“Renewal” is one of the big topics in The Batman. Plot-wise, The Renewal Project is the legislative legacy of the late Thomas Wayne, Bruce’s father, and has defined Gotham’s political landscape for decades. But the concept of renewal goes deeper than a plot point. It’s actually the thematic core of the entire film.
First, let’s take a step back and look at the focus of Matt Reeves’s The Batman.
Focus 1: Bruce Wayne
Focus 2: Gotham
In the universe Reeves created, Gotham and Bruce (Robert Pattinson) were both promising and hopeful until the death of Thomas Wayne (Luke Roberts). After that, the child and the city spiraled into darkness. The Batman picks up 20 years later and the darkness has taken hold.
Gotham is full of crime. The crime lord Carmine Falcone is the one who actually controls the political affairs. The mayor, the DA, the police commission—they all report to Falcone.
And Bruce is, well, not doing well. He’s disassociated to the point where he barely makes appearance as Bruce Wayne. He’s lost himself in Batman. In the idea of being “vengeance.” His grief is an open wound and it drives him to try and save the city that stole his father and mother (Stella Stocker) from him. While he’s doing good, or trying to do good, it’s motivated by his unresolved issues, an agony he’s unable to quiet.
That’s the set-up. A hero and a city who can both be more than they currently all but are both burdened by their past. In narrative, what you typically want to do is establish a state of being, on both the personal (Batman) and public (Gotham) levels.
You can see the same thing in Star Wars. Personal: Luke has great potential. Public: The galaxy is ruled by the evil forces of the Galactic Empire.
Or The Matrix. Personal: Neo is searching for more meaning to his life. Public: Machines have enslaved human minds in a digital world called The Matrix.
Apocalypse Now. Personal: Willard mentally struggles to deal with being a soldier in the Vietnam War. Public: The Vietnam War is driving American soldiers crazy.
Black Swan. Personal: Nina wants to be a star ballerina. Public: There’s a new, major performance of Swan Lake about to happen.
Once you have the personal and public state of being set-up, a narrative usually resolves by contrasting or accelerating that initial state of being. Resulting in either a happy ending, a gray ending, or outright tragedy.
Star Wars: Luke lives up to his potential and defeats the Galactic Empire.
The Matrix: Neo ends up being The One and starts to free people from The Matrix.
Apocalypse Now: Willard confronts then puts and end to Colonel Kurtz, the craziest of crazed soldiers. He’s accomplished his mission, but at what cost?
Black Swan: Nina becomes the new Swan Queen and gives a career-defining performance, but it drives her crazy and causes her to take her own life in pursuit of a single, perfect performance.
The Renewal Project
In The Batman, Thomas Wayne’s Renewal Project (or Renewal Fund) was a fund donated to the city that was supposed to transcend the red tape of government. Usually, the city has to put things through committees and get approvals and yada yada. Simple things can take months. Major things can take years. The goal of Renewal was to fund all of these things quickly and fully. When Thomas Wayne was alive, it worked. It built the seawall. It funded the orphanage Riddler (Paul Dano) grew up in. It helped the develop and stabilize Gotham during Gotham’s rise to prominence.
Then Falcone killed Thomas Wayne. Without Wayne’s oversight, the fund began to go to “projects” that were actually just fronts for enriching criminals and shady officials. Donate $500,000 to repair city streets. $250,000 of that goes to purchasing supplies from a company called Not Carmine. Carmine then never follows through with the supplies, the city never follows through with the repairs, but suddenly the mayor, police commissioner, and district attorney are each $50,000 richer.
Actually important things, like Riddler’s orphanage, fell by the wayside. This is what Riddler meant when he said and painted, “Renewal is a lie.”
Eventually, Bruce realizes the legacy of Renewal and his own culpability. He’s the only one who could do anything about the fund. It’s his family’s money. It’s his money. Instead of realizing and accepting that, he let the vultures and hyenas devour the fund while everyone else suffered. This is partially what Riddler meant by “The Sins of the Father” in his critiques of Bruce.
The Symbolism of Water
Water is universally associated with renewal and rebirth, with purification and restoration. Just look at the Christian act of baptism—you dunk someone in water to symbolize the cleansing of their soul.
Look at The Truman Show. Jim Carrey’s character, Truman Burbank, is the unknowing star of a life-long reality TV show. Everything in his life has been scripted. But he doesn’t know it since he was born into this. His family. His wife. His neighbors. Friends. All actors. Hidden cameras are everywhere and broadcast 24/7. The story establishes all of this. Then builds to Truman figuring things out and trying to escape. To escape, he sails a boat out to “sea.” The show’s producer and kind-of-literal God of the world, causes an artificial storm that throws Truman from the boat.
Truman had always been afraid of water. So this is his nightmare scenario. His biggest fear. Of course, he falls from the boat, into the water, where he almost drowns. But he swims back. Fights his way to the deck. And sails to the end of his world. The false horizon of clouds and sky that’s really just a wall with a staircase. The movie ends with him walking up the stairs and out the exit.
