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The Batman vs. Joker

A tale of two moral universes.

Robert Pattinson as Batman in The Batman.
Warner Bros
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Funny how a good plant and a noxious weed can spring up in the same soil.

In March 2019, a fan tweeted at director Matt Reeves, asking him what he was listening to while writing The Batman. “‘Thank God for the Rain’ from the Taxi Driver soundtrack,” Reeves tweeted back. “On endless loop.”

“Thank God for the Rain” is a 1:41 track, entirely instrumental, composed by Bernard Herrmann. In Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver, it plays early beneath the voice of protagonist Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), a Vietnam vet and cab driver who is writing in his journal about how grateful he is for the rain that washes the scum off New York’s streets. He doesn’t just mean trash. “All the animals come out at night,” he says as he drives down the street in his taxi, naming off all kinds of people he deems lowlifes, from junkies to “fairies” and it gets worse from there. “Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.”

A white man stands, bare-chested, with a holster, pointing a handgun.
Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.
Columbia Pictures

Bickle is not a hero, and Scorsese’s neo-noir masterpiece, with a screenplay by Paul Schrader, knows it. He’s a profoundly delusional misanthrope who first presents as a man obsessed with morality. But though he thinks he’s an existential hero, a self-styled vigilante cleaning up a dirty city, his violent streak emerges when he’s rejected by the women he tries to rescue, women who don’t want anything to do with him. His paranoid fantasies explode into actual violence, and we’re left with Taxi Driver’s uncomfortable moral quandary: When we’re tempted to make a hateful misogynist killer a folk hero, what does it say about us?

They’re not the same movie, but there are Taxi Driver fingerprints all over The Batman (though it was ultimately Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” that made it prominently onto the soundtrack). Like Bickle, Batman, played in this iteration by Robert Pattinson (who Reeves told Esquire was like “a Batman Kurt Cobain”), narrates from his own journal about his sense of alienation from the world, his worry that he’s not doing anything of worth. Like Bickle, he’s carrying around trauma and anger. Like Bickle, he thinks he wants to save people from the muck of Gotham’s moral mess.

But he isn’t the only recent character in this world with a strong Bickle resemblance. Watching the opening moments of The Batman, it’s hard not to catch the rhyme it seems to purposefully construct with another film about a journaling sad man in Gotham: Joker, Todd Phillips’s 2019 film about Batman’s most iconic adversary. That movie is explicitly built on Taxi Driver, mixed with Scorsese’s pitch-black 1982 The King of Comedy. In its early moments, a beefy gun-wielding character named Randall warns future Joker Arthur Fleck that there are “animals” all over the city, meaning the kids who menace the streets. (This is, of course, kind of hilarious, given Gotham has a Batman and a Catwoman and a Penguin and all the rest of it.) Like Bickle, Fleck is frequently delusional; the version of events we see in the film is his alone, and he’s lost his grasp on reality.

And at times it feels like The Batman is a quiet poke in Joker’s direction.

Some of the echo has to be coincidental; Joker premiered in August 2019, months after Reeves’s tweet, though The Batman started shooting the following January. But some of it is quite on purpose. Besides belonging to the same comic universe, Joker and Batman have often been portrayed as two sides of the same morally conflicted coin; both The Batman and Joker style themselves as neo-noir films, all shadowy and strange, with a serious undercurrent of paranoia, toeing the line between virtue and vice.

That two recent filmmakers, Phillips and Reeves, found inspiration for Gotham in the grody, rat-infested mid-’70s New York of Taxi Driver is not surprising. The Batman comics have always grappled with the fuzzy line between light and dark, between being the good guy and a bad one. What’s extraordinary is the different meanings the films themselves seem to take from the same inspiration. It’s not just the characters, iconic nemeses, that have wildly different ideas of what it means to ride the line between hero and criminal.

Early in The Batman, a group of young men in whiteface sit in a banged-up subway car, surrounded by passengers trying to ignore them. One of them spots a man preparing to get off the train and nudges his companions: this guy looks like a good mark. They follow him off the train onto a dark and rainy elevated platform — there’s always inky rain coming down in Gotham — and as they taunt the man, leering, we brace for violence.

It’s a scene instantly reminiscent of Joker, in which Fleck, beaten down by a world that actively hates him, has his first brush with revenge on the subway after he’s taunted by three bros cast in the Wall Street mold. Fleck, who’s in full clown regalia on the way home from his clowning job, finally snaps and pulls out his gun, morphing into the Joker and murdering them. It turns out they worked for Thomas Wayne, Gotham’s fabulously wealthy mayoral candidate. Wayne’s young son, Bruce, will grow up to be Batman. But in Joker, it’s 1981, and Bruce is still a kid, and Thomas Wayne is still alive.

The Batman is not set in the same version of Gotham as Joker, but it’s at least on roughly the same timeline. Thomas Wayne’s murder has happened. Bruce (Pattinson) has grown up. He’s donned his cape and mask long enough ago that police lieutenant Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) has the whole bat signal thing rigged up already. Unbelievably, Gotham has gotten even worse, and thanks presumably to climate change, a sea wall has been constructed around the city to keep it from flooding. (If you live in New York, this part does not feel theoretical.)

And though the main villain of The Batman is the Riddler, played by Paul Dano as kind of a sad-sack puzzle-obsessed livestreamer, the Joker’s influence hangs heavy over this Gotham, too. If you watch carefully, you’ll see it: One of the young men in the whiteface mob has painted a black slash of a mouth across his face, almost certainly in homage to the Joker.

The man the mob chased off the train is saved by the appearance of Batman, who growls, when asked who he is, “I am vengeance.” And so he is, delivering such an impressive beating that the man he is rescuing is scared, too.

