The Story of Edward Nashton
Updated: Aug 14, 2022
A delve into the villain of The Batman (2022) and what he says about this strange film. Spoilers ahead.
There are a lot of opposing pressures that go towards creating a story. This is true of any medium, but applies differently to each. A film’s story is produced by a great number of people, and these people have a great number of motivations. An adaptation must relate to the concerns of the source material, and of the day. A ‘marxist’ reading of a film can never just attempt to locate its ideological message and leave it at that, because films are not products of one pure ideology, they exist in a great contestation of ideologies and other concerns, all hopelessly enmeshed in one another.
The Riddler is the primary antagonist of The Batman (2022) starring Robert Pattinson in the titular role and directed by Matt Reeves. The Riddler, Edward Nashton, is ably played by Paul Dano. Edward in this film as a fascist militant. Or, that is, he has all of the superficial trappings of a contemporary fascist militant. Edward is also an orphan boy whose upbringing is like something from a Dickens novel. He is angry about his life, about society (everyone in recent superhero films seem to be angry about society), and about the perceived causes of the problems in his life and society.
But what are these causes? Oddly, after a staggering 176 minutes of trying to work this out, I remain none the wiser. Sure there are some proximate causes, which is to say bad/corrupt people (bad and corrupt are synonyms in this fiction). And so the cause of Edward’s misery is corrupt politicians, corrupt billionaires, corrupt lawyers, corrupt police officers, and criminals who mastermind all of this corruption. But what is the nature of this corruption and how did it come to be in the first place? We are left, aptly enough, with quite a few such riddles.
Like a typical member of the contemporary far right, Edward’s anger found the satiation of camaraderie within a small community of fellow misfits on the internet. Like a typical member of the contemporary far-right, he seems to blame systemic social problems on immoral people. And like a typical member of the contemporary far-right, he wishes to wash away that corruption. (Quite literally, too, since his machinations involve something not too distant from the Biblical flood.)
But if Edward is a fascist, he is also one seemingly unconcerned with racial purity; untroubled by queer existence; uninterested in fantasizing about Jewish conspiracies; seemingly indifferent to immigration, masculine supremacy over women, the cult of youth or the veneration of militarism and policing.
He is, in short, a fascist without any of the content of fascism. Nor is this content reproduced allegorically. Edward has no group of marginalized outsiders he particularly hates (beyond criminals, who are in fact anything but outsiders in Gotham). His hatred of the rich and powerful sometimes becomes an all-out misanthropy, but it is never targeted at some ineffable Other, some outside source of social corruption.
Characteristically, fascists make up for a deficit of a systemic critique by invoking an ineffable Other, invariably drawn from the very prejudices of the society they claim to reject. If Edward lacks a systemic critique, then he does not seem to care about having any other explanation for the corruption he has made it his life task to eliminate. Edward is satisfied to get rid of the Gotham of his experiences, and to let whatever happens thereafter do so on its own terms. He does not even express any certainty that the new Gotham will be different from the old, nor has any reason to imagine that it would be.
Batman’s traditional villains, his Rogues Gallery, generally have quite base or nihilistic motivations. They tend to fit one of four types: the first two types are simple enough. They are either like The Penguin, and seek worldly goods, or they are like The Joker, and are mad. Madness here is not really a category of mental illness as psychologists would understand it, but rather a pseudo-explanation for why someone would want to do evil for no better reason than to do evil. The Joker is more like a force of nature, like a demon, than a human being.
The next two types of villain are those like Mr. Freeze, who wishes to do something good (save his wife) by evil means (hurting innocents), or those like The Riddler, who are resentful of what they have not earned. The Edward of this film is closer to Mr. Freeze than he is to the traditional Riddler, then. He seeks the same good as Batman/Bruce Wayne (i.e. a society free of corruption), but he does so by evil means (serial and mass murder).
