Ending Explained is a recurring series in which we explore the finales, secrets, and themes of interesting movies and shows, both new and old. This time, we consider the ending of The Batman. Spoilers ahead.
Vengeance is not what it used to be. Our hero stands atop the Gotham Square Garden as police and firefighters pull terrified citizens from the rubble. The Riddler (Paul Dano) smiles behind his jail cell in Arkham, victorious. The city is in ruins, its government exposed as a cesspool of corruption, and its populace on the brink of despair. After two years of cape crusading, using fear as a weapon, the Batman (Robert Pattinson) has done more harm than good. He inspired the wrong people, and they somehow elevated his nightmare into something worse.
Matt Reeves‘ new film, The Batman, takes every opportunity to mock the Dark Knight’s mission statement. We meet Bruce Wayne wrapped in leather, smashing muggers in their faces, screaming his slogan in an attempt to terrify. “I’m vengeance,” he says, and the rescued taxpayer quivers in fear alongside his assailants. To the victim, Batman is a monster like any other.
The V-word is spat repeatedly back at Bruce Wayne from this point forward. Catwoman, Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), uses it as a taunting term of affection, “Come on, Vengeance.” Oswald Cobblepot (Colin Farrell) uses it to belittle the wannabe badass as “Mr. Vengance.” And after Batman nearly beats one of the Riddler’s acolytes to death atop the Gotham Square Garden’s scaffolding, the pummeled meat-sack puffs up his chest and proclaims, “I’m vengeance.” The echo cuts into Bruce Wayne’s soul, and he realizes it’s time for a change.
Gotham City doesn’t need another billionaire asserting his will on the people. The fist has failed Bruce Wayne. Now it’s time to offer an open hand. As he says, “Vengeance won’t change the past. I have to become more…people need hope.”
Thomas Wayne and the Origin of The Riddler
Hope recalls his father’s message when he ran for office twenty years prior. Thomas Wayne (Luke Roberts) initiated the Renewal fund, a one billion dollar donation meant to safeguard the city’s infrastructure. However, when Thomas and his wife Martha (Stella Stocker) were murdered, the money slipped into the shadows. Gotham’s greedy dug their fingers in, and the Waynes’ wealth eventually supported the Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) crime syndicate as well as the hundreds/thousands of corrupt politicians and city officials beneath him.
Edward Nashton, the lowly forensic accountant, discovered this treachery while researching the Renewal books. Growing up an orphan himself, a hatred for Bruce Wayne, his billionaire double, formulated. When Edward uncovered Thomas’ role in financing Gotham’s poisonous system, he also sought vengeance.
In his quest, Nashton became The Riddler, and with one string pulled, he unraveled an avalanche of lies. He discovered that Thomas Wayne hired Carmine Falcone to silence the reporter Edward Elliot. The Gotham journalist, working under orders from rival mobster Salvatore Maroni, exposed a deep dark secret within Martha’s family, the Arkhams. Her mother killed her father and then herself when Martha was a youngster. As a result, Matha was periodically institutionalized.
According to Alfred (Andy Serkis), Falcone was already looking for ways to gain the upper hand on Thomas Wayne. Who wouldn’t want a Mayor in their pocket? Falcone’s goons dispatched Elliot, but when Thomas learned this, he threatened to go to the police. That night, Thomas and Martha were killed. Alfred could never prove that Falcone had a hand in their killings, but the timing had to be more than coincidental.
Vengeance for The Riddler, Batman Defeated
Starting with Mayor Mitchell (Rupert Penry–Jones), The Riddler methodically assassinated key figures prospering illegally from the Renewal fund. While imprisoned, Nashton explains that Batman inspired this deadly scheme. “All it takes is fear and a little focused violence,” he says. “You taught me that.”
The words penetrate Batman in a way that knives and bullets never did. As a vigilante already struggling with his purpose, witnessing how his weaponized fear could be perverted by someone else reveals the utter futility of his efforts so far. Batman is not working. If anything, Batman made Gotham worse.
Bruce Wayne recognizes his impact in the daylight aftermath of Gotham’s flooding. “I had an effect,” he says. But not the one he intended. Going forward, he must be more than fear. He must be more than anger. He must be more than vengeance.
Catwoman doubts Batman’s diligence. She thinks he should hang up the cape and come with her to Blüdhaven. But just because Batman has failed to improve the city today doesn’t mean he won’t improve the city tomorrow, especially if he broadens his sidekick roster beyond Commissioner Gordon (Jeffrey Wright). He should probably also listen to incoming Mayor Bella Reál (Jayme Lawson).
So, yeah, he’s going to stick with the vigilante game in partnership with the good people of Gotham. And there are good people in Gotham. Batman desperately needs to get to know them.
Enter, the Unseen Arkham Prisoner
However, don’t look for them in Arkham Asylum. As Batman narrates his way through a new life philosophy, The Riddler gets to know his new cellmate. Barry Keoghan, credited as the “Unseen Arkham Prisoner,” calms his next-door neighbor’s tantrum. He tells The Riddler not to let Batman rain on his parade. He should be proud of what he accomplished.
We barely catch a glimpse of his face. He appears disfigured, slightly burned, with his molars peering through a large gap in his cheek. “One day, he says, “you’re on top, and the next, you’re a clown. Well, let me tell you, there are worse things to be.”
The smile matched with the words seems to confirm yet another Joker casting. Keoghan steps into the Bozo shoes previously worn by Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, Jared Leto, and Joaquin Phoenix. Sorry to disappoint those hoping for a swerve away from the usual suspects.
The Riddler and Joker are a classic comic book combo, paired as recently as Tom King and Mikel Janín‘s The War of Jokes and Riddles, an eight-part storyline that ran through the Batman monthly. In that tale, the two characters rage against each other, with Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle stuck in the middle. On the other hand, The Batman‘s ending suggests a villainous team-up, the laughter of the two maniacs mingling together into one horrific chorus.
What’s Next for The Batman?
Joker says that people love a comeback story, which begs the question, who’s comeback exactly? The Riddler is behind bars, but he proved himself Batman’s better. Who put this Joker in Arkham? Did he and Batman have a previous run-in during Bruce Wayne’s two years under the cape and cowl? Does Joker have a reason for vengeance as well?
What we need to see from the sequel is a new and improved Batman, a Dark Knight who’s learned to be something other than a fighting machine. At the start of The Batman, the Bat-Signal is a warning to the criminals. What if, instead, it became a beacon for the people? You’re safe to walk under its light; Batman has your back.
Jumping from a vengeance stand-in to a savior figure requires more than a change of heart. As Rachel Dawes once told another flying rodent in another universe, “It’s what you do that defines you.” In The Batman‘s final moments, we see a vigilante out of the shadows. He needs Gotham to see him. He needs Gotham to see him do good work. But the Riddler and Joker will make that very difficult for him.
The Batman is now playing in theaters.