To its credit, Matt Reeves’s The Batman - the third restart of the franchise this century - is not trying to reinvent the comic-book wheel. It does put the iconic character into a specific context - the neo-noir detective thriller, and, more specifically, the serial-killer procedural, one that proudly wears its Se7en inspiration on its gritty PG-13 sleeves.
But as straightforward as it is as a thriller and Gotham City movie - a rotting urban nightmare besieged by a calculating new villain who does more to threaten the corrupt sociopolitical establishment than does the vigilante ostensibly self-created to do so - two scenes in particular stand out to me as examples of the shrewd way Reeves plays with the built-in codes and assumptions of these genres. The way clues and connections make particular conclusions seem not only easy but glaringly obvious, only for those conclusions to evaporate once they’re put to the test.
Everything revolves around two archetypal figures - not within DC’s iconography, but within that of the crime thriller. There is the savant-like master detective, and there is the nigh-omniscient master criminal. Batman and Riddler, in this case. The first scene is when Batman and James Gordon capture Oswald Cobblepot and subject him to an unofficial interrogation on the outskirts of town. They attempt to strong-arm Penguin by insisting they know he’s the rat in crime boss Carmine Falcone’s operation. They know this - which is to say, they believe they know this - because of the mountain of details and clues they’ve meticulously pieced together - a puzzle they’ve meticulously solved. Except… Cobblepot is not the rat. And he’s not the rat because the master detective put together those pieces incorrectly - a fact Cobblepot memorably points out by making fun of Batman’s poor grasp on the Spanish language. Oops.
The second scene is an interrogation of a different (though still off-the-books) sort, late in the film when Riddler has been captured and Batman pays him a visit. For much of the film, we have assumed - and more important, Batman has assumed, based on a more-than-reasonable interpretation of the letters, clues, and apparent taunts that have been left for him at each crime scene - that Riddler knows who he is. Knows that Batman is, in fact, Bruce Wayne. So it comes as something of a shock - again, to us and to Batman - when it turns out Riddler knows no such thing. His interest in Batman and his interest in Bruce Wayne are entirely separate. His incarcerated “Bruuuuuce Waaaaaayne!” moan upon Batman’s arrival to his cell is not, as we first assume, a mask-off moment between the two; rather, it's an angry lament that Bruce Wayne is the one target that got away. Batman’s confusion and budding realization that his nemesis does not, in fact, know his identity is borderline comical. The joke is on Riddler, the genius master criminal; he just doesn’t know it.
To take it a step further, far from Batman being his primary target, Riddler believes he and the Caped Crusader have been working in concert (if unofficially) all along. It’s a twist on the common “hero and villain are two sides of the same coin” idea, filtered through the prism of Riddler’s psyche, and his perverted sense of justice. That unholy (and dually misunderstood) alliance also flips a switch in Batman - who's still, after all, new at this whole vigilante gig. It’s the key to him realizing his heroic impulses must be put to use actively helping the innocent rather than just inflicting fear and punishment on the bad guys. A serial killer expressing admiration and kinship with you tends to make you rethink your life choices.