The overlap between Edward and Batman here is a large part of the focus of The Batman. It is in realising the similarity that Bruce comes to understand that being a symbol of vengeance and fear is insufficient. In the course of the film he has opportunities to reach out to those he saves, and it is only at the conclusion that he does so. But the difference between him and Edward remains a difference between their means, which the story serves to widen even more as a part of Batman’s own self-critique.
What is the ideology of a film such as this one? To go back to the start, perhaps it does not have only one ideological pool. Margaret Atwood has convincingly argued through her book In Other Worlds that Batman is primarily a fantasy for boyhood, in which Robin (who is notably absent from most recent cinematic outings of the caped crusader) is the audience proxy and therefore absolutely central. That Batman still filters down to us even in the grimier, grittier, more adult filmic outings of today.
First, then, Batman is a story for those trapped in the realities of the lives of boys in the 40s, 50s, etc. These lives were starved of adventure and risk. And so Batman has both in abundance. They are lives trapped in ridged school systems without freedom and beset by bullies. And so Batman has a lot of money and he beats up the bullies, who are all ultimately silly (clowns and geeks, empty headed thugs and unhappy fools).
Bruce Wayne here is not rich because the comics are trying to say something about the nature of money, but because he must be free to do whatever he wants. Because doing what you want is fun. And he is a crime fighter not because the comics have very much to say about crime, but because Bruce must feel good about his adventures, and so he must be on the side of the good.
That is not to say that Batman is beyond ideology. Like many cultural products it takes as natural the social relations that exist today. Some people are rich is just a fact of nature. Crime is bad, and crime fighting is good, are equally pregiven realities. Naturalizing social problems, as my earlier description of fascism shows, can lead to some very dark places, but in Batman it is kept mostly at the level of a child’s fantasy.
The Riddler in The Batman is not a child, but he takes the child’s fantasy very seriously. He hates Bruce (who he takes as another instance of corruption), but loves Batman much as a child might. He likes the righteous violence, since he is not strong enough to seek his own justice. He says his talent lies in thinking up plans, but as most of his plans are absurdities that require a huge suspension of disbelief to imagine as possible, it seems his real talent lies in his whimsical imagination. The talent of a child in the 40s reading a Batman comic.
There is something utterly childlike about this character. Edward has tantrums. A lot of them. He has a simplistic understanding of the world, the kind of understanding that would seek out superheroes to find an outlet. But things go wrong for him. Never meet your heroes, goes the wisdom, and Edward should have heeded the advice. The real climax of the film is when Edward meets Batman and finds, not the hero of the 40s comic books, but a morbid, angry, sad adult. Someone uninterested in adventure. Someone who is not fun at all.
The result is eerie. Edward is a victim of arrested development. But the child in the body of an adult is unsettling. Particularly when that child is unleashing general destruction, and the most mature person in the room is dressed up as a bat. Everything here is off, profoundly wrong. Archetypes have somehow escaped the world of children’s comic books and found themselves in an 18-certificate film noir where women get strangled to death, where rats nibble on the hands of orphans, where the goodies and the baddies are difficult to distinguish.
I have perhaps given an indication that I do not think that The Batman is a good film. That is not the case. It is well-acted. There is not a single dud performance. This is one of the best iterations of Gotham, with its grand architecture, wet night streets, spectacular nightclubs, ominous skyscrapers and neon signs. The dialogue is well paced and written. It has the best version of the relationship between Batman and Catwoman, who share real chemistry. The cinematography is slick, the music moody.
Where it does not perform so well is the plot. The plot is very pedestrian, there are no real twists or interesting revelations, and moreover too dependent on everything working out in a quite particular way. If it were a camp comic book film it could manage to get away with such contrivance, but for such a ridiculous sequence of events this is a movie that takes itself very seriously, that is almost utterly absent of humour.
But I do not think it is a great film, not only because it tells a bad story with remarkable skill, but because that bad story is so torn, so tortured, it does not appear to know what it wants to say. That it does want to say something is clear enough. Why make up the villain like a stereotypical incel, why create a story about a political crisis during a period of political crisis, if you do not want to say anything. But what does it want to say? This, as indicated, is a quite impossible riddle.
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