It’s hard to watch the end of Matt Reeves’ The Batman without thinking of the attempted insurrection on January 6, 2021. Reeves and Peter Craig wrote the film years before the Capitol was overrun by tech bros, Proud Boys, militia members and your least favorite uncles, but their finale still drew from the same underlying cultural rot that would lead to the attack. A community of disillusioned men, easily radicalized and organized through social media, gathering together to confront those in charge who, in their minds, were screwing things up. At least, that’s the way they’d be described in sympathetic news coverage. The Batman’s baddies are recognizable and prescient, but also off-puttingly legitimized, reflecting a modern menace in a warped mirror that makes it all more confusing than scary. But even if it evolves, it won’t be stopping soon: For superhero movies, the mob—not the mobster—is the villain of the moment.
A pair of recent documentaries—Feels Good Man (2020) and American Insurrection (2021)—shed light on the real-world figures that Paul Dano’s Edward Nashton AKA The Riddler is meant to emulate. It’s people you’ll recognize from your own social media experience. People who “couch their cruelty in silliness, immaturity and irony.” People who have anime avatars or belong to groups with infantile names like Boogaloo Bois, Proud Boys or Lads Society. You’re not supposed to take racists hiding behind a cartoon frog seriously, just like it’s hard to get too worked up about a costumed goober leaving greeting card word puzzles. In fact, the best way for The Riddler to have felt more realistic is if he’d been even sillier as part of his media strategy.
I wrote in my review that Batman’s “foe carries the present fears of America, just as Nolan’s Batman operated in a world struck by high-level terrorism:”
The Batman engages at a distance with the violent, catastrophic connection between a hyper-militarized country and isolated, hateful members of the online alt-right—all wrapped up in an age of internet detectives, social media celebrity and an ever-increasing distance from reality that led to events like the insurrection. It can feel a little facile, but never truly dishonest…
But that’s not quite right. There is something that feels dishonest about these antagonists, and it’s wrapped up in the intersection between their aesthetic and ideology.
While The Riddler initially draws from serial killers like the Zodiac, with his ciphered notes and executioner-like hood, his real connection is to the world of social media incels and other assorted digital sadsacks. He’s a vlogger, talking to his webcam with the same conversational lilt and self-promotional vocabulary that turned every YouTuber into a Content Creator. The proto-supervillain influencer is exactly the kind of unassuming dweeb that infests alt-right social media. “Hey guys, welcome back to my channel,” is a bitterly funny way for a supervillain to act, but a completely realistic way for the organizer of a hate group/militia to operate. The combo between YouTube (thanks for “liking, commenting and subscribing”), Twitch (floods of emojis fly by in the comment section) and other services apparent in the design of The Riddler’s streaming platform position his community as an amalgam of real-life subcultures. They’re like-minded creeps exploiting the worst facets of social networking, hard to pin down as they span the mainstream and flourish in more isolated circles.
You want grounded? An early Riddler video only has 2969 views, with 59 likes and 3 dislikes. His following increases with each snuff livestream, his commenters growing more bold in their celebration of his murderous behavior. A later video accusing Thomas Wayne of siccing Carmine Falcone on a journalist accrues 13M views. That’s about as much as Ben Shapiro’s most-viewed video. With that many views, there’d be memes, there’d be reaction videos, there’d be Reddit threads—The Riddler would be, at the very least, a minor internet celebrity. By the time the (un)masked man is jailed, it feels like he’s only one step away from posting a Notes app apology screenshot.
His few hundred regulars—not a lot when trying to make a living Let’s Playing Minecraft, but terrifying when assembled and armed—recommend what to wear, what to buy and what kinds of guns to bring to their attempted assassination of Gotham’s new progressive, AOC-analogue mayor, Bella Reál (Jayme Lawson). These commenters embody an utterly modern libertarian ideal: An unregulated online community with easy access to firearms and no fear of observation—it’s the kind of pseudo-anonymity that inspires message boards like 4chan or instills confidence in yokels from across the country that they’ll be able to storm D.C. without consequence.
In Gotham, The Riddler’s early influence is felt in the flesh, with protesters at the former mayor’s funeral brandishing signs emblazoned with his familiar symbology and catchphrases (“Unmask the Truth” is at least better than his bloody, literal accusation of “Lies”), but it’s his online relationships that blossom into something all too familiar when they’re rallied to invade and shoot up those taking shelter in Gotham Square Garden. Doltish, prospectless henchmen—like those that’d be happy to join Riddler’s would-be insurrection plot—are nothing new to comics or their adaptations. The Venture Bros. even parodies it, with Henchmen 21 and 24 encapsulating this in all their nerdy, emasculated, put-upon namelessness. Of course they’d lurk online looking for the right cause in The Batman’s Gritty and Realistic world.
