There’s something in the “The.” Today, the cinematic phenomenon of The Batman heads to HBO Max for the first time since its theatrical debut, where we’ll finally be free to obsessively pore over the footage like Bruce Wayne reviewing his contact lens cameras. But there’s one detail in particular I’d like to focus on: the very first. The one that, here, comes before Batman itself. On screen we’ve seen Batman Begin, we’ve seen Batman Return, and we’ve seen Batman Forever, but we’ve never seen The Batman. So, what exactly makes this The Batman, as opposed to just another Batman? What makes The Batman, if you’ll pardon the linguistic pun, the definite article?
To start, let’s revisit some comic book history. In 1939’s Detective Comics #27, “The Bat-Man” was so named before he was ever simply “Batman.” The very first Batman story is a mystery in the truest sense, where the very case is the identity of the criminal-haunting, urban cryptid-like figure of “The Bat-Man” itself—revealed only at the end of the story to be millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne. The inclusion of the “the” may not seem like a big difference, but it’s one which sets a completely different tone for the “Bat-Man” entity. “Batman,” isolated, suggests a mere colorful figure who inhabits the eclectic Gotham City. But “The Batman” suggests something entirely singular. An entirely unique factor in its own right, which must be singled out.
“The” Batman is not one of you. It has no comparison or equal. Batman is somewhere between bat and man. “The” Batman cannot be comprehended, and therefore cannot be stopped. Like the pulp heroes of “The Shadow” or “The Phantom” before him, The Bat-Man was designed to be a figure of unknowable terror to those who would terrify as much as he was an exciting adventure hero. So too in The Batman film does our hero embody the stated purpose of the Bat-signal itself. It’s not just a signal—it’s a warning.
But there’s a reason that comparison is at the very beginning of the film. The Batman, that terrifyingly inhuman embodiment of terror meant to frighten criminals into complacency at the mere idea of it, is only how we’re meant to think of the title at the start. One of the most fascinating facets of the film is that as the haunted Bruce Wayne’s conception of himself and his mission must evolve, so must our own.
The phrase “The Batman” is only spoken once in the movie. And when it is, it’s not about the man in the suit: it’s about the idea of Batman. Unlike any Batman movie before it, The Batman isn’t about the character. It’s about how best to use the symbol of Batman. Not only what Batman means, but what Batman is supposed to mean, and what those who wear the symbol should strive to represent.
The Batman is a story of men who mold themselves and each other to the shapes of myths constructed in their own minds. These self-made and self-projected ideals of figures like “The Batman” and “The Riddler” are subject to jarring crashes with reality, as each fall victim to the all too human flaws they cannot escape. Throughout the story, the idea of the Batman is dressed down by Alfred Pennyworth, by Selina Kyle, and by Riddler himself when the factors of his birth and upbringing deny Bruce of his desire to distance his humanity from the idea he’s abstracting his own self-image into becoming. As Batman and Riddler stand across from each other in Arkham Asylum, each realizes their opponent is not the totem they built the other into—and, at least in Batman’s case, this fact warrants self-examination. What good is the Batman if it only stands for vengeance? Is that any kind of life, or any kind of dream? The idea of Batman has to be more than terror-based vigilantism to stand as a symbol for the city. Because it may be a warning, but the idea of the Batman still is a signal—a light in the darkness to show us that someone is out there not just looking to hunt evil, but provide a beacon for the good.
If the idea of Batman didn’t inspire us, we wouldn’t have Batman t-shirts, Batman action figures and Batman tattoos. There’s something about Batman, more than an unending rage, that tells us to do the best we can with whatever we have. Ask anyone who claims Batman as their favorite hero. Odds are good that somewhere on their list of reasons why, they’ll tell you that what makes Batman the best is that Batman is human.
The Batman is not a character—it’s an ideal. And the message is that when we discard our preconceived notions of who we’re supposed to be, it’s one we can achieve. It’s only a matter of assessing and adjusting when there’s something in the way.
The Batman, directed by Matt Reeves and starring Robert Pattinson as Batman, is now in theaters and streaming on HBO Max. Not yet a subscriber? Sign up today to enjoy the best in DC movies and TV.
Alex Jaffe is the author of our monthly “Ask the Question” column and writes about TV, movies, comics and superhero history for DCComics.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AlexJaffe and find him in the DC Community as HubCityQuestion.
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this feature are solely those of Alex Jaffe and do not necessarily reflect those of DC Entertainment or Warner Bros.