This is a tale of two orphans, Bruce and Jephthah. A tale of two cities, Gotham and Gilead. A story of curses and vengeance and redemption.
The Batman is the new film from director Matt Reeves (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), the 10th stand-alone Bat-film and first to feature Robert Pattinson (hereafter “Battinson”). The Batman draws from landmark comic runs like Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Batman: The Long Halloween and Tom King’s recent Batman/Catwoman to explore questions of vengeance and the possibility of healing. King’s run, in particular, asks the question, “Does Bruce deserve to be happy?”
You know the story: Bruce Wayne, young prince of Gotham, witnesses his parents gunned down in the street. On their memory, he vows to clean up Gotham. Fortunately, Reeves elected not to show us the deaths of the Waynes yet again; instead, we get a powerful, wordless moment where Bruce bears witness to another child who is a victim of violence.
Early in the film, Alfred (a terrific Andy Serkis) pleads with Bruce to have breakfast with Wayne Enterprises investors to discuss company finances — at least to play the role of disinterested heir. Bruce refuses, claiming, “I don’t have time for that.” That brief exchange shows us everything we need to know about Reeves’ take on the Batman: Bruce is a living sacrifice, his sole mission to use the Batman to rid Gotham of crime. He has no time for the obligations of humanity. His oath of vengeance is all-consuming.
Oaths are a tricky thing. The Book of Judges tells us the story of another ill-fated oath, one spoken by Jephthah. We learn Jephthah is the son of a prostitute, and that “Gilead was the father … ” (Judges 11:1). Hebrew Bible scholar Danna Nolan Fewell, in her book The Children of Israel, observes that because Gilead is a place, the author of Judges is telling us that no one knew who Jephthah’s father was — it could have been any man in Gilead. Jephthah is the fruit of Gilead’s unjust society, a walking embodiment of their refusal to care for women like his mother.
Because Jephthah embodied their collective shame, the men of Gilead drove Jephthah out of their community, forcing him to become an outlaw. It was only when they needed deliverance from the Ammonites that they begged for his help. Jephthah agreed, but only if they would make him their ruler. They acquiesced, and Jephthah received God’s spirit and prepared to face his enemies.
It’s then he makes his oath: “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering” (11:31).
Why would Jephthah make such an oath, especially if Gilead has already agreed to his terms, and God has already given him the Spirit? Because, much like Bruce, Jephthah still acted out of the trauma of his childhood. No amount of assurances can assuage that little boy whose father was Gilead, who was cast out from his people.
Batman, at his core, is a scared child. He witnessed the darkness of the world rise up and swallow his parents, so he wrapped himself in that fear. He punches Bad Guys because he can’t punch his grief or fear. In his first on-screen appearance, the Batman takes on a gang of Joker-inspired men attacking an Asian American man. One of them asks, his voice dripping with derision, “Who are you supposed to be?” After punching him several times, Battinson growls, “I’m vengeance.”
Drawing on King, the filmmakers recognize that this is the underlying problem with the Batman: Vengeance is a dead-end journey. It’s inherently childish. What actuarial table can tell Batman how many criminals he has to punch to finally kill his grief?
It’s when the Bat meets the Cat (Zoë Kravitz with a nuanced, excellent performance) that Bruce begins to imagine something more than vengeance. As Batman tries to solve the Riddler’s high-profile murders, Catwoman reprimands him for ignoring her friend, an immigrant sex worker. Why is her life less valuable than that of the mayor or chief of police?
Since the beginning of the film, in that first noir-inspired voiceover, Battinson has wondered why he’s not making more of a difference. Through Catwoman’s eyes, he begins to see: Batman as a symbol of fear, as a vehicle for vengeance, is nothing more than another product of Gotham’s cursed legacy. If he wants to change the city, fight the curse, and honor his parents, he must become something more than vengeance.
When Jephthah returns victorious from battle, his daughter leaves the house to greet him. Fewell reads her move as one of agency, not accident. She knows her father is a child of Gilead. She knows he is a product of violence. And she refuses to continue his legacy. Knowing about her father's oath, she leaves the home, forcing him to choose: Renounce his oath to God by refusing to kill his child (something already prohibited in the Torah!) or end his family line by sacrificing his daughter. Either way, the cycle of violence ends.
Batman faces a similar choice: By embodying vengeance, he will remain a part of Gotham’s cursed cycle of violence and injustice. Can he find the courage to choose to be something more than vengeance?