The opening scenes of The Batman, the latest cinematic take on the DC Comics superhero, show a mysterious figure person spying on the mayor of Gotham City with binoculars. While his behavior is very similar to that of the eponymous character, it is soon revealed that we are watching Enigma, the villain of the film. Comparisons between Batman and his arch enemies are a constant in the stories, but in this delivery, it seems to take a more virulent aspect than the usual. Before the complexities of the world, both Enigma and Batman have built universes suitable for themselves: perverse amusement parks supporting sick yearnings for revenge; the fetishistic use of every kind of gadget; and the impulsive obsession to control Gotham’s people and its architecture.
It is no coincidence that the final scenes of director Matt Reeve’s movie offer the superhero a chance to escape these dynamics born out of frustration and the fantasies of power: the dynamics of neurotic masculinity. As Batman observes Catwoman escaping Gotham City from the rearview mirror of his motorbike, he is forced to fix his eyes, perhaps for the first time, on the tangible challenges he has encountered throughout the film. In this sense, The Batman is a film worthy of our time – meaning, as confusing and irregular as it is stimulating in its efforts to put the superhero through deep examination, exposing his immaturity, his inability to think about himself and empathize with his surroundings, and his futile attempts for the evasion of reality through uniforms, masks, and technology.
It is worth recalling that a few months ago, 007 was subject to a similar deconstruction in No Time to Die (2021). It is likely that the cinematic Batman – as the comic book Batman has long since transcended this particular debate – and James Bond will reaffirm their essence as super-soldiers in the service of the system in their future adventures. Both represent an archetype with deep sociocultural roots, unalterable despite the illusions of change. But at least a growing self-awareness is noticeable when it comes to the deeper meaning of their disguises, their literal metaphorical masks, and the range of deadly tools that money can afford when it comes to doing good. After all, the homo technologicus played by superheroes and secret agents set the standard for the masculine ever since the age of reason crushed the legitimacy of brute force. From that point, the masculine had to sophisticate its claim to dominate reality under the pretext of honoring the truth and justice that the new social orders seemed to put under threat.
The masked vigilante takes over popular culture by seeing everything but the anomalies of his own identity, knowing everything about progress but nothing about its potential to improve his community. Especially when this faces its conversion into mass culture, with copies and imitations reaffirming certain models. Sir Percy Blakeney, alias The Scarlet Pimpernel, a character imagined in 1905 by the novelist and playwright Emma Orczcy, hides under his façade of a dissolute British nobleman, a master of disguise and prodigious swordsman saving French nobles from the French Revolution guillotine. The conservative temper of Orczy’s theatrical work and the many literary sequels is, in fact, traceable in the third and last Batman adventure starring Christian Bale: The Dark Knight Rises (2012); a film that, in the opinion of culture critic Jordi Costa, revealed how far director Christopher Nolan was from sharing the spirit of social movements like the anti-austerity movement (15-M) in Spain or Occupy Wall Street.
Batman and his alter ego Bruce Wayne, like Zorro (1919) or The Shadow (1930), draw from the idiosyncrasy of The Scarlet Pimpernel, but also from Sherlock Holmes, the quintessential detective. Arthur Conan Doyle’s character is in no need of a mask, as his heterodox inquiries have never put him at the mercy of public opinion and, also, because his insensitive, sharp-featured and clinical-eyed façade is a mask itself: the denial of emotions favoring an almost divine type of logical thought. Even if under this thinking vibrates a deep alienation and a sense of death transferred to their prey through exercising violence, which is not always physical but, as in the case of Holmes, dialectical.
Enforcer without conscience
After the Second World War, the archetype shifts, adapting to pop culture times marked by the Cold War, corporate gentrification, and economic and touristic development. In contrast to the gothic romanticism of Batman, the rabid animal trapped in the body of a human being, the ideal moment emerges for James Bond, the wet dream of the average office worker. As much as we may want to stress on his status as a spy in Her Majesty’s Secret Service – as Ian Fleming, his creator refrained from doing so – Bond is a civil servant, an enforcer without conscience. A gray character that does not create either his fancy suits or the inventions he uses to escape or finish his enemies. Bond is the ideal technocrat, a skilled manager of the chain of command who does not need a mask, considering his face and eyes are nothing but a blank canvas… Thanks to No Time to Die, 60 years after Dr. No (1962), we have finally had the opportunity to witness some of Bond’s private sphere, as opposed to the importance the fortresses of solitude have in the universes of Batman and Holmes, from which they prepare their assaults on the simulation of civilization.
However, Batman and Bond share something important: the inability to establish equal relationships with women, camouflaged by the first with an attitude of insufferable patriarchal severity and, by the second, under the disrespectful Casanova attitude. Fortunately, the female characters of both sagas have somewhat been showing film by film that they have discovered these men’s true colors. It seems no coincidence that Bruce Wayne in The Batman and James Bond in No Time to Die remain trapped within their playgrounds, while the female characters dare to explore the other possibilities of fiction.