiotic link between himself and Bruce Wayne and commends Batman as an ally, it recalls Packer’s encounter with Levin. The two men verbally spar, but their conversation has a bizarre, dreamlike rhythm, vacillating between bursts of emotion and soft-spoken revelation. Levin’s lair is an abandoned building clogged with file cabinets, landline phones, and no indoor plumbing – relics of an era crushed beneath the deafening march of technological ease and progress.
What’s interesting about Levin is the one-to-one ratio of his vengeance: he wants Packer to suffer on principle, which adds an interesting wrinkle to the zillionaire’s self-destruction. There’s an inevitability to Packer’s confrontation with Levin that parallels the money he’s losing: in a way, he’s resetting himself back to the position of Levin’s destitute proletariat. Again, not unlike the “have-and-have-not” mentality that sparks the Riddler’s high-profile killing spree, looking to restore the scales of justice back to zero.
Past filmed iterations of the Batman mythos have placed an emphasis on Bruce Wayne’s wealth and philanthropy. In The Batman, Reeves sidelines much of this to focus on The Riddler’s unfolding master plan. I wouldn’t doubt that Reeves saw Cosmopolis and decided that some of Wayne’s story had already been shaded in, and therefore didn’t need the repetition.
That said, I feel the last act of Cosmopolis does justice to Bruce Wayne and Batman somewhat better than The Batman proper – there’s a mutual acceptance to Levin and Packer’s final moments together that smacks of resignation for both characters. Instead of offering a definitive ending, Cronenberg allows his screen to go to black…the great cinematic equalizer.
For as visually and thematically dark as The Batman gets, it never quite submits to that impenetrable darkness. Which makes Cosmopolis the more prophetic of the two – seeing where we’re going, as opposed to the comic-book approach of responding to where we’re at, while offering a glimmer of hope toward the rough times ahead.