That line — “I am vengeance” — turns out to furnish the moral heart of The Batman. He spends nearly three hours skulking extra moodily around Gotham and trying to decode the Riddler’s puzzles, in a plot that often resembles detective noir. (Big shades of David Fincher’s Zodiac here.) The whole thing ultimately culminates when the Riddler’s pathetically small group of very dedicated online fans don identical tactical gear to their leader, blow up the sea wall, and storm Gotham Square Garden, where the new mayor (apparently a progressive Black woman) is celebrating her victory. Their goal is to unveil the ruling class’s secrets and strike fear into everyone’s hearts, leaving destruction in their wake. To cover themselves in glory.

One of them, when asked who he is, says, “I am vengeance,” and thus Batman experiences a revelation: that vengeance on its own is not a virtue. Aiming to take down the powerful and the wicked may be a step in a righteous direction, but that negative task of destruction is only truly worthy of respect when accompanied by respect for the lives of those most affected by oppression, not just your own ego. Vengeance doesn’t have moral weight without an undergirding, self-sacrificing ethic.

The Batman against a hazy sky.
Robert Pattinson as Batman in The Batman.
Warner Bros.

It’s basically impossible to watch this last-hour sequence in The Batman unfold and not think of the January 6 insurrection attempt at the US Capitol. (To his immense credit, Reeves crafts the scene to avoid anything too overt or on the nose.) But it also feels like a clear reference to the mob that erupts in Gotham in Joker, when thousands of people in clown masks — inspired by Fleck’s shooting of the three young men on the subway — protest at Wayne Hall.

The protest occurs on the same night that Fleck is invited to perform his comedy on Murray Franklin’s late-night talk show; Franklin (played, in a clear echo of both of the film’s inspirations, by De Niro) had made gentle fun of Fleck’s failed comedy routine. But instead of telling jokes, Fleck, once again in full clown gear, preaches an angry sermon about the cruelty of the world. And we get it. “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?” Fleck asks Franklin and the audience. “I’ll tell you what you get,” he concludes, pulling out his gun. “You get what you fucking deserve.”

And, on live TV, he shoots Franklin in the head.

When he goes back outside, he sees that the protests have turned violent, certainly in part because of his example. Thomas Wayne and his wife will die tonight, shot in an alley in front of young Bruce by a man — not Fleck, just an admirer — who declares that “you get what you fucking deserve” as he pulls the trigger. Nearby, proud of what he sees in the streets, Fleck climbs onto a car and starts dancing, soaking up the crowd’s adoration.

Fleck — I guess we can call him Joker now — is eventually hauled off to Arkham, the mental institution where his own mother was previously an inmate. There are strong hints in The Batman that he’s still there, very near the Riddler.

There are other resonances between the two films. The Riddler’s puzzles keep referencing a “rat,” the meaning of which furnishes the major mystery Batman is trying to solve; Fleck’s Gotham is overrun with “super-rats,” thanks to a sanitation worker strike. (As it happens, Taxi Driver was shot during a real-life sanitation worker strike.)

But it’s the idea of vengeance and these mobs that brings home what makes The Batman’s moral universe so much richer than Joker’s. It’s of course easy to argue that you’re not supposed to emulate the Joker, of all people. He’s the bad guy! We all know this.

And yet a movie is not just the sum of its story, but how it is about that story. And Joker doesn’t want us to simply empathize with Fleck. The entire framing suggests that he doesn’t just have a point. He’s right. And the only thing to do is to burn the world down and take everyone down with it. That vengeance is, in itself, all that is left. The film believes it’s the only way someone like Fleck, this pitiable creature, can self-actualize.

An image of a clown, smoking angrily.
Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker in Joker.
Warner Bros

Rewatching Joker after seeing The Batman, I was surprised to remember how strong it is as a piece of storytelling, anchored by Joaquin Phoenix’s incredible performance. But its moral core seems just as rotten, just as devoid of any ideas or dignity. Its worldview is rancid, but worse, it does its main character and its audience dirty — aiming to “humanize” the Joker, but devoid of humanity. Taxi Driver serves up complexity that implicates its viewer; Joker just flatters them. In the end, the joke is on him, and on us.

By contrast, The Batman — slow, ominous, sometimes a tad over the top — crafts a Gotham where the light is barely visible but could maybe break through, but only if men can deny their very worst instincts. There’s layers and layers of complication to that, especially since Gotham’s police department is hopelessly corrupt and Batman must grapple with his own status as an heir and motives for wanting to be a force for good. But in the end, it’s not mere vengeance that we’re meant to celebrate; it’s the kind directed at a purpose other than pure destruction. (It’s strongly implied that Gotham would be better off right now if Bruce had taken over his father’s charitable pursuits instead of turning into Batman.)

It’s not too surprising that this is Reeves’s film, since the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy — of which two installments were directed by Reeves — is among the most rich, complex, and well-crafted franchises in cinematic history. The Batman recognizes that taking a stand for a principle is only good if the principle you stand for is good. Without that, you’re just a deluded killing machine.

When it rains, and rains, and rains, there’s a flood. And by the end of The Batman, there’s a flood, too. Given Reeves’s penchant for enlisting biblical imagery, I can’t imagine it’s an accident that Batman’s big revelation, and seemingly Gotham’s big reset point, is linked to a flood. It can’t wash away the “scum,” not the way Bickle longs for; that’s a long, slow job that will never really be finished. But it can give clarity, wipe some grime from the window so you can see the sun. Thank God, I guess, for the rain.

The Batman is playing in theaters. Joker is streaming on HBO Max and available for digital rental and purchase.

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