It’s subtle, but the fall into water is a kind of baptism for Truman. It symbolizes him overcoming his old life. When he arrives at the stairs, he’s a new man. Ready to live real life for the first time.
Hopefully you can see where this is going and how it explains the end of The Batman.
It’s not just a random choice by Matt Reeves to have Riddler blow the seawall and flood Gotham. It does make for cool visuals. It is a unique way to threaten the entire city and elevate Riddler from minor maniac to major psychopath. But it’s also the beginning of the thematic renewal of both Gotham and Batman.
There’s initially turbulence and danger and chaos, especially with the Riddler army who shows up, trying to take out the people seeking refuge in the Gotham Square Garden, including the new mayor-elect (Bella Reāl (Jayme Lawson). We get a team effort from Batman, Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz), and James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright). It all seems good until a power line threatens to fall to the arena floor and electrocute hundreds of people.
This is the symbolic moment. Batman jumps onto the power line and cuts it, neutralizing the electric threat. But doing so causes him to plummet into the water below. This plunge is his baptism. His renewal.
When he rises up, he’s no longer the vengeance-seeker who began the movie. He’s reborn into a protector. A guardian. Illustrated by how he wades through the water to help free the new mayor and the family of the old mayor, including the old mayor’s young son.
This is the third time Bruce interacts with young Don Mitchell Jr. (Archie Barnes).
The first time is after Riddler murders Don Mitchell Sr., the initial mayor of Gotham. Batman, as he leaves the crime scene, sees Jr. sitting with police. And there’s a long beat as Batman watches the boy. And you know what Batman is thinking: that was me. Jr. is in the same position Bruce was 20 years earlier. The child of a mayor who was killed.
The second time is at Sr.’s funeral. When the district attorney drives a car into the church, Bruce saves the kid by pulling him out of the path of the oncoming vehicle.
So we have the initial identification. Then the effort to save the boy, which is psychological a wish to save himself. And, finally, he leads Mitchell Jr. and the others out of the darkness of the now powerless stadium. Batman is, in this way, no longer portrayed as vengeance. Rather, he’s become the torch-bearer who will become a beacon to inspire others and show them the way forward.
I think that bears repeating in less-poetic terms.
The Batman sets up the child of the deceased mayor as representative of Bruce’s past. Ultimately, Bruce rescues the kid and leads him through water and out of darkness.
The other key moment is when one of the Riddler Army goons says “I’m vengeance” to Batman. That happens right before the power line fall into baptism. And it’s this “Oh no” moment for Bruce as that’s the exact phrase he was saying to criminals. It had been his mantra. The embodiment of what Batman represented. And to hear his words come out of the mouth of a murderous terrorist…that’s revelatory. Bruce realizes his negative, pain-inspired attitude did the city no favors. Did him no favors. And was inspiring the wrong kind of behavior.
Which is even more punctuated in the scene before the flood when Riddler has his whole speech where he truly believed he and Batman were working together, much to Bruce’s dismay.
So you have the movie showing us the terrible path Batman and Bruce could go down. Who they could become. Followed by the “renewal” of the water and walking out of the darkness.
That’s why we get that scene of him in the morning, helping police and EMTs, being part of the solution rather than simply indulging in violence. And of course, we get a speech.
“Wednesday, November 6th. The city is underwater. The national guard is coming. Marshal law is in effect. But the criminal element never sleeps. Looting. And lawlessness will be rampant in the parts of the city no one can get to. I can already see, things will get worse before they get better. And some will seize the chance to grab everything that they can. I’m starting to see now. I have had an affect here. But not the one I had intended. Vengeance won’t change the past. Mine or anyone else’s. I have to become more. People need hope. To know someone’s out there for them. The city’s angry. Scarred. Like me. Our scars can destroy us. Even after the physical wounds have healed. But if we survive them, they can transform us. They can give us the power…to endure. And the strength to fight.
Add to that Bella Real’s speech that comes in the middle of Batman’s own:
“We will rebuild. But not just our city. We must rebuild peoples’ faith. In our institutions. In our elected officials. In each other. Together, we will learn to believe in Gotham again.”
You have Batman literally comparing himself to the city. And Bella talking about rebuilding and believing again.
So The Batman isn’t the transformation of Gotham or Batman. Rather, it’s the renewal of the spirit. The renewal of faith. The renewal of hope. It’s the beautiful first step of an important process.
You would expect The Batman sequel to focus, then, on the changes that follow. Like Bruce Wayne becoming more of a presence in the city. Establishing Wayne Industries/WayneCorp/Wayne Enterprise. Becoming a popular, active figure. While Batman also shifts his approach. From one that selfishly sought violent conflict to one that promises a better tomorrow.
Hopefully we get a sequel.