Every Batman movie that has ever existed has to have some subplot involving Batman’s secret identity. Usually the villain wants to know or already knows. Otherwise it’s a love interest who Bruce/Batman wants to tell. Matt Reeve’s The Batman is no different. Fittingly, The Batman makes a mystery of it—a riddle, if you will—playing the Riddler/Batman dynamic in such a way as to leave viewers confused as to whether or not Riddler (Paul Dano) knew the secret.
I’m here to tell you: Riddler does not know who Batman is.
How do I know that?
There’s the moment at Arkham Asylum where Batman (Robert Pattinson) confronts the arrested, imprisoned villain. Riddler keeps yelling out “Bruce Wayne”—which seems like an accusation. Like here’s Batman standing in front of Riddler and Riddler’s clearly saying “Bruce Wayne”, as in, “You’re Bruce Wayne!” It feels like a confirmation of something the movie has danced around for a while, as Riddler has consistently known more than you’d expect, some of the city’s deepest and darkest secrets. So why not Batman’s real identity?
(If you’d rather read an explanation of The Batman‘s main theme and symbolism, click here.)
Two earlier moments back this up.
First, when Riddler sends that letter to Wayne Tower. It’s addressed to Bruce Wayne but inside is a letter to Batman.
Second, when the cops and our caped crusader swarm Riddler’s apartment, we see photos on the wall of Bruce Wayne and some mention of “I know who you really are.” With other photos of Batman on the same wall. That seems pretty clear. To the point where I half expected Batman to tell all the cops to look at something in the opposite direction then rip the photos off the wall.
With those two scenes already in our minds, it’s easy to see why Riddler (aka Edward Nashton) repeatedly saying “Bruce Wayne” seems like a declaration. Batman even looks at the asylum’s security camera, probably thinking, “Well, hell, am I going to have to hack into the system and delete that?” But then Riddler says something that changes the vibe completely.
He talks about how they, meaning he, Riddler, and Batman, had taken down all the corrupt officials (mayor, police commissioner, DA, and Carmine Falcone), but that Bruce Wayne got away. Riddler refers to Bruce as “he” as opposed to “you” and continues to refer to Batman as a separate individual. It’s subtle, but if you re-watch that moment, you can see Batman process this and visibly relax. At that point he’s no longer as guarded and begins to properly grill Riddler.
There’s an irony to Riddler’s not knowing Batman’s true identity, because in that same scene he chastises Batman for not knowing the full extent of the plan, telling him something like, “You didn’t see it?” There’s a sense of disappointment, with Riddler even saying “Oh, you’re really not as smart as I thought you were.” While Batman failed to see what Riddler was truly up to (blowing up the seawall), Riddler failed to put two and two together regarding Batman and Bruce, despite being obsessed with both of them.
So what about the earlier moments we mentioned before?
Well, every murder Riddler committed involved a letter to Batman. So the package sent to Bruce Wayne also having a letter to Batman isn’t anything special, even if it seemed indicative at the time (especially due to Alfred’s reaction).
And the stuff on the wall of the apartment was just because Riddler was obsessed with Bruce Wayne and Batman. Bruce for being a privileged orphan (as opposed to Riddler who grew up in Thomas Wayne’s orphanage in horrible conditions after Thomas’s death). Riddler resented that and felt like he knew the awful truth about Bruce and the Wayne family that the rest of the city didn’t. That explains the “I know who you really are” stuff. And the photos of Batman were there because Riddler, the crazy person that he is, believed he and Batman were a team. These dual obsessions led to the photos on the wall of both Bruce and Batman but not the connection between the two.
That’s it for the explanation. But if you don’t mind me explaining some more themes of The Batman, please read on.
The duality in Riddler’s perception of Batman and Bruce is actually a motif of The Batman. We have multiple instances of character’s having differing opinions/reactions to Bruce Wayne and Batman.
-Officer Martinez is antagonistic towards Batman at the murder scene of Mayor Mitchell, but is overjoyed when he sees Bruce Wayne for the first time.
-When Batman appears at the Iceberg Lounge, the bouncers won’t let him in and a fight breaks out. When Bruce Wayne appears, the bouncers let him through.
-Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz) has a crush on Batman but talks badly about Bruce Wayne being spoiled and privileged.
-Then Riddler thinks he and Batman are partners but wants to kill Bruce Wayne.
A secret identity is a huge thing for superheroes. Arguably, it’s discovered too easily in the other Batman movies. Whether the original 1989 Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, Batman & Robin, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises. Every single one of those movies—man, even Mask of the Phantasm—involves a revelation of identity. The fact that Riddler doesn’t figure it out and that Batman doesn’t tell Selina or James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) or anyone—it’s kind of a big deal.
In the other films, there’s catharsis for Bruce and the audience when he tells his love interest or Robin or Batgirl or Lucius Fox or Gordon who he really is. Not doing that in The Batman reinforces the isolation and secrecy and loneliness of what it means to be the dark knight. And it also plays into this version of Bruce understanding how important this version of Alfred really is in his life. No one else understands Bruce, no friend, no foe, as well as Alfred.
This means if we get a sequel, or even a full trilogy, when someone does figure out Batman is Bruce and Bruce is Batman, it will be all the more powerful and meaningful rather than just something you expect to happen.
We’ll have a longer Colossus Explanation of The Batman in the future. In the meantime, check out “Watch these movies if you loved The Batman.”
Thanks for reading.