The Batman Part II: The Second Person(a)
Throughout his 84-year tenure as a fictional character, the Batman has always had two identities: the masked vigilante and the billionaire playboy. As is customary with superheroes as a trope, these caped people do usually have an alter-ego or “other self.” This is precisely what is missing or intentionally omitted in 2022’s Robert Pattinson-led Batman film. In previous iterations, the flying rat’s gothic darkness was balanced by the charming socialite, occasionally appearing at parties and gala dinners to ensure the public of Bruce Wayne’s continued existence. But in The Batman, he is more often shown behind the mask, and even then, his personality never changes in and out of the suit. Effectively he is still one person, no “other self” to speak of. This I’d argue is part of the point the film drives forward, that without Bruce Wayne, the scale tips too hard on hate. And that is where the second film should come in, where he utilizes hope to balance the hate. Because the two bullets that young Bruce faced in that dark alley didn’t just take his parents — they splintered his soul — split between a persona violently born to make sense of his trauma, and one made to make sense of the other. Playboy Bruce is the fantasy Bruce keeps alive daily to manage the reality of his nights as Batman. Few have proclaimed that the billionaire persona is a wish from Bruce, most agree that Bruce acts and uses the persona simply because he has to, but through the next chapter, I’d posit that in his process to become a better hero and human being, both personas need to turn into something he wants to.
Mask of phantasmatic elements
In The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek spoke of the relationship between fantasy and reality. He contends that both have to coexist for either to survive. A fantasy realized becomes a nightmare, and reality lived without dreams dies in a lack of exigence. This is the case for Bruce in The Batman, where the mask is his only reality, where he lives in an eternal night. As such, he lacks the illusory element to coordinate his everyday existence. What use is a mask if there is nothing to hide? Walling himself off from empathy and emotional connection, he forgets that fear of loss cannot be conquered by avoiding things to lose, in this case, his involvement with Alfred and Catwoman; instead it must be overcome by accepting fear itself. And only through Alfred’s near-death experience did he eventually learn to open himself up, to be vulnerable, live his previously frozen reality as the boy left behind, and find newfound strength in the mask. By ceasing to be his face, the mask possesses a pristine power and becomes an outlet for Bruce to channel his trauma. In psychology, this is what is called sublimation, transferring Bruce’s initial impulse of vengeance into an idealized long-term mission of hope.
Returns, Rises, Forever
In the first Pattinson-led Batman film, vengeance is his reality, the mask his face. But as surprising as it may seem, this has always been the case. From Keaton in Batman ’89 to Bale in Batman Begins, and even Affleck in Batman v Superman. Each movie series always has the narrative pattern of Bruce starting out with Batman as his reality and Bruce his fantasy — the fake, the wish. The archetypal progression is then him unlearning all he has learned in his abyssal descent into trauma and turning Batman into a choice — the fantasy, the wish. This happened first in Batman Forever, when the climax has Bruce saying that he is Batman not because he has to be, but because he chooses to be; calling back to what Keaton said in Batman ’89 when asked why he’s Batman, him answering obtusely that it’s just something he has to do. In that moment, Burton and consequently Schumacer’s Bruce grew past his trauma, able to transform impulsive selfish need into introspective selfless want. We know where the story usually goes, the boy heals through the bat, by defining the symbol instead of letting it define him. But we’ve never seen it told quite like this. I’d argue it is the insistence of point of view — such as using Nirvana’s Something in the Way diegetically as something Bruce actually hears in the reality of the movie — that differentiates this new Batman from the rest, a more immersive and visceral discovery of the second persona.
So yes, Bruce’s billionaire playboy persona is as much a fantasy as Batman is. They’re both as real as he is, both masks, both faces, opposing sides of the same scarred coin — wishes from a boy in an alley — a boy’s dream of having a normal life if his parents were still alive, and a boy’s self-induced nightmare of reliving that night and making things right — the fantasy of being strong enough to stop two speeding bullets shot in the past. Watching a Batman film is watching a man perform a boy’s performance of his two imaginings of a worthy life, one he needs, and one he thinks he deserves; a performance for criminals and the public, from the boy that time forgot.