Like many recent Hollywood releases, the film attempts to make an explicit commentary on contemporary politics. But does it succeed?
This article contains spoilers.
It would be misguided to watch a superhero film and expect nuanced socio-political analysis, but even the most inane blockbusters can reflect the abiding anxieties of their time. Or at the very least, they can offer some vague nods to what’s been happening in the news (no doubt in three years’ time we can expect a deluge of Putin-like antagonists). But one of the main sticking points of The Batman, released last week, is the character of the Riddler, played by Paul Dano.
Through the character of the Riddler, the film seems to be making an explicit commentary on online radicalisation, misinformation, and QAnon: the American conspiracy theory (perhaps better understood as a network of loosely-affiliated conspiracy theories) which posits the existence of an evil cabal of Satan-worshipping, paedophile elites, against whom Donald Trump has been waging a secret war. In fact, The Batman writer and director Matt Reeves has said outright that the film is about the corrosive effects of social media, “this virtual community where things can spread to [people], that get people inflamed and passionate. Half-truths and total outright lies and even things that are absolutely true but are inflaming.” It’s not a bad idea to have for a villain a metaphor for online radicalisation, but for a number of reasons the result falls a little flat. The Batman is definitely trying to say something, but what it ends up saying is a little confused.
The Batman, alongside a convoluted and tedious mafia subplot, concerns (spoilers ahead) the Riddler murdering a series of high-profile Gotham City public figures while exposing their corrupt double lives. Near the end, the Riddler allows himself to be captured by the police, before revealing his somewhat anticlimactic final plan: a group of his internet followers are going to blow up some storm guards, cause a bit of flooding, and then assassinate the city’s new mayor: a progressive, almost Bernie-esque candidate (Jayme Lawson). It feels like such a direct nod to the January 6 Capitol riots that it’s almost a little embarrassing in its blatancy, but the script was actually written years before in 2017 and not revised in light of subsequent events. So the similarity is a coincidence, but not a particularly fortuitous one.
Throughout the film, there are a number of nods to QAnon. For context, the conspiracy theory began when an anonymous entity, who referred to themselves as ‘Q’, began posting a series of cryptic messages on 4chan. This is somewhat similar to the Riddler’s modus operandi, although the clues which he publishes are aimed squarely at Batman rather than his own followers. “One thing I thought was interesting is that all of the Riddler’s puzzles have a solution,” says Jake Rockatansky, one of the hosts of QAnon Anonymous, a podcast that delves into QAnon and conspiracy theories more generally, about what the film has to say about online radicalisation. “Whereas in QAnon, it was the readers who came up with the meaning – often Q’s messages didn’t really signify anything, they just asked questions or made vague references, and they would allow the followers to discern the meaning. It’s like how they write TV shows: you have a group of writers sitting around in a room, throwing out ideas, and then the show-runner goes OK, that’s good. Let’s use that.’ From my perspective, QAnon was doing the same thing: whenever a supporter came up with a particularly good bake, they would go ‘yes, you’re right, patriot,’ and then quote it themselves.”
The references to QAnon throughout The Batman are hardly subtle. At one point, a rally of the Riddler’s supporters gathers bearing posters with the question mark symbol, which is a clear nod to how the letter ‘Q’ itself has become part of the visual language of the movement. There are echoes of the Epstein scandal in the Iceberg Lounge, a nightclub where Gotham’s elite gather to secretly indulge in all manner of vices, from taking a mysterious drug (one of the core tenets of QAnon is that elites are consuming ‘adrenochrome’, a chemical harvested from the blood of trafficked children) to presumably sleeping with younger women. The Riddler’s stated aim of “unmasking the truth about this cesspool we call a city” echoes Trump’s rhetoric during the 2016 election campaign, and at one point he publishes a YouTube video exposing a dark secret from the Wayne family’s past. With its newspaper cuttings, underlined pieces of information, and melodramatic voiceover, the video is clearly in keeping with the aesthetics of QAnon content. According to Rockatansky, one of the best analogies to QAnon in the film comes when Robert Pattinson starts spray-painting his floor in his increasingly frantic quest to find the Riddler: “He essentially makes a corkboard like that conspiracy meme from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I think that’s correct – if you look into this stuff too long, you become a crazy conspiracy theorist yourself.”