But as recognizable as this all seems, the movie’s analogy is strange. The Riddler is overly and pointedly sympathetic, designed to make the title character reflect on his own nearly identical actions. Vengeance bad, justice good—that kind of takeaway. But while The Batman makes the point that Riddler was inspired by Batman, more interesting is the latter’s relationship to the internet. Was he fully radicalized by Batman, then found an existing community to join? Or was he already one of these angry little men, lurking on a Discord server until Batman gave him the courage to take action? Either way, Riddler’s symbolic shtick runs headlong into The Batman’s other major and uncomfortable point, which is…he’s not exactly wrong. He’s not an entitled racist fearful of a modern world beginning to question the intrinsic value of white men. He’s a vigilante, sporting receipts, who has a flexible moral compass when it comes to killing. He’s an Extremely Online wannabe world-changer, but where QAnon conspiracists and clout-and-cash seekers manipulate the real-world extremists he seems to represent, the movie pretty much sides with his principles, if not his means.
We know the followers, methods and results, but Dano’s leader doesn’t really have a direct real-life corollary. That’s because he actually seems to believe in what he’s doing. He’s not Alex Jones selling snake oil supplements or Candace Owens trying to make the dirtiest buck possible. The Riddler is up against the misuse of Thomas Wayne’s charitable fund, which is being looted by mobsters, cops and politicians while rightful heir Bruce runs around roughing up bouncers. The Riddler’s 100% right that Gotham’s institutions are deeply and irrevocably corrupt. Orphans are freezing to death while the DA is getting zooted on Drops. What’s more is that The Riddler’s crimes are ultimately effective; it’s not like Bruce would’ve started investigating this kind of citywide rot without handwritten notes directly addressed to his emo alter-ego.
In fact, The Batman makes the case that The World’s Greatest Detective isn’t Batman at all, but The Riddler. Who actually went through all the trouble of putting the pieces together? Seriously, The Riddler knew about Thomas Wayne getting a journalist killed, about Carmine Falcone being a rat, and about the police commissioner and district attorney being on a gangster’s payroll. He was leaking incriminating photos to the press while the best Batman could do was chalk out a diagram on his floor that included the phrase “The Sins of My Father??”
There’s certainly a root of American disillusion that this Riddler grows from, but that he uses the language, tactics and technology of alt-right conspiracy theorists to address actual problems (as opposed to, say, rejecting legitimate election results) is a more puzzling brain teaser than anything he asks his superhero pen pal. A few years ago, Joker’s mob-inspiring protagonist caused similar friction with its flipped relationship to aesthetics and ideology: The mob was offline, but the politics were far more familiar.
Since Joker is set in the ‘80s, Arthur Fleck inspired his hooligans through traditional media: Press conferences (Thomas Wayne’s response to Fleck’s killings) and late-night TV (Murray Franklin mocking his stand-up). In both cases, he was on the receiving end of elites’ disdain. The movie justifies his huge clowned-up crowds; of course they should rise up against those mean ol’ snobs, preferably at Wayne Hall. Definitely not the Capitol, just what passes for it in Gotham. Joker, aside from being incredibly on the red rubber nose (“What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?”), is here to confront its audience with its nihilistic stance, which is that Fleck—and those either sharing or ready to capitalize upon his mental health problems—is just doing what Society led him to. He’s fucked up, but a villain too easily taken up as a hero thanks to the movie’s own lionization. The Batman’s Riddler, on the other hand, doesn’t need pump-up music. He’s given such directly altruistic intentions that the water with which he floods Gotham isn’t just muddy—it’s completely opaque.
That doesn’t feel great when the actual insurrection already saw plenty of superhero appropriation: Forget Civil War, Marvel’s Punisher, whose violent vigilantism is old hat (or bat) to those walking out of the new Caped Crusader movie, has long been co-opted by Blue Lives Matter wonks, hardcore racists and other extreme right-wingers. Punisher logos were easily spotted on the day as patches on vests or stickers on helmets. On the DC end, the comics have directly intersected with the event. In Brian Azzarello, Alex Maleev and Matt Hollingsworth’s Suicide Squad: Get Joker, Wild Dog claims to have literally led the insurrection. “I took a shit on the Speaker of the House’s desk,” he says. Maybe the unruly social media mob looking for any and every excuse to harass, conspire and overwhelm with misinformation and memes—and already tied to plenty of comic culture—doesn’t need any moral rehabilitation. Even if Riddler’s a murderer, he’s a whistleblowing murderer targeting establishment leadership—and one who, as Polygon’s Susana Polo rightly points out, could easily incite a #RiddlerWasRight campaign. He won’t be the last villain to fit in this trend, but the latest to do so does raise a big green question mark.
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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