In fact during the DC FanDome panel, Reeves outright named Roman Polanski’s Chinatown as his “key” cinematic inspiration. That 1974 classic is a detective thriller in the mold of other 1940s and ‘50s film noirs, but in Chinatown the tropes were liberated by ‘70s cynicism. Thus the movie depicts a Los Angeles rotten to its core, and far beyond redemption. The downbeat and defeatist ending even confirms there is no salvation for anyone.
While it’s still early goings for The Batman, it would appear the new movie is leaning into that sentiment, making the hopeful optimism of saving Gotham City at the heart of Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy appear doomed, or at least naïve. Consider Reeves also said at the panel, “Where did Bruce’s family sit in that [citywide corruption]?” He’s teasing a third act revelation as crippling to Bruce’s belief in the system as the revelations that damned Jack Nicholson’s gumshoe and everyone he ever met in Chinatown.
But then that may be par for the course, with nearly every cinematic adaptation of Batman trying to justify its existence by being more ruthless, more sinister, and ultimately more cynical.
Treated as a beloved relic of ‘80s and ‘90s kids’ nostalgia today, when Tim Burton’s Batman opened in 1989, it stunned audiences with a black-clad superhero who brooded as much as he saved the day, and a performance by Jack Nicholson so nasty that his Joker was publicly dismissed by his predecessor, Caesar Romero. Keep in mind that in the late 1980s, Batman was still the subject of pop culture ridicule and camp thanks to Adam West’s 1960s television series, on which Romero played a harmless prankster in a purple suit.
Upon seeing Nicholson’s Joker, who killed people with a smile and electrocuted mobsters to death with a joy buzzer, Romero said Nicholson “was just so violent” and the movie was “dreary.”
Of course compared to Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix’s Oscar winning portrayals of the Clown Prince of Crime, Nicholson looks camp himself. But this showcases the creeping need for adults to darken their Gotham heroes and villains. The generation of parents who grew up with Adam West would revolt against Tim Burton’s stylized noir aesthetic in Batman and even grimmer Gothic fairy tale in Batman Returns (1992), with some parents protesting the second movie specifically and McDonald’s association with it via Happy Meals.