While blockbuster villains in days gone by were often just evil Russians or Arabs, these days ‘the villain who kind of has a point’ reigns supreme. There’s Thanos in the Avengers films (environmentalism but genocidal), Kingmonger in Black Panther (what if a Pan-African Black liberationist was a bit of a dickhead), and Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (who advocates for redistributive politics as a way of manipulating people into enthusiastically supporting their own annihilation). On one hand, it’s kind of a good thing that these radical positions are portrayed at all – it allows a space for people to go ‘actually, Bane kind of had a point about economic injustice!’ – but on the other hand, this kind of characterisation can delegitimise various social movements, such as Black Lives Matter or Occupy Wall Street, and make the very concepts they’re built around appear sinister. The Batman fits into this mould, except this time the film is taking aim at the right rather than the left, and its politics are firmly liberal. The Riddler almost seems to be making a desperate bid for future inclusion alongside Tyler Durden, Don Draper, and the Joker in a ‘You’re Missing the Point If You Idolise Them’ starter pack. This means the film might end up being embraced by the communities it’s intended to critique: if I was a QAnon supporter watching this film, I might think that the Riddler was actually pretty cool: he is broadly correct about the corruption he exposes and he’s doing something about it.
“The general sentiment among QAnon supporters is that there’s not a lot of content being made for them. Hollywood is liberal elite propaganda”
“If I had to guess the way that it will be received in QAnon circles,” says Rockatansky, “it might be ‘once again, Hollywood is trying to make us look insane, but if you watch the movie, you’ll see that the Riddler was right along.’ The fact that, in the film, members of the wealthy elite are having people assassinated could also prove popular among QAnon supporters – many of whom believe that Hillary Clinton is constantly having her political opponents whacked. But there would be a dissonance here, too: “The general idea within QAnon is that Hollywood is all corrupt: they’re all elites, they’re all paedophiles, they all worship Satan,” says Rockatansky. “But they might try to flip that and claim that Matt Reeves is a White Hat [someone who is secretly working on behalf of the movement despite appearances to the contrary] and he’s trying to tell us that we’re right.”
This wouldn’t be the first time that the QAnon movement has adopted mainstream Hollywood films as part of its ideology. According to Rockatansky, QAnon supporters often like The Godfather series, The Matrix, The Sum of All Fears, and White Squall, a 1998 Ridley Scott-directed disaster film from which QAnon appropriated its rallying cry: “where we go one, we go all.” If there’s something they think fits their worldview or acknowledges what they already believe, they’ll use it.
So far, there haven’t been many films that deal with QAnon directly. This makes a marked contrast to the 1970s when there was a raft of conspiracy thrillers animated by post-Kennedy assassination, post-Watergate paranoia. The difference was that these films tended to be ideologically sympathetic to the conspiracy theories they portrayed: the message of a film like The Parallax View (1974) is not that conspiracy theorists are a malign force in society. If anything, it’s an endorsement of the idea that there are opaque forces at work in the world that we cannot hope to understand. Today, when Hollywood remains mostly liberal, it’s unlikely we’ll see a similar glut of films that endorse the far-right ideology behind QAnon (even if you could argue The Batman does so by mistake), but Rockatansky thinks that we can expect to see more media which takes it as an inspiration. In the mainstream, QAnon will likely be represented as villainous, as it is in The Batman, but we can also expect smaller productions that take its beliefs at face value. For example, there’s Sound of Freedom, a forthcoming biopic of Tim Ballard, the founder of ‘Operation Underground Railroad’, an anti-human trafficking organisation that has been criticised for its links with QAnon. “As long as there are celebrities who believe in this stuff, they’ll be drawn towards content that validates their own worldview,” says Rockatansky.
“The general sentiment among QAnon supporters is that there’s not a lot of content being made for them,” Rockatansky says. “Hollywood is liberal elite propaganda, YouTube and Twitter have banned them, and there’s not a tonne of conservative content that breaks through the mainstream.” They might be a relatively small demographic, but if a film comes out which is marketed at QAnon supporters, they will all rush to see it. “A lot of them we’ve interviewed will tell us, ‘Hey, I’m not crazy! I know, you think I’m crazy. But I’m just a regular person.’ Because so much of their life experience is their friends and family going, ‘You can’t come to Thanksgiving or if you come to Thanksgiving, you can’t talk about Trump, you can’t talk about Q, you can’t talk about any of that stuff.’ So in my experience, one of the most sought-after feelings is some kind of acknowledgement or vindication. Which could lead them to watch the Batman and think ‘hey, they’re saying I’m right!’” For QAnon followers, the film might end up being the latest in a long series of